Sunday, September 26, 2010


I was fascinated with both Israel and Jordan.  When I returned home after that first visit I found myself thinking more and more about the Middle East.  I kept wondering why more travellers didn’t visit this particular part of the world.   

Of course politics had a lot to do with it, the region’s constant on and off border conflicts; but I found it easy to move around the countries, the Arab Israel situation seemed reasonably stable and I wondered if tours couldn’t be set up out of Brisbane.  I put this idea to a travel company and they were keen; but some work would be needed. Personal contact with travel groups in both countries and perhaps in Turkey and Cyprus as well.

It would mean another visit and though the travel company couldn’t finance my fares they would provide letters of authority to confirm their interest in the venture.   And so I returned to cement the friendships I had already made and to establish a tourist friendly route through the four countries.

Jordan in particular was interested in the scheme, providing a car and driver to take me to far corners of their small country.  So too were their counterparts in Israel arranging bus tours to the Sea of Galilee and to Masada. Their hospitality was overwhelming.

It was a great personal disappointment that an upscale in hostilities meant this venture would never get off the ground.  But the trip was not a complete waste;  had I not returned I may never have seen with my own eyes the many disparities that make life there so difficult for so many.  Israel’s sheer racial inequality was deeply upsetting, especially to a visitor from a country such as Australia which though built on colonial disproportion of its own, was a paradise in comparison. 

The tourism people in Jerusalem were generous with their time and ensured I covered every imaginable part of Israel and met with Israeli’s from all walks of life.  They put me on tour buses to the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth, to Jericho, perhaps the oldest town in the Middle East.  I explored the old city of Jerusalem on foot delving into nooks and crannies that reflected the many people and religions that were part and parcel of the city’s past.

 At times it wasn’t hard at all to imagine myself back in the days of Christ as Arab women in clothing that hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries hawked their wares from cavernous shop fronts in the myriad streets of the ancient city.  

Priests and Rabbi’s, Mullahs and the faithful of many religions from all parts of the world passed by in a constant stream.  Small children darted underfoot, tourists in small organised clusters walked the streets that Jesus and the apostles had themselves travelled; the languages of many spiced the air.

But in the old city especially, Arabs and Israeli’s went about their business under the constant gaze of Israeli soldiers and their weaponry.  It was a sobering experience to look up at roof tops and meet the cold hard stare of young men in uniforms, their rifles at the ready.  Not all of these young soldiers were gentle in their dealings with the Arab population.  There were many times when I had to bite my tongue, there were a few moments when I could not. Poignant  upsetting encounters I still recall.

 One of the bus tours I joined took us south along the west bank of the Dead Sea to Masada, a site sacred to the memory of one thousand Jewish souls. 

 It was on this particular bus trip that I met the elderly and very polite Japanese gentleman, doctor and medical researcher, Tom Oyama. 
The bus was one of the super comfortable air conditioned ones that tourists so much enjoy.  The other passengers comprised some Spaniards and a small group of overly vocal Americans.

I sat in the window seat next to a small Japanese man I later came to know as Tom.  Across the aisle were grouped the Americans.  It didn’t take them long to begin talking about their war time exploits, and even less time to begin drawing Tom into their conversation.

I couldn’t believe my ears, the family leader, a tall, older man began talking about his wartime service in Japan and the atomic bomb in particular; the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  His comments were brash and extremely crass; he seemed to be almost bragging about the end result. Tom, towards the end of that time when those hideous events occurred would have been a young medical student.

To Tom’s credit he nodded at appropriate times but mostly kept his gaze on the window and the passing parade of desert and Dead Sea. When we arrived at the roadhouse next to the entrance to Masada I teamed up with Tom and together we took the elevator to the top of the ridge but not before he leaned close to me and said in a hushed stage whisper ‘I do not think I would enjoy visiting America or meeting any more Americans if they are all like that man’. 
I agreed. Together we explored the dry, dusty remains of the windswept hill top.  As we strolled together, a Japanese man and an Australian woman we were both emotionally caught up by the tragic story of Masada.  It was impossible not to be moved by its tragic history.

Archaeological excavation and reconstruction has  greatly advanced since Tom Oyama and I visited the site some years before the following aerial was taken.


