31 January 2006

Egypt Day 5: In Israel and I Hit My Lowest Ever Point

Who goes on holiday to get an alarm call from reception at 4:30 am? We're off to Israel on an full day trip to Masada (no real interest) and the Dead Sea (yes, oh yes). Two and a half hours after setting off, less a brief stop in a very good Israeli coffee shop (despite all their brochures being stapled the wrong way ;-) and we are entering a 2,000 year old fortress that is truly amazing. We go up to the level of the Mediterranean Sea via a cable car rather than the long snake route the Romans took. The Romans had it from 30BC to 66AD when King Herod used it as his winter palace, you can see Herod's private bath in some of the later shots. They reclaimed it in 72AD and kept it until 106AD when they abandoned it as it was no longer on the edge of their territory. The beauty of this site and the valleys and the awe of its ancient history was slightly ruined as US military jets flew over head on two occasions.

In the six year they didn't possess it, it was occupied by the Sicarii (a radical group of Zealots) which was around the beginning of the first Jewish Roman War (or Great Jewish Revolt). Masada is very important in Jewish history for what happened at the end of 72AD. Jerusalem had fallen two years earlier and the Romans were advancing on Masada. There were 960 Jewish people there but only around 180 men of fighting age. Compare this to the thousands of Roman Centurions marching their way through the desert and the outcome seems quite obvious. Think again. Faced with certain death and slavery for their families the men decided it was better to die with their freedom which itself it quite a controversial decision. I'm no expert on Jewish law but our excellent tour guide, Udi, informed us that it is okay for a Jewish person to eat pork. This was quite a shocking statement but here's the rationale. Under Jewish law nothing is more important than life itself. You can break nearly all Jewish laws if your life is a risk. So if somebody held a gun up to your head and said “Eat that pork now” you could without breaking the law. If however someone said “I have a tank behind that corner, eat that pork or I'll kill you” you couldn't as you don't know for certain that your life is at risk (you can't see the tank to start with). It makes sense that suicide is one of the gravest sins under Jewish law. To circumvent this the men all slaughtered their own wives and children and then each other until there were only 10 left. The drew lots and killed each other until only one remained who then had to commit suicide. When the Romans arrived the next day they found nearly 1,000 bodies (well, two women and five children hide and survived which are the sources for the information above) and the storerooms full to prove they chose to die.

Udi shared with us some fascinating stories, the best ones I want to share with you are relating to English sayings and traditions routed in Roman history. Romans introduced most of the world to toilets and the first surprise is that they were communal (the food goes in together so why not out together). Toilet paper had clearly not been invented yet so they use a communal sponge on a stick to scrub their arse clean. Can you just for a minute imagine how revolting that must have been. Now imagine your not paying attention and you get (here's the phrase) “the wrong end of the stick”. You will look ready to be sick the next time you hear someone say that I bet. The other great story is related to bathing, something the Romans used to love to do (it was high society socialising at its best). In the 19th century the average British person had a bath on average once a year. Queen Victoria was told she would live longer if she didn't insist on having a bath every three months. Usually the bath would take place at the end of May and so we have the tradition of the June wedding. The bride would be as clean as she could be (only a few weeks worth of stink on her) and the flowers she held should mask that.

After a quick pint of freshly squeezed orange juice we are finally off to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth (1,300 feet below the sea level of the Med)! Okay we have two hours to transform ourselves back to age 18 (ten year off). First off you have 15 minutes in the sulphur polls (loads of other minerals including salt so you do float). You have no idea how badly they smelled. What's worse is if a tiny bit got in your eyes or your mouth you needed to rinse it rapidly or you'd need first aid. We now wander outside to a great big yellow vat containing ... about half a million pounds worth of fresh Dead Sea mud (£200 per treatment it is in the UK I believe). Instructions for use: slap it on everywhere! Under your arms, right up to your eyes, as much of your thighs and bottoms as you can pleasurably take. When completely covered it is first you job to impersonate King Kong and then to run around threatening other people with a hug. Now for the painful part (there had to be one) – walk for six minutes down to the sea where you can wash it off. The sun will dry you as you walk and it's make your skin softer than any baby. You were told to bring flip flops to walk to the beach with? No? Oh, I hope you are able to walk on stone covered tarmac... I unfortunately was not. I cannot begin to describe just how sore it was – why do most women not have a problem with this? After such pain we reached the bottom only to find the beach was pure sharp pebbles, even KT couldn't take this. Almost to the water, just think about the 40% salt content making you float and remember not to get any in your mouth or you're in serious trouble. Have you ever wondered what the bed of the Dead Sea is like? Don't bother, I'll tell you – hug big crystal salt formations and structures far worse than any pebble! I cut my hand twice just resting on them and then got salt in the wound! Finally we get this mud off us so was it worth all the pain? Ooooh. I cannot describe how incredibly soft my skin is. It's claimed that with regular use it will make you look ten years younger and I don't doubt that for a second. I can confidentiality say we'll be back to the Dead Sea again!

Looking at my feet after dinner they are genuinely cut to pieces. I can't believe the rep never told us to bring sandal, just comfortable walking shoes for Masada. After all of today's pain I just tried to turn the lamp off and got a massive electric shock. At least now I know what 220v feels like instead of 240v!