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Issues of the Day Landscapes of Beauty in the Judean Desert
 

It constantly astounds me how beautiful Israel is. In the course of 48 hours within a radius of a fifteen minute car drive I visited four different ecosystems in the area of the Tamar Regional Council. With changes in ecosystem, come changes in vegetation, fauna and landscape.


The diversity of biological and physical systems are amazing in this sliver of land bounded to the east by the Dead Sea (and just beyond, the mountains of Moab in today’s Jordan) and to the west by a mountain range that includes Masada, a piece of land no wider than several kilometers.


At Kibbutz Ein Gedi amazing vegetation, including succulents and flowering trees abound with incredible diversity. Within minutes of checking into my room, I started photographing the vegetation, which was rich in colors, forms and textures. Birds call from the canopy of trees well before sunrise. By six in the morning with the sunlight pouring onto the mountain face, the birds songs sound majestic.

A Moonlight Tour to the Bottom of the Sea

We took a moonlight tour on our first night to an area in the shadow of Masada where there are rock formations made of exceedingly soft, powdery stone called chamur. Produced by the pressure of a sea that then encompassed what is currently the Dead Sea but which, 20,000 years ago was a much larger waterway running from the mountains on the western site east to those of the Moab range and north to the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). That sea was a remnant of the great Tethys Sea, which covered this area tens of millions of years ago.


Unlike the Dead Sea, it predecessor supported life. The area where we conducted our nocturnal hike is today devoid of nearly all fauna and flora; the soil traps any moisture that runs to it. Aside from infrequent shrubs, the area, beautiful and evocative of a moonscape, is lifeless. Its shadows and silence is inspiring and summons up a kind of primeval peacefulness.  

 

While walking along the promenade that bounds the kibbutz hotel after breakfast the following morning, a herd of ibexes a suddenly appeared. They congregated near a gap in the wire fence, which they seemed to know from previous experience. Through the gap they bolted and leapt into the wadi that separates the kibbutz from its fields, notably their date palm groves. Prior to their descent, atop a boulder, one couple engaged in head butting and horn locking that seemed non-violent, but communicative, perhaps part of a mating ritual.


Later in the morning we visited Nahal David, one of two river basins fed by runoff from the surrounding mountains which, by force of gravity run off toward the lowest point in the area; it is also the lowest place on the planet, the Dead Sea. The waters cascade through the lush vegetation of this oasis of the Judean Desert.

 

As we climbed up the riverbed surrounding by the rising cliffs of this thin valley, a  flock of eagles whose aerie was on the top of the mountain soared overhead. We waded in shallow pools filled with running, cool water, a great treat in the baking heat of the midday sun.

A Grove of Date Palms and a Herd of Ibexes

Later that afternoon while visiting the ancient synagogue of the Ein Gedi communities that resided on the same spot several hundred years apart before and after the Second Temple period, one passes a small forest of date palms cultivated by the kibbutz for its delicious fruits. Moved by the lovingly restored synagogue and having learned that the people earned their livelihood by creating fragrances out of fruit, we thought we had had our fill of wonders sites when, suddenly, we came across another herd of ibexes, including babies huddled among the palm trees. It was exquisite.

Masada: A Desert Mesa of Terrible History 

We concluded the day by soaking in a basin of Dead Sea waters at the kibbutz spa. With the stench of the mud’s raw minerals in the air and the hot temperature of the waters, I had enough after ten minutes. Of course, people come from across the world to bathe in these waters, whose medicinal properties are highly regarded. 

On our second day, we travelled to Masada, the ancient desert fortress where more than 900 Jews committed suicide in what had been Herod’s palace rather than be taken into captivity by the Roman Legions. The palaces, the Western and Northern, are staggering when one considers their construction atop a  high desert mesa.  


The water systems, storage facilities and fortifications  on the site are truly impressive and to think that a king and his entourage accustomed to epicurean living, followed by a desperate community of defiant Jews living on whatever food had been left behind by the monarch, which in turn was replaced by a solemn community of Byzantine monks, all inhabited this place is staggering. The site is an archeological pearl, exceedingly well-researched and preserved, with a visitors center constructed since my last visit that includes a praiseworthy museum and facilities.


There are few things that I love more than enjoying the nature and landscapes of Israel.  During those 48 hours, I delighted in some of the country’s most unique natural treasures.     


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