This shot, a more recent one shows the reconstruction and excavation of the three tiers of Herod’s private quarters and the immense scope of the garrison on top of Masada. The ancient cave like water cisterns are located within the staggered tiers.

Masada in Hebrew means Fortress.  It is a desolate, wild place, isolated and miles from anywhere; built on a high rocky plateau Masada rises above the Judean Desert and at first glance barely hints at its ancient history of power and megalomania, of despair and of mass suicide.
Two thousand years have passed since the fall of Masada; the dry climate of the region and its remoteness helped preserve its ruins to an extraordinary degree. Today, a modern cable car carries the many visitors to the top of the rock with its breathtaking view across the Dead Sea. Wandering through its remains it is hard to visualise its desperate and dramatic history; hard to believe this is where the last Jewish stronghold against Rome once stood.
The fortress of Masada was built between 37 and 31 BC by the King of Judea, Herod the Great, as a personal refuge.  Herod particularly needed such a retreat.  He had been appointed a puppet King by the rulers of Rome and as such was despised by his Jewish subjects.  Herod’s cruel regime was so hated he would constantly have been in fear of his life.
But while Rome was still master Herod was safe and to ensure that safety he furnished the fortress of Masada with every conceivable amenity.  Artisans built a casemate wall around the plateau, installed a system of large cisterns that ingeniously filled with rainwater, he built barracks and an armoury to service his personal bodyguard; and he created an impressive tiered palace on the eastern wall to house his family. Masada was indeed a fortress, designed to withstand assault and long siege. 
Living conditions in such a harsh climate would not have been pleasant and accordingly the many buildings had thick walls of layered dolomite stone covered with plaster.  The garrison section had storehouses, bathhouse and living quarters for not only the soldiers but for officials and their families.
Herod’s personal palace had every luxury one could imagine; it was built into the northern edge of the steep cliff face layered down the side of the plateau and separated from the garrison by a wall guaranteeing privacy and security.  The three tiers were connected with a narrow rock cut staircase while the terraces were divided into several rooms designed for living quarters, lavish entertaining and private bathhouses. Evidence of the magnificent columns and frescos still exist.

But Masada is not remembered solely for Herod’s flamboyant presence; the much later tragic events that live on in Judean history were recorded by a governor of Galilee during the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome around 66 CE, Josephus Flavius.

According to Josephus, some 75 years after Herod’s death, at the beginning of the Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, a group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. After the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) they were joined by fleeing zealots and their families. With Masada as their base, the rebels raided and harassed the Romans for two years. 

Then, in 73 CE, the Roman governor Flavius Silva in an effort to finally quell this ongoing insurrection marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion, auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war. 

The Romans established camps at the base of Masada, laid siege to the fortress itself and built a circumvallation wall. Over a period of many months they then constructed a rampart of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth against the western approaches of the fortress and, in the spring of the year 74 CE, moved a battering ram up the ramp and eventually breached the wall of the fortress. 

Josephus Flavius dramatically recounts the story told him by two surviving women. The defenders – almost one thousand men, women and children – led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir could do nothing but watch this long assault taking place. The end was inevitable; this confrontation could only end in ultimate defeat. The zealots decided to burn the fortress and, rather than be taken alive end their own lives.   In the words of Josephus...

 “And so met (the Romans) with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was.” 

The Zealots, numbering almost one thousand planned their own demise; they cast lots to choose 10 men to each kill a portion of the remainder, a hundred souls each. They then chose among themselves the one man who would kill the survivors. That last Jew then killed himself. 

I stood there on the top of the rock we call Masada; in the silence and desolation I could feel on the hot dusty wind the presence of a thousand desperate spirits, I could hear the faint echo of their last farewell.  Despite the heat I felt the chill of despair.

Tom and I corresponded for some time and years later he visited Australia to attend a medical conference.  He stayed with Stan and I and we showed him the long deserted beaches of Stradbroke and the beautiful hinterland of the Sunshine coast. 

Tom with my husband  on the beach at Stradbroke

And together we recalled the tragedy and the magnificence of Masada and the crass boorish behaviour of one man.