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Dead Sea: Lowest, Saltiest Point on Earth is Home to Masada

Grace and Terry Housholder visit Masada and the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea does not look like its name. On a clear November day we drove along it for miles and marveled at its beauty. The sparkling water was a spectacular and wondrous blue. The few plants and rocks along the shoreline had a thick, whitish coating - salt, I presume.

It was hard to believe that the huge body of water did not harbor one fish. Birds avoid the Dead Sea because there are only a few plants to feed upon. The saltiest body of water in the world, the Dead Sea is nine times saltier than the ocean.

Lying between Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the earth's surface. Fifty miles long and 10 miles wide, it is fed mainly by the River Jordan to the north. It has no outlet. The intense heat causes the water to evaporate, leaving high concentrations of salts and minerals. Erosion, the leaching of minerals from the geological strata and the "mineral mud" also contribute to the high salt and mineral content.

Plants growing in the area, especially balsam tree, produce cosmetics, perfumes and medicinal substances. Mark Anthony conquered the Dead Sea area for Cleopatra

We saw miles of viaducts transporting water away from the Dead Sea to treatment plants where potash, bromine and other chemicals are extracted for export around the world.

When Terry and I were packing for our trip, we had not realized that several parts of the Dead Sea have been developed into resort areas and that our visit to the Dead Sea would be an ideal time for swimming. But a few people in our group did pack bathing suits. Our guide chose a beautiful beach with large, modern hotels, nice shopping and indoor/outdoor restaurants. While we enjoyed sandwiches in a tree-shaded area overlooking the beach, several members of our group went swimming.

Swimming, though, is not the right word. Floating is more exact. There is so much salt in the Dead Sea (about 28 percent) that it's impossible to sink. Instead of swimming, people just kind of sit in the water. Showers on the beach help swimmers, er, floaters, remove the salt and minerals.

We had read that the Dead Sea has a foul odor, but we didn't notice any bad smells.

I experienced the therapeutic properties of the water in the Dead Sea first hand. I put both of my hands in the water. At first it stung a little, but later I realized my hands felt much softer. Throughout Israel you can see all kinds of creams and lotions with "Dead Sea minerals." They make nice gifts.

I would never go to the Dead Sea during the summer, when the heat is searing. But I would love to go back - with my bathing suit - during the late fall or winter months.

Masada Fortress Highlights a Trip to the Dead Sea

Memories of Masada are ingrained in the minds of all Jews living in Israel.

Masada was the stronghold of Jewish Zealots who martyred themselves and their families rather than become slaves of the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. It has become a symbol of Israeli desire to fight to the death rather than submit to the enemy.

Every Israeli schoolchild takes a field trip to Masada to learn about one of the most dramatic and moving stories in recorded history. It's a place where many Israeli army recruits are sworn in.

An imposing mountaintop fortress in the desert, Masada is 1,900 feet long and 650 feet wide. It lies 60 miles south of Jerusalem on the west shore of the Dead Sea.

We visited the site on a clear fall day. We reached the top the easy way, by cable car. (The alternative is to walk, which takes about an hour.)

The two-and-a-half-minute ride was only the first leg of the trip. Once at the peak, we had 75 stairs to climb. The summit offered sensational views over the western Dead Sea and surrounding desert.

Masada was made famous by King Herod (40-4 B.C.) who constructed palaces and forts on the site as one of his desert retreats. He never used it, but a Roman garrison was always stationed there during his rule.

In 66 A.D., Jewish Zealots captured Masada from the Romans at the start of the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 A.D.). Gradually defeated by the Romans, the surviving Zealots made their way to Masada as a final holdout.

The Zealots lived off the vast storehouses of food left by Herod's men. They also had ample arms with which to defend themselves.

Eventually, in 73 A.D., the Romans besieged Masada with 15,000 men. The Zealots numbered about 967 and decided they were no match for the Romans who had built an amazing ramp up the mountain, a structure that is still visible today and is considered one of the most impressive sights in Israel.

When they finally breached the walls of Masada, the Romans found everyone dead, except for two women and five children. The women told what had happened. When defeat seemed inevitable, the Zealot leader made a rousing speech, advocating death over defeat, dishonor and slavery.

Each husband killed his own wife and own children. The final 10 men killed each other and the last man committed suicide.

Excavations at Masada, first begun in earnest in 1963, have uncovered some of the most important ruins in the country.

The synagogue discovered is considered the oldest one in Israel.

It takes two hours to visit all the areas of the citadel. Among the highlights are the bathhouse with mosaics and frescoes, palaces and spacious storerooms.

There also is the Byzantine Church which dates from the fifth century. Monks of the church were the last known inhabitants of Masada.

The importance Jewish people place on the significance of Masada helped me better understand the mindset of many Israelis today.

Terry Housholder, managing editor of The News-Sun, Kendallville, IN, and his wife, Grace, a reporter/columnist for The News-Sun, were in Israel and Jordan during November 1998. For more stories and pictures visit "The Holy Land Close Up" at http://www.townnews.com/in/kns/travel/docs


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