Part 8 - Jerusalem / Dead Sea / Masada
Day 10 – Jerusalem / Dead Sea / Masada
The next morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the Old Town of Jerusalem bathing the shiny cupola of the Dome of the Rock in a magnificent light.
The night before we had already decided to start the day early so we could visit the Temple Mount, which, unless you are Muslim, you can only access before noon. After a quick breakfast we set off to the Old Town and the Western Wall Plaza. From there you reach the hill via the Mughrabi Bridge.
At this early hour there were only a few tourists in the streets and we only came across some locals and mainly children on their way to school, which was yet another face of the city.
We were a bit confused by the noise of loud firecrackers echoing through the streets but assumed it had to do with the Sukkot festival. The police forces already back in position didn’t seem quite as relaxed as the day before, but not necessarily alarmed either.
At times they were the only people we met on Via Dolorosa which had been so packed the day before as they made their way to their posts.
Through the security gate we got back to the Wailing Wall, where many Jews had already gathered again for Sukkot celebrations. Today many were dressed in white scarves and capes. The stalls around the square erected on the occasion of the festival were reminders of the provisional dwellings during the Exodus from Egypt (Tabernacles).
Before we could reach the Temple Mount via the wooden bridge, we had to pass another control where bags and cameras were thoroughly screened again.
Once at the top of the Temple Mount we were stopped by officers who kept us from getting too close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was surrounded by police in full combat gear.
By now we could hear the constant noise of firecrackers and saw smoke rise above the mosque but couldn’t quite make sense of it. On the other hand, the police were mostly pretty relaxed, and some policemen were having breakfast on the walls surrounding the mosque.
So we just went past the mosque towards the Dome of the Rock and weren’t really concerned.
Once on the plateau of the dome we had a breathtaking view of the building decorated in blue mosaics, and its cupola glistening in the morning sun. Besides maybe a handful of other people we were up here all alone. It felt as if we had all these architectural marvels to ourselves. I am at a loss of words conveying how impressive and awe inspiring the experience and the feeling of the moment was.
The Dome of the Rock is the oldest religious building and one of the major shrines in Islam. It is believed that Mohammed started his ascension from the rock in the center of the building.
According to Jewish belief, the world was founded on this rock. This is where according to tradition Abraham wanted to sacrifice his son Isaak, and in a temple built at this site but destroyed centuries ago the Ark of the Covenant is said to have been kept.
Therefore, both religions raise desires for this location, which as a consequence is a constant bone of contention.
The upper level of the plateau can be reached by climbing stairs from 8 different sides. Each flight of stairs runs towards an arcade-like row of columns.
These columns are known as Al-Mawazin, meaning “scales”. They symbolize the belief that on Judgement Day all things and deeds of men are placed in scales and weighed with the righteousness of God.
Next to the Dome of the Rock stands the smaller Dome of the Chain. This is where, in the past, verdicts were decided by whether the accused could reach the chains hanging from the ceilings. It was said that only righteous people would be able to touch them.
We also loved the view of the Mount of Olives, east of the Temple Mount. According to the New Testament, Jesus often went there to pray or to rest. It is also said that he went down the mount on his triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
From the park surrounding the area you can see the walled and sealed Golden Gate. It is the only gate which leads directly to the Temple Mount. They say that if Jesus really lived, he must have entered the town through this gate.
We returned to the plateau and couldn’t get enough of the view of the dome in the magnificent light of the morning sun.
This is a look at one of the entrances to the Temple Mount which can only be used by Muslims. Apparently, if you cannot identify yourself as a Muslim, you are asked to quote lines from the Koran.
From the Al-Aqsa Mosque we could still hear repeated noises of loud firecrackers and “Allahu Akbar” calls from inside the mosque.
We were curious what all this was about and continued to walk around the dome.
Later I found out on the internet what had actually happened. In the morning, radical Palestinian youths had thrown handmade explosives and small incendiary bombs from the Temple Mount on the Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. The police had pushed them back, whereupon they barricaded themselves in the mosque. The police subsequently sealed off and encircled the mosque and simply waited until the troublemakers ran out of steam.
We were glad to have visited the Temple Mount that morning and as early as we did. The impressions of the dome and the views from the hill were spectacular and the lack of tourists gave us a feeling of solitude at this marvelous site – all that rounded off our visit to Jerusalem.
Since we still wanted to go to the Dead Sea, we made our way back to the hotel. On our way we stopped at one of the merchants in the street and tried a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Delicious!
We took a different route than usual in order to exit the Old Town through the Damascus Gate. Life in the streets was still marked by the general life of the locals and merchants. Tourists only came to the Old Town slowly and gradually.
The pastries and goods of this merchant, some of them filled with feta cheese, olives and peppers looked delicious. I couldn’t resist and bought one… and can confirm that they didn’t just look good.
A little later we reached the Damascus Gate through which we left the Old Town and ended our unforgettable visit of Jerusalem. I think at that moment we both hoped to be able to come back someday…
Back at the hotel we got into our car and took off towards the Dead Sea. Due to traffic and our still constantly crashing satnav app we got a little lost in the beginning while leaving the city, but after about 1 hour on the highway we reached the Dead Sea. With its position of 429 m (1,407 ft.) below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest lake in the world.
Among other resorts, there is the Biankini Resort with pools, restaurants and access to the sea as well as changing facilities.
We didn’t care about the pool. We wanted to swim in the Dead Sea.
But before we went into the extremely salty water, we lubed ourselves with the mud from the shore and let it dry on our skin. It’s supposed to work wonders...
