Day 9: History and Hiking

Trip Start May 19, 2009
Trip End Jun 16, 2009

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

(Day 9, Jerusalem) So, 4:15 a.m. came around again. This time, we really did drag ourselves into the darkness. By 5:00, we were at Masada, heading up the appropriately named Snake Path, a hint of light spreading slowly from behind the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea. The climb was grueling and often steep. It was already warmish, and we got a good workout indeed. Around the 600th step, we paused (again) to see the sunrise (a rarity for me), which was lovely. In under an hour, we arrived at the top, 1,300 feet up, and looked around. First up: refilling the water bottle!

Aside from a few groups of loud teens (where did they come from? we didn't seem them on the way up), who we avoided, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Yet another good reason (besides the heat) to do Masada at dawn. We followed the detailed guide we got at the gate at the base, seeing most every part of the plateau that was at first a palace for King Herod and then a Jewish rebel stronghold that held out against the Romans for years, ending in a mass suicide in the year 73, which echoes across the centuries into modern Israel ("never again"), making Masada a popular place for bar mitzvahs (in the ancient synagogue) and the location of Israeli army swearing-in ceremonies. It was fascinating to see the ruins of Herod's three-tiered palace on the north face; the storerooms, columbaria, and huge cisterns (fed by an amazing aqueduct system) that sustained the royals and the rebels; and the mosaics that still survive in the bathhouses (complete with hot, cold, and tepid rooms). The huge earthen ramp that the Romans built to storm the place still survives, and their encampments are still to be seen from high above. The views in all directions were terrific: sun over the sea; stark lines of mesas. Unforgettable. Most of all, we were done by 8:00 a.m., when the first cable car arrived from below. No more hiking today for us!

After breakfast and check-out at the kibbutz, we took the winding road along the quiet shore of the Dead Sea until the junction heading west to Jerusalem, into the Judean Hills. (As usual, Jordanian radio was for some reason the strongest signal.) We decided to make a few stops on the way. First, a quick detour to the mosque of Nabi Musa (Prophet Moses), which we poked around. There wasn't much to see, and no one was around except for a fellow outside who sold soft drinks while working on small rock carvings, one of which Kevin bought.

Then we headed for St. George Monastery in the Wadi Kelt near Jericho, following a sign that pointed that way off the highway. Wrong turn #1: a rocky, barren hill where some local Arabs were selling jewelry, camel rides, and advice. Next wrong turn: the guard station for the neighboring Jewish town; an armed young man came out: "St. George?" and directed us to a road that we had just seen that said "no entry." Turned around again. (Each time, we passed a cluster of three very dilapidated, makeshift, prefab buildings looking might shabby and surrounded by junk. But one flew an Israeli flag, so I am surmising that this, in fact, was one of those illegal outposts that loom so large in the news and form a thorn in the peace process.)

Past the "no entry" sign, and down the twisting, empty road through the hills to a dead-end, where some Arab men and boys were sitting by a gate with a cross, selling cold drinks and donkey rides. Of course, the asking price was ridiculous, and we didn't bargain. Why? In retrospect, not a great idea. We opted to walk down the very steep path in the growing heat, accompanied the whole way by two boys on two donkeys (in case we ever changed our minds, I guess). At last, we rounded a bend to catch sight of the ornate Greek monastery set dramatically on the hillside looking down on the wadi below. Then it was back up. We really should have taken the donkeys on the way back! What were we thinking? OK, now we're really not going to hike any more today...

We headed out, stopping almost immediately to pick up Aaron, a hitchhiking American who asked us for a ride back to the highway at the gate/dead-end but was gone by the time we came back up from the hike. On reaching Jerusalem, we paused atop Mt. Scopus (where I went to school for a year in 1986-87) to take in a grand panorama of the city below, including the golden Dome of the Rock. We dropped Aaron off amid the clogged, twisting streets below. "Clogged" is an understatement: the narrow streets of the Orthodox neighborhoods we found ourselves in were choked with pedestrians everywhere, scooters zigzagging through, and cars and taxis showing no lenience and honking often, making left-hand turns, blocking oncoming traffic (probably because no one would ever let them in willingly). Finally, we escaped to just normally busy streets to the far end of the city and our destination: Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial.

The museum movingly told the story of the rise of Nazism and the destruction of European Jewry, blending artifacts and multimedia displays with succinct explanations and personal stories on a winding path, with was full of groups of tourists and young Israeli soldiers. It was a relief to finish the museum and to walk around the large outdoor grounds, full of various memorials (to partisans, children, "righteous Gentiles," etc.). The most impressive was the Valley of the Communities, a seemingly endless maze of rock two stories high, inscribed with the names of hundreds of cities and towns touched by the Holocaust. And the children's memorial: a completely dark underground corridor echoing with the names and ages of children murdered by the Nazis, lit only by the reflection of candles in mirrors, creating a vast field of stars. From the suicide of the Jews in the morning to the murder of Jews in the afternoon, it was a day heavy with history.

We returned the rental car and caught a cab to our little hotel, "The Little House in Baka," an Ottoman-style renovated mansion with arches and high ceilings. I took a walk near sunset to an overlook of the city not far away, returning to help Kevin with a successful video staff meeting with his film festival coworkers in Seattle. We set off for a late dinner in the German Colony, a nearby lively neighborhood. Passing a memorial to nine people killed in a 2003 terrorist attack on a cafe there, we settled on some pretty good McKebabs at the local McDonald's and called it a night.
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rmisaac on

Re: Memoriessssssssssssss
hi - yes, indeed, at the film festival office, where i was volunteering and he is part-time staff... glad you're enjoying! :)

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