Friday, April 20, 2007

Forts And Falcons

It was time for me to leave Jerusalem and the West Bank for a while so that I wouldn't get accustomed to the comforts of staying at Leali's. My initial foray away from indolence was south to the Dead Sea coast and the Negev. The area is home to many ancient ruins, most notably those left behind by the Nabataeans. Although they are best known for their rock-cut tombs at Petra, just across the border, there are several Nabataean waypoints in Israel that mark the culmination of the Incense Trail which started some 1500km away in Yemen. Much closer to the Israeli's hearts, however, are the vestiges of Masada castle built by Herod the Great (he of baby-killing fame). It was here, on an (almost) impregnable, isolated cliff-top that the Jews made their last stand against the Romans during their ill-fated revolt. After a year of siegeing the Romans built a giant, earthen ramp up to the battlements so that they could bring their battering ram to bear. On the evening the walls were breached, the Romans retired to get a good night's sleep for the next morning's raping and pillaging. When they got there the next day there was none to be had (at least no raping, though there was still plenty to be pillaged, but, as everyone knows, you can't have a proper pillage without at least a bit of rape) as the defenders were all dead. They had drawn lots as each man killed his family and then his neighbour until only one man was left who had the unenviable task of falling on his own sword (as suicide was taboo for the Jews). Understandably this episode has become iconic for Israelis, not only as a symbol of defying the odds, but also because the event ushered in the diaspora.

But for me the main attraction of the south was the hiking. Not only are there some beautiful trails through gorgeous scenery, but the Israeli National Parks Authority does a fantastic job at signposting the trails and providing detailed information so that you can set out on your own fully prepared and with all the necessary details (such as maps, location of campsites and drinking water) to make the experience safe and enjoyable. In all my travels I haven't seen such consistently well-marked trails (sounds unimpressive, but it is very important). Among the many lovely places I hiked was Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater, though not really a crater at all) where I walked for hours without seeing another human being, just me, the limitless landscape of the desert, the birds, the flowers ... and the F-16s roaring less than 100m overhead and then dropping their bombs off in the distance (there is an air force firing range just outside the crater). At least the thrushes, pipits and other sundry little birds are happy as it keep the real falcons out of the skies. Unfortunately I didn't come completely prepared and couldn't go for more than two days at a stretch. Plus I don't want to put too much strain on my shoes which have got less than 5mm of sole in some places and which I don't want to replace in the middle of my trip. Still, it was nice to be out in the middle of nature again after a long stint of cultural sightseeing, and I know I can always come back at a later date.

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