Sleeping a ten-minute drive from Masada had a definite strategy behind it: We were starting the site by 8:15 AM and able to avoid the day’s heat, for the most part. In fact, we were descending Masada’s backside by 11:15 AM, so this was no time for dilly-dallying!
In those three hours between, we viewed a short film that set the stage for the story of Masada to be fleshed out by Allan, our fantastic guide. To simplify life for the whole group, we rode the cable-car up one side and descended by the ramp, skipping over the infamous “Snake Path” altogether. I was all right with that—I hiked that thing up AND down two years ago on a sweat-dripping day of epic proportions. The moderate heat and beautiful breezes this time around—Wow! They changed the whole experience. Also different this time was traveling with the guide. While I enjoyed the leisurely pace we explored at two years ago, this experience at Masada was totally different with him fleshing out the story and its tension and its struggle. Much to my shock, some of the group had never heard anything about Masada prior to yesterday. So if you’re among that group, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Go rent the movie (simply called “Masada”, from 1981) or do a bit of research. It’s a landmark event in the history of Israel, even it did occur outside of the biblical pages.
Beside the emotional tale of the place, it also served as yet another display of King Herod’s ego and ambition, as well as his genius and vision. A megalomaniac? Oh yes! A brilliant mind? Certainly that too.
The rest of the day took me to sites I’d not seen previously. We made a stop at Mamshit (that last syllable sounds like SHEET!), the ruins of a trading center controlled at one time by the Nabateans. Yes, those are the same people whose kingdom was based out of Petra in Jordan. They were traders extraordinaire and masters of the desert; they knew the secrets of survival in this harshest of environments. And they knew how to keep most of these secrets to themselves.
One interesting part of the ruins in Mamshit was a stable. Most agree that it looks like it was designed for horses, but this makes little sense. The Nabateans were desert people, and there’s no debating that the prime desert beast isn’t the horse. It’s the camel, but a mile or more. So why the horses? To sell to the Romans! Crafty merchants—know your market and exploit it!
Another thought also caught my attention. There’s theory that what limited the Romans in this region was likely their refusal to change “their ways”. No self-respecting Roman was going to trade his horse for a camel. That unwillingness to adapt, along with a lack of insight about the desert, basically drew permanent borders on this side of the Empire. A day or two beyond these lines with horse and the water you could carry placed one perilously close to life’s end. The Nabateans continued to thrive in those “beyond the borders” regions, and Rome was forced to exercise control over them in other, less direct means.
From Mamshit’s ruins, we also did a short hike into the rocky hills to gather in a “cave”, overlooking a shallow valley. There, we spent some time in silence and shared in some Scripture readings that highlight themes of desert and the devotion that is sometimes connected to such places. Well worth the hike!
Another short drive delivered us to our late and much-appreciated lunch break, before pushing on to Be’er Sheva. This modern city now plays home to 160 000 people. But we wanted little to do with the modern city; we were simply hunting for the ruins of the ancient centre, on the outskirts of today’s community.
These ruins are modest, compared to many we’ve seen—some basic buildings and a noteworthy water system of underground cisterns. But another reason existed for stopping here. One can hardly read the early pages of the Bible without coming across this region and this centre. Whether these ruins mark the ancient village that went by that name, or whether the exact spot is on another side of the modern city matters little. The fact was that yesterday we sat on rocks and read of Abraham within view of somewhere that he had walked in days gone by. Abraham! Historians across the board aren’t even convinced that such a man really existed. Certainly, there is no archaeological evidence at this point, chronicling his life. Regardless of that, his existence has never been disproved and the religious records we have of him certainly don’t clash with anything that archaeology has unearthed. But aside from all this, the fact that all three monotheistic religions point to Abraham as their starting point in some sense is staggering thought. The significance of this one ancient figure can hardly be overstated.
And we sat on “his land” yesterday, with stretches of it looking little different than I imagine they did four thousand years ago.
Our bus took us “home” via a road that I’d never had the chance to travel before, straight through the West Bank to Jerusalem, passing through the city of Hebron along the way. Beautiful landscapes to see and terrain to travel, with a meal and a shower waiting on the other end—the end of another wonderful day here!