We were not in Israel long enough to broker a new Peace Accord. But we were able to celebrate a dear reader’s 60th wedding anniversary and pick up some of the history of the Levant.
“Jerusalem has been a religious centre for thousands of years,” our guide explained. “It was here, on this hill, that Abraham arrived after a long trip that began in what is today Iraq. He came with his wife Sarah. And then, a messenger of God came to him and told him that he would have a child with Sarah. She laughed because she was 90 years old. But the prophecy proved correct. She had a child and they named him Isaac, which means ‘laughter’.
“Abraham was the founder of the Jews. Before he came along, the tribe didn’t exist. He was the proto-Jew... the original... Jew zero. Until then, they were just another group of Semites from the 'fertile crescent'.
“Well, you know the rest of the story. It’s in the Tanakh and in the Old Testament. The sons of Abraham went to Egypt, probably because they were hungry. This is a dry place. Egypt has regular floods that make it richer, and more productive.
“Then, Moses led the tribe out of slavery in Egypt. They wandered in the desert of the Sinai for 40 years... where God gave them the Ten Commandments and many of the other Jewish laws and customs we have today. And finally, they came up to Jericho on the Dead Sea. Joshua captured Jericho... and then, Jews established themselves throughout the whole area from the Jordan River valley... which includes the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south over to the coast.
“Ever since, Jews have been fighting either to take back the 'Promised Land' or to hold it. They still are fighting.”
We went to the Israel museum, the Bible Lands museum and the Dead Sea Scrolls museum. There was too much to see. Too much history. Too many invasions and insurrections. Was it the Akkadians or the Hittites who first subdued the Israelites? Was it after the first revolt or the second revolt that the Romans destroyed the temple? Were the Hamonaeans and the Maccabeans the same people?
So much to know. And what’s the point of knowing it? Isn’t it enough to know that the history of Israel is a long and bloody series of disasters? The rest is just detail.
It’s easy to get lost in the details. Then, you forget to ask: what’s the point?
One of the most striking spots to visit in Israel is Masada. It’s the mountain fortress where a few hundred Jewish zealots killed themselves and their families rather than surrender to the Romans. At least, that’s the story. Our guide didn’t believe it.
“Our only source for this story,” he said, “is the historian Josephus Flavius. And he was a Jew who had led the resistance to the Romans at Galilee. But he was taken prisoner and then he became a traitor. I don’t trust anything he wrote.”
Josephus gives doubters plenty to make them doubtful. In his account of what happened at Galilee, he said that he and 40 insurgents were trapped in a cave. Rather than surrender to the Romans they decided to die. Jewish law regards suicide as an abomination, so they counted out by threes with the third man killed by the second one until there were only two left. Those two surrendered, one of whom was Josephus.
Josephus was either very clever or very lucky. He told the Roman commander, Vespasian, that he had had a vision in which Vespasian became emperor. When this came to pass, Josephus was regarded as a great seer and forecaster; he was taken to Rome, freed, and given Roman citizenship.
When another revolt broke out in Jerusalem, the Roman commander, Titus, took Josephus with him as an interpreter and advisor. Josephus urged the Jews to surrender. They refused. After a long and costly battle, the Romans prevailed... destroying the temple and Jerusalem.
It was shortly after this that a group of un-reconstructed Jewish ‘zealots’ beat it to the abandoned mountaintop fortress of Masada to make a last stand against the Roman invaders.
Today, to get to the fortress, you drive along the Dead Sea. It is hot and barren. A wasteland. The water in the Dead Sea is poisonous. No fish live in the sea. You can’t drink it. You can’t use it for irrigation.
What first comes to mind when you see Masada is a question: why would anyone want to be here in the first place? What was the point?
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The answer to that question is a controversy.
“It was built by Herod the Great,” our guide explained. “But we don’t know if he ever actually set foot in the place. As you can see, it’s very hard to get to.”
‘Hard’ doesn’t do it justice. You have to cross miles of godforsaken desert to get to the mountain. Today, you go up to the top in a cable car. But before Swiss engineers built the lift a few years ago, you had to climb up the mountain on foot, on a narrow, steep defile known as the ‘snake path’. In the heat of the day, it is a slow, sometimes fatal, process.
Then, when you reach the top you find that you have reached exactly what you thought it would be: an uninhabitable mountaintop.
“It wasn’t always this way,” our guide explained. “They had a simple, but effective way of capturing rainwater from all of the hills around here.”
It didn’t look to us as though it ever rained.
“Yes, it does rain here,” he continued, anticipating our objection. “Not much. But the rain falls on the barren rock. It has to go somewhere. So, they set up a system of drains and dams to force the run-off into big cisterns that they dug under the mountain. Then, they hauled the water up in buckets or on the backs of donkeys. They used it to water palm trees and grape vines. They were almost self-sufficient. The zealots had so much food and water stocked up that they could hold out for two years. And as you can see, this place is practically impregnable.”
It seemed more than impregnable to us. It seemed like it could not possibly be worth the effort to take it. It had no military importance. It had no economic importance. It didn’t even seem to have any religious or symbolic importance. The Romans should have left well enough alone.
What was the point? Perhaps the Romans didn’t ask. Instead, they laid siege, building a huge stone wall around the base of the mountains – which must have taken months or years to achieve. Then, they brought in Jewish slaves who had been captured at Jerusalem. These they put to work on a monumental project – building a ramp up the side of the mountain, so they could bring up a battering ram.
It had to be a government project. The investment of time and money was monstrous. And to what end? Just so they could slaughter a few hundred insurgents.
But the Romans would not be put off by cost-benefit calculations. They continued until the project reached its final, bloody conclusion. Thousands of slaves probably died building the ramp. The place is so hot and unforgiving that probably more than a few Roman soldiers bit the dust too. And when the ramp was completed, the Romans brought up their battering ram and went to work. They breached the stone wall and entered, only to find all the defenders already dead. Josephus says there were only one woman and two children still alive. They reported to him how the zealots first killed their own families and then drew lots to see who would kill whom and the last man killed himself.
“They might have figured that they were better off dead than slaves of the Romans. Like that motto you have for the state of New Hampshire: ‘Live Free or Die.’”
“It seems crazy to me,” Elizabeth opined. “Look at what happened to Josephus himself. When you are alive at least you have the chance that things will work out. When you are dead... well... you are dead. I’d rather take my chances as a slave.”
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