The Old City of Jerusalem, viewed from the Mount of Olives

Our second day in Israel was a Saturday. We knew that much of Jerusalem (where we were staying) would be closed for Shabbat. So our guide picked us up and drove us east out of the city to visit the Dead Sea area. On our way out of the city, we climbed the Mount of Olives and took in the stunning views of the Old City of Jerusalem, picking out the spots we’d seen up close the day before.

The gondola to the top of Masada.

Driving toward the Dead Sea, the highway was fascinating. First, there was an almost instantaneous change in the climate. While Jerusalem was threatening rain, and looks very temperate, we found ourselves in arid desert as soon as we drove through the tunnel leading out of the city! The kids saw their first camels. And about 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem, we found ourselves driving below sea level, down and down into the valley filled by the Dead Sea, with the mountains of Jordan peeking (and peaking) just beyond the Eastern bank.

Atop Masada, with the Dead Sea in the distance.

When we reached the Western shore of the Red Sea, we turned south and drove another hour down to the foot of Masada, passing the cliffs where the Dead Sea scrolls had been discovered. The kids were distressed to learn that the Dead Sea is imperiled. Due to damming, salt mining (those fancy Dead Sea bath salts and cosmetics!) and other forms of human intervention, the Dead Sea is shrinking in width by approximately 1 meter a year!

We were fascinated to learn about the history of Masada , which was especially interesting given that we have been steeped in the Roman Empire for the past 6 months. We recognized many of the features of the Roman ruins we have been visiting in Italy, including the mosaics, bathhouses, and frescoes.

What was more unusual for us was learning about how the inhabitants of Masada – first the Romans, then the Jews fleeing the Romans, accessed water from their vantage point atop a mountain in the desert: via cisterns filled from flash floods over the Jerusalem mountains. Our guide did a great job of integrating the myths with the archeological evidence, and we found ourselves marveling at the siege of Masada. We were also struck by some of the other links between the activities of the ancient Romans in Israel and the sites we know so well in Rome. The building of the Colosseum in Rome was funded, at least in part, by plundering the ancient Holy Land, and we now know where the conquered Jews depicted in the Arch of Titus in Rome’s imperial forum came from!


A less pleasant aspect of our tour was overhearing the other tour-guides (of which there were many). The kids were especially appalled when we overheard a tour-guide saying demeaning things about the Romans, in comparison to the Israelites. To quote: “I mean, what did Roman civilization really give us, anyway? Pizza?” Hmm. I can think of a few other things!

We then walked the Snake Path back down the mountain, avoided the McDonalds in the visitors’ center (seriously?? McDonalds??), and headed to Mineral Beach. Eli and Nell hopped into the water, after first collecting a bottle of sand for Eli’s teacher – turned out the sand was pretty much pure salt!  Eli covered himself in mud, as is customary. When the kids got too cold, we moved to an indoor area that is warmed by sulfur springs, and Seth and I went for a float. It’s a very strange feeling to be suspended in water – just the kind of relaxation we needed to end another fascinating and occasionally overwhelming day in Israel.

– Jenny