The caves of Qumran are high up in the hills above the village. The Essenes hid their scrolls there in jars, which were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947, causing a stir in the religious world. We walk through the carefully preserved site of their village before they were dispersed by the Romans in 68 AD. Below us the Dead Sea shimmers in the heat.
On to En Gedi Nature Reserve, where we walk the shaded 2 kilometres up Wadi David to the top waterfall, which springs from a rock. I paddle my feet while others frolic in the cool water. We spot a few ibex, Tristram’s grackle, blackstarts and white-crowned black wheatears. I buy a book on Israel’s birds at the crowded visitor centre before we leave.
A large kibbutz is shown on the map, but I don’t hear Zinniah speak about it: only about her early experiences being brought up in a kibbutz, and the fact that she can’t talk to her sister any more, because she (the sister) is a strict orthodox Jewess and they have nothing in common. Zinniah is somewhat emotional – a product of the sadness of Israel? She lives in Eilat and enjoys guiding around Sinai. She’s in her fifties and has been guiding for thirty years.
The eastern bank of the Red Sea is in a constant haze. Surrounding us is unmitigated desert, and outside the bus it is stifling hot. We snooze for the next hour as the bus takes us on.
Our Bedouin camp is the height of luxury and hospitality. I have never seen such spotless, well-appointed wash rooms in a camp site.
I’ll let Ann, the main character in I Lift Up My Eyes take you on:
“A drive through the Negev desert took them through a wonderland of sand formations. Striated dunes revealed several levels of subtle brown, purple and pink hues. One mound reflected the sun, looking as if it were made of mother of pearl. Others were heaped like vanilla ice cream threaded with chocolate.
They had lunch on mats spread under a lone acacia tree. Large rounds of soft unleavened bread were served by smiling Arabs in traditional garb. They spread the falafels with goat’s cheese, topped with tomato, courgettes and peppers, and then rolled each one into paper holders. Ann bit through her crisp, spicy portion, licking at the tomato juice which dribbled down her chin, and gazed over the relentless desert, shimmering with heat.
Their Bedouin camp for the night was the height of luxury and hospitality. An Arab, also dressed in traditional garb, introduced himself. In his other life, he owned a modern air-conditioned house, and his children went to school in Germany. Another played the lute, and encouraged the party to clap with the beat. Then they enjoyed as much as they could eat of unleavened bread, spiced salads, rice, chicken and beef. Ann laid her sleeping bag over one of many mattresses dotted round the enormous carpeted marquee, which was decorated with drapes and baskets overflowing with apples.”
We drive to the east side of Masada, and watch an informative video, before taking the cable ride to Snake Path gate at the top of the mountain. According to the account of Josephus Flavius, the Romans laid siege to it, building a ramp with the help of Hebrew slaves to storm the Jewish city (around 70 AD). But the Jews took their own lives, rather than live in shame as Roman slaves.
Zinniah leads us quickly through the store room complex and down three steep flights of (shaded) steps to the lower terrace of Herod’s Northern palace, the bath houses and apartments, where the last of the Jews had taken his life rather than be captured. I linger after the others, savouring the view and conserving my breath.
We are given an hour to ourselves. It is hot, and I fill my bottle at one of the many water points around the site. I pass through the ruins of small palaces and the public immersion room. There isn’t time to take it all in. Why are we hurried so much?
I wander through the Western Palace, and listen in to an English speaking guide pondering over the magnificent mosaics in the bath complex.
On the dot of the hour, I reach the meeting point at the top of the ramp path. I spot Zinniah leaning over the rail, her back to me, speaking into her mobile. The others are waiting in a canteen far below. With an impatient glance, she ushers me down the path. I refuse to be hurried – I don’t want to fall. She looks back irritably, then points to some bits of wood sticking out from the ramp, wondering aloud how many Hebrew slaves were buried in it. And in answer to my question, she tells me the Romans had taken three years to build it.