Then we convinced ourselves that you really can’t drown in this water.
Like others we drifted a little on the water. It was really difficult and next to impossible to swim upright in the water, as the enormous buoyancy made us float like corks on the surface.
We spent about an hour at the beach before we continued along the coastal route going south towards the Masada Fort.
The fortress can already be seen on a 400 m high table mountain from the coastal road. We drove into a parking structure underneath the visitor center and entered the lower area hosting shops, restaurants and also a museum with artifacts.
To reach the fort itself you can either walk a footpath or take a cable car. Considering our time frame, we bought two tickets for the cable car. Otherwise, we would have walked – obviously … (ahem…)
Before entering the cable car you are led through a small movie theater where you get to see a short film explaining the backgrounds of the fortress.
Masada belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was built by Herod approximately 30 BC and gained fame approximately 73 AD as the last bastion of Jewish rebels against the Romans. Due to its position on the plateau it was considered invulnerable. However, during several months of siege, the Romans built a ramp on the elevated area, via which they brought siege engines and battering rams to the fortress. But the rebels on the mountain didn’t want to give in to captivity. A few soldiers were chosen who were to kill the other men first, then women and children and finally themselves. After the Romans had breached the walls, they found over 900 dead in the fortress. Since then, the fortress has been a symbol of Jewish freedom.
The views were already impressive from our drive up the hill.
From up here we could also see the footpath winding its way up the mountain.
A model of the fortress illustrates what the fortress together with the North Palace which was built into the hillside originally looked like.
Obviously, today there are only ruins left of the once magnificent buildings, but they still give a very good idea of the dimensions.
It even included bathhouses and spas. Small mockups and drawings showed the visitors what the remnants visible today once looked like.
From the plateau of the fortress you can also clearly see the outlines of the camp of the Roman besiegers.
Via a narrow and steep flight of stairs alongside the hill of the Table Mountain you reach the remnants of the North Palace.
We explored the plateau and went to the other side of the fort to look at the siege ramp.
Even after almost 2000 years the ramp is still clearly visible.
By now it was time for us to begin our return journey to Ashdod, as we had to return our car by 6.00 pm. According to google, it should have been a 2 hour drive and I didn’t want to cut it too close.
The drive back from the lowlands of the Judean Desert was very curvy and most of the time one lane only. We were hardly able to overtake trucks driving in front of us – at least not with our rental car which was a little weak in the chest. Back on flat land, the road was comparable to our A8 in Germany: One construction site followed the next and traffic was often very dense. And so my slack time was shrinking ... When we got closer to Ashdod and could see that time was getting short, we decided that we wouldn’t look for a gas station at our destination but return the car half empty and just pay the difference. The day before I had saved the parking lot of the car rental as a favorite on my satnav app.
The kilometers on the display were counted in reverse. Unfortunately it didn’t show a time of arrival. But when we only had 1 km left on the display and it was 5.35 pm, we relaxed... and suddenly we found ourselves right in front of the entrance to the port of Ashdod.
For some reason the app had saved the location where it was switched on for the first time and not the address of the car rental. The problem was that the street name couldn’t be found on the satnav. And since we had taken a taxi to the original address and only then gone to the current location of the car rental, I didn’t even have any sense of the right direction. I could only remember that the cool youngster had said something about center of town. So I drove towards town. Meanwhile it was 5.45 pm. I wanted to find a taxi to guide us – but when you need one you won’t find one. Eventually I saw a taxi by the side of the road and a driver who was just about to get into his car with a cup of coffee. We asked him to drive ahead of us to the car rental station. He replied very friendly “Oh no, very close, only two minutes, I explain the way...” We still asked him to please drive there in front of us. But he insisted again that it was so close that he only needed to explain the way – and the clock was ticking.
Of course we still had our Plan B: spend the night in Ashdod and drive to Haifa the next day. But we really would have hated to pay for a hotel and miss our own bed on the ship just for a few minutes delay. We took the direction we were given and the clock showed 6.00 pm. That’s when we saw the flags of the car rental.
At 6.02 pm we rolled into the parking lot, just when two of the girls from the day before were left the building. I stopped and asked to be allowed to return our car. One of them (silly cow) replied “No, you are too late... come tomorrow!”. The other young lady on the other hand looked quite sympathetic and said something to the first but was bawled out just like us.
I said that we were only 2 minutes late and that we had to get back to our ship. She then replied that they had already been closed since 5.30 pm. Excuse me?!?! The day before she had told me 6.00 pm... OK Oliver, just don’t get upset! I offered to pay an extra fee for the late return. Which infuriated her even more and both girls almost started a fight among themselves. That, in turn, was noticed by a young man who was probably checking the cars.
He got into an argument with the “lovely lady” and asked me how we would pay for the car. I explained that everything had already been paid for and the details of my credit cards in their system, which made him understand the girl’s behavior even less. So he put his foot down, turned to us and checked in our car without even caring for the gas. He even asked whether we wanted a drink or a coffee while waiting for a taxi which he called for us. I wanted to give him our last shekels for his kindness. But he refused vehemently and repeatedly and said that the girls’ behavior just hadn’t been right and even apologized on their behalf. Birgit was moved to tears.
The taxi took us back to the entrance of the port and a shuttle bus from there to the ship. Although we could have done without the final excitement, our trip to Jerusalem and Masada was gigantic. After another beautiful dinner we had a drink in the Sky Lounge and raved about all the magnificient we had seen and experienced – not for very long, though, as we started to feel tired.
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