The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world at 1300 feet below sea level, and fills a natural basin formed by the Syria-African fault. This large salty lake is fed by water which springs from the hills from the north and is swollen by the streams of water in the hills that surround it from the east and west. The Dead Sea varies in depth from 130 feet in the north to 30 feet in the south. In the summer, the water level can go down by several feet due to evaporation. The waters of the Dead Sea are ten times saltier than the Mediterranean’s, and as such prevent the existence of any complex ecosystem. In the Bible, it is a symbol of sterility and misfortune.

The Dead Sea is rich in phosphates, crucial to the economies of Israel and Jordan.

Between 1947 and 1956, some eight hundred manuscripts, a dozen of which are almost complete, from the library of the Essene “monastery” were found in eleven caves all situated to the north of Wadi Qumran. In 1947, a Bedouin who had wondered in one of the caves found an earthen jar containing seven manuscripts, broken or empty jars and the remaining seventy four manuscripts. Among these manuscripts, with paleographic dating extending over roughly three centuries (from 250 BC to AD 50) are all the Biblical books except for Esther, the non-Canonical books and Essene writings. Most of the texts, written on scrolls (leather, papyrus or copper), were copied at Qumran by scribes. The oldest scrolls date back to the 3rd century BC. Nearly all the manuscripts are preserved in Jerusalem at the Rockefeller museums. The ruins of Qumran which were excavated in 1952-56, revealed that the site had been the base of the Essene community from 152 BC to AD 68. The Essenes led a communal life of asceticism, prayer and expiation in a “monastery” built on the remains of a small Judean fort dating back to the end of the 8th century BC.

The rock of Masada rises 1,300 feet above the west bank of the Dead Sea at the edge of the Judean Desert. The summit which is 1,900 feet long and 650 feet wide, can be reached via a “snake path” or cable car. Climbing the “snake path” takes a good hour. The Roman Ramp, which is less steep, can be reached by a road coming from Arad.

Masada is a significant landmark in Jewish history. It is here that Herod took refuge in 40 BC to escape from his rival Mathias Antigone, the legitimate heir to the Hasmonean dynasty. He returned to fortify it after he was made king by the Romans in 37 BC. The fortification was prompted by fears of attacks from Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. In 6 AD, Masada was made into a Roman garrison, falling to the Sicarii nationalists in 66 AD. Eleazar, Yair’s son, led the stronghold from 67 to 73 AD. In the spring of 73 AD, Flavius Silva established camp at the northeast corner of Masada. In April of 73 AD, Silva’s 9000 soldiers began their assault on the rock using catapults, rams and other war machines. Seeing that all was lost, the defenders chose death over slavery to the Romans. In the morning following the assault, the Romans discovered 960 bodies. Two women and five children who survived told Flavius about the last minutes of the defenders. The testimonials were later reproduced in book XII of The Wars of the Jews.