Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sunrise in Israel: What's It like over the Holy Land?

Thursday, February 6, 2014
I knew I only had a week for Israel because I was dependent on my budget flight schedule, so I tried to cram as much as possible within a short time frame. I was especially annoyed that I was to lose my last day because the check-out of the famous Abraham hostel in Jerusalem was before noon and my flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 9 PM. True, it would take some time to get to the airport, but I would still have much free time on my hands. The solution? "Masada sunrise tour" offered by the hostel fit the bill: departing at 4 AM and returning at about 2 PM it would keep me busy exploring Israel-the reason I came here in the first place- and there would be plenty of time to have lunch and go to Ben Gurion airport. I was at first a bit worried that we might not make it in time, but there was plenty of time after we had returned, especially so when I had a shared taxi to the airport booked in advance.

Even though this particular tour is hailed as the highlight of the trip to Israel, that morning there were only eight of us. Probably starting a tour at 4 AM, when most of the people are going to bed after a night out, takes a toll. I had some coffee and left my luggage in the storage room (the fact for which I faced a thorough search at Ben Gurion as I dared to leave my luggage unattended by a 24/7 video camera, duh) and joined others in the bus. This tour wasn't guided per se but our driver told us some things on the way. The night was dark and cold when we arrived at the foot of Masada fortress at about 5.30 AM.

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This is the way the sun rises over the Holy Land.

Tackling this fortress by foot requires good footwear, so make sure you have strong hiking boots. The cable car starts at 8 AM, which means you miss the sunset. We started our hike to the top at about 5.30 AM (entrance fee 29 NIS, not included in the tour fee) and we had an hour or so to reach the top before the sun would rise. I had been on another tour the day before and my feet were killing me, but, fortunately, I still had some of the lavender feet cream from my trip to Provence, which cooled my burning limbs. The worst part is climbing steep and rocky surface not knowing how much time there is left. I consider myself an experienced hiker because I have three years of day hikes of 20 km a day under my belt, but this experience made me realize that I am, unfortunately, not growing younger. There were moments I sat down and said I wouldn't move an inch because I was puffed and exhausted. But perseverance is the word- I got up and moved at my own pace, taking short breaks, until the victorious reach to the top- just minutes before it started dawning.

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It's difficult to date the fortress but Herod (37-4 BC) did have his winter palace here. Many buildings were decorated with elaborate frescoes. The cellars contained food and wine provisions. Archaeological findings confirm gourmet things having come from as far as Italy and Spain. But soon this land became part of Roman empire and Jews fled from their homes to take refuge here, and soon Masada fortress was the only place in the whole land that was not under the control of Roman empire. Soon Romans laid siege to Masada. About 8.000 soldiers stayed at the foot of the mountain in eight camps and captive Jews were bringing water and food to them. It took several months for Romans to realize they needed to change their military approach and so they did. It was clear that Masada fortress will fall. The Jews decided to set fire on their property and kill themselves rather than become slaves-just like pagan duke Margiris from Lithuania, my homeland, did in 1336. Since Judaism prohibits suicide, a lot had to be cast and ten men were chosen by fate to kill all 960 people and then one of them would have to kill the other nine and then commit suicide. This story was told by survivals-two women and five children, who hid away during the killing spree. The Romans soon abandoned the place, there was a short period of monastic life during the Byzantine era but with the rise of Islam it was over. The place stood forgotten until the excavations started in the 19th century. The remains of the fortress have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2001.

It was a dark night when we started the hike via it's Snake path, but coming down was in the daylight and I was able to take better photos.

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Before and After :-)
Soon we were at our next scheduled stop: Ein Gedi nature reserve (entrance fee 29 NIS, not included in the tour fee). On our way to it we had stopped at a viewing platform to see the Dead Sea and Jordan on the other bank, but, unfortunately, the fog was too thick.

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Ein Gedi was proclaimed a protected area in 1972. It has always boasted rich flora and fauna. I examined a free map that I had picked up at the entrance and decided that I've had enough of tackling heights today, so I'll only go for the David's fall and back as our time here was limited. But if you have enough time and energy, the whole vast area is well-worth exploring.

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The ibex wears beautiful horns and is an expert climber. The rock hyrax is a furry animal that enjoys basking in the sun and can also climb rocks well. Both of them have been mentioned in the Bible, in Psalms 104:18. The landscape of the reserve is very beautiful, it's a shame my camera cannot capture this impression enough.

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Our final stop was 2 hours to relax by the Dead Sea. The tour fee included entrance to the facilities, so we grabbed our swimming gear and headed towards the changing rooms. The facilities were pretty basic but that wasn't the most important thing, with the exception that it would be a good idea to have lockers for guests as now we had all our belongings with us put on the plastic chairs on the beachfront. I could have left my purse in the car but then there was a shop in the area and a bar-was I to be running for my purse every time? Our driver was very kind, he armed himself with our cameras and got to take photos as we started experiencing what swimming in the Dead Sea is like. They say the most memorable experience is when you get water in your eyes, but that's not always true, it really depends on the location of the beach.

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It turned out that I didn't need my shekels in the area as I didn't dare enter the shop because of the pushy sales ladies. Besides, who needs to shop for Dead Sea mud when in fact you can cover yourself in it for free?:-) All in all, I can really recommend this trip and the hostel itself and my experience with them was only positive.

Don't leave home without:

*a map (pick up for free at the entrance to Masada and Ein Gedi)
*snacks (fruit and sandwiches)
*water (carry enough of it because re-filling from tap is not always advisable)
*comfortable shows-I cannot stress this one enough
*sun lotion
*swimsuit and a towel
*sunglasses
*sunhat
*a light jacket or a sweater for cold mornings and hot sun

I feel it is necessary to add that each of the destinations is worth a separate full-day trip to explore them.

This report was made available in cooperation with  Abraham Tours, Abraham Hostels and Tourist Israel.

Have you been to Israel yet?


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