Saturday, 16 July 2011

Buried secrets, floating water

St George monastery
I want to go back to the desert. A day simply wasn't enough. I yearn to visit the Greek Orthodox monasteries in the Judean Desert.  Some square and solid like forts (Theodosius, Mar Saba); others clutching cliffs.  Just look at Deir Quarantal; look at St George. 

There are real fortresses in the desert too.  Seven.  Always seven.  Scattered yet connected.  Herodium. Hyrcania. Machaerus (where John the Baptist was beheaded). Dok (on the Mount of Temptation). Alexandrion. Kypros. And, most famous of all, Masada.  Yes, yes, I know they’re scattered between three lands…ah, how I hate politics.
I want to go to Qumran, to see the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. What else lies hidden?  I wonder, I wonder.  I wondered this in Egypt too as I walked over sand and rock…what magic lies hidden under our feet; what lost knowledge; what secrets?  It takes so little time for things to become hidden.  Here on Exmoor if you leave something out for a season it will become covered in moss; it will quietly fade into the landscape.  Maybe that’s why I like deserts – it’s harder to hide, harder to become hidden.  In the desert you have to hide, actively.  You have to find caves. 
How many other secrets are there, caved in, forgotten, in and around Qumran?  All over the world?

The caves at Qumran
Qumran, possibly once a fort (I like forts, can you tell?), probably a place of Essenes, potentially the City of Salt.  The Essenes are interesting – some think their thought lies behind the Kabbalah, but it’s not certain. What is?  They believed in the immortality of the soul and they figured they would receive their souls back after death (so, hmm, where were those souls when they were alive?).  They purified themselves with water…

We went down to the water, to the sea.  The Dead Sea.  The Sea of Salt.  Actually a lake bordering Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west.  It’s 423 metres (1,388 feet) below sea levels, the lowest place on the Earth’s surface.  8.6 percent saltier than the ocean.  Okay enough facts. 
Salt.  Salt purifies.  It’s been used down through the ages to preserve food and to purify water, to cleanse wounds, to keep away evil spirits.  Virtually every ancient tradition purifies bodies and souls with salt.  

It was a surreal experience.  The spa at Ein Gedi (simple, basic, really rather refreshing) was closing for the day so we had the beach to ourselves.  You have to wear shoes – the salt crustations are so sharp. You have to walk carefully, slowly, with consideration. The water feels thick, it slides over your skin as if considering it.  You lie back – carefully again – if you get the water in your eyes it stings like seven shades of hell; if you swallow it, you feel sick to the core.  And it holds you.  You lie, supported, in water, between the sky above and the earth below.  Suspended.  Purified.  Yeah, I want to go back.  :)

An afterword.
The Dead Sea is in trouble.  It’s been shrinking, quite rapidly, in recent decades. One metre every year. The spa we visited was originally built on the shoreline - now it's a tractor ride away.  Sinkholes are appearing along the western shore.  Israel and Jordan are working together to find a solution but it’s not simple. You can’t just import sea water from elsewhere as it would upset the delicate balance of the water. They hope to release water from the River Jordan and slowly lift the levels.

It’s an incredible place - the world's largest spa, you could say - and it’s up for inclusion in the new Seven Wonders of the World (ah, that magical seven again!).  I’m going to vote for it (the competition is tough but this place is just so, well, strange)…you could too…click here.


Milla said...

what stunning photos - beautiful earth at its best. All paved over with shopping malls here.
Those deserts are getting under your skin, I can see you wafting in layers in nomadic caravans, you seem to becoming more Eastern and less Western. The pull of the soul and all that. (hard to make sense when typing this against half watching a totally unsuitable scary teen film with T14, surreal)

Exmoorjane said...

Those deserts have always got under my skin, Mills...always will... I could do an El Orrance for sure. :)

Fran Hill said...

Horrifying to think that places like the Dead Sea are shrinking. What is happening to the world?!

Isobel Morrell said...

The Dead Sea is somewhere I've always wanted to visit - now not likely, but have taken the opportunity to vote for it as one of the next 7! Thanks for the opportunity.

Jean said...

Fascinating history, great photos and beautifully written post. Thank you.

F said...

Just the names have such weight; they are places of legend.

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

Years and years ago I read Dune. I expect it was crap but to the teenage me it was all absorbing. Reading your blog put me right back in that world of gently hissing sand. I want to go too.

Alison Cross said...

Sounds wonderful. I'd love to go to Israel and Palestine. Mainly to eat the food, of course....but all that biblical stuff just THERE...would love to see it.

This weekend I am going to Birmingham for our Tarot Conference. I am not going to make any jokes about deserts.

Ali x

Anonymous said...

Ah. Takes me back. On my list of top deserts I have visited, the Judean Desert is in there at number one, and would probably remain there even if I had visited more than one desert. :)

Fred said...

One always thinks of the desert as being nothing but sand, but that just proves what a Philistine I am.
Don't often get a chance to catch up with blogs these days but delighted to see you blogging as wonderfully as ever.

piglet said...

Crikey Jane it's always weird for me living here in Jerusalem when people wax lyrical about the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert just down the road from my house! Anyway glad you liked it there and I am sure your lovely pix will spur others to come and visit. You write a mean blog,woman.

Unknown said...

The photos are just gorgeous!