Friday, 20 June 2014

From a deadly siege to a sea that's dead (TBS06)

Our first weekend's tour was, I confess, something of a mystery to me which proved to be almost magical. I knew that we were to be heading to southern Israel and were planning to visit the Dead Sea, but I had not expected the sheer delight of what was to be our first stop - Lachish!

Detail of Assyrian archers from wall panels from palace
of Sennacherib at Nineveh depicting the Siege of Lachish
For many years I have taken private or personal groups on tours of the British Museum, paying particular attention to artefacts relating to or shedding light on the Biblical narrative. Of all the exhibits in the museum, my personal favourite is the series of wall panels from the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh depicting the Siege of Lachish.

Having spent many hours studying this series of wall panels, and having tried on numerous occasions to share something of the drama and significance of this event, the prospect of actually visiting the site at which this siege took place and on which these scenes were based was really a very special teat. As the coach approached the tel, the excitement grew, and then the city gate came into view ...

Looking north east at the remains of the Assyrian siege ramp
built over 2,700 years ago. The main double gate is to the left
Standing to the south west of the tel, facing the remains of an Assyrian siege ramp, it was not terribly difficult to match the scenes with which I have become so familiar with the view that lay before me now. There are several things particularly unique about this site, not least this being the only Assyrian siege ramp in the Near East known to have survived the ravages of time.

As tempting as it might be to say much more of this site, to recount the strategies of the Assyrians, their subsequent tragic losses preventing them from taking the capital city, the incursions of the Babylonians over a century later and the associated 'Lachish Letters,' I will refrain from doing so for fear of this becoming too much of an exhilarating history lesson. But I will briefly describe what we saw.

The main double gate on the western side is currently being excavated and so was only really observable from above. It being a double gate, the Assyrians must have considered the siege ramp to be more conducive to their ultimate victory, despite the length of time it must have taken to construct.

Standing atop Tel Lachish - absolutely incredible!!
Walking in an anticlockwise direction, we traversed the perimeter of the tel about half way around until we came to a path that led the way to the top. We traversed the higher ground and made our way to a point above where we had first stood, near to the head of the Assyrian siege ramp. Looking from this vantage point, we were able to see clearly where the enemy must have encamped in preparation for the siege whilst also appreciating the terrain as seen by the defenders.

Returning across the tel top towards the palace structure, we passed above the double gate to the west in which area the Lachish Letters were discovered in 1935. Passing some later, Persian ruins, we descended the northern side of the tel, arriving at the well. Water supply has always been a significant factor in the lives of humans, for apart from being a necessary ingredient for making tea, it also helps stave off terminal dehydration (to say nothing of having a jolly good bath). Locating a water supply on any site is critical to understanding the lives of those who lived there - but more of this later.

The upper city Iron Age fortress at Tel Arad
Reluctantly I said farewell to Lakhish (it was spelt like that on the sign) and we headed further south to the Negev Desert, past Be'er Sheva .. to Arad. It would be a fair comment to say that Arad was arid - in fact it was verging on becoming oppressively hot.

Founded in the third millennium B.C., Arad is Israel's best example of an Early Bronze Age city. The site is in two parts, one lower than the other. The lower city ruins are extensive and preserve well laid out streets. The houses are mostly of similar structure to each other and there is also evidence of a marketplace and temples. There is little evidence of Middle or Late Bronze Age occupancy, though we do know that the city was conquered by Joshua (as also had been Lachish).

The Tel Arad temple with the Holy of Holies in foreground
The upper city is a fortress and dates from Israelite occupation in the early Iron Age (1200 B.C.). Most interestingly, there is a temple structure here which resembles the layout of the temple in Jerusalem - including an altar of identical dimensions to that of the tabernacle and a room serving as the Holy of Holies.

The intense heat and aridity of Arad were taking their toll and luncheon was most gratefully received. Falafel was the order of the day, a deep fried mash of chickpeas served in pita bread with sauce and whatever other stuff happens to be at hand. It was most palatable and though a cup of tea would have hit the spot, it was enough to keep us going for the next leg of the trip.

In the Holy of Holies at Tel Arad!
It wasn't long before we found ourselves descending through some spectacular scenery towards the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea. This was a hot, dry and deserted landscape with barely any sign of life at all. Passing a sign that read 'Dangerous Curves' reminded me of a series of signs I had once encountered on a road in Ireland and here also seemed to state the obvious as we wound our way lower and lower to the depths of the earth. Another sign had indicated 'Sea Level' but we were well past that now as indicators revealed increasing negative hundreds of metres along the way.

We drove north along the western shore of the Dead Sea, disembarking at a suitable spot for a dip. The sign actually read 'SWIMMING DANGEROUS!!! NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY' but we went ahead - after all, this was the Dead Sea in which nothing lives anyway. Further instructions did make it clear that one was not to immerse one's head or drink seawater, so the odds of drowning did seem minimal. Having changed, we made our way to the shore where, after removing shoes, we tentatively negotiated the rocks before entering the water.

Doing what one does in the Dead Sea
It would be true to say that the experience of bathing in the Dead Sea is a unique experience. Of course, that could also be said of bathing in the Caspian Sea, I am sure, but this is sort of uniquely unique, in a unique sort of way. I'm not sure that I would describe it as being a particularly pleasurable experience, though there were bits that were jolly exhilarating, but submerging oneself in hot, somewhat oily water, having been splashed in the face with a concentrated saline solution that not only tasted rather disgusting but which also stung one's eyes which were already blinded by the sun in the intense heat is not the way I would want to spend many Friday afternoons. Playing croquet on a sunny English lawn in summer, drinking tea and eating scones with clotted cream - these are pleasurable activities, though one would admit neither provides the degree of buoyancy afforded by the Dead Sea.

Sumptuous fish dinner on Shabbat
And it is this degree of buoyancy for which this sea is renowned, and the experience must be experienced to be believed. Once at a certain depth it becomes almost impossible to stand as one's feet are virtually swept from underneath oneself. It was simply impossible to sink, no matter how I tried. Temporarily acquiring a local newspaper, I lay back in relative comfort and pretended to read - well, it's what one's supposed to do in such a situation.

The showers above the shore added a further degree of exhilaration. Relatively cool and rather forceful, they were a welcome treat in the late afternoon heat. A quick change and back on the coach for the short trip to the En Gedi Field Centre which was to be our accommodation for the night. Shabbat began, we dined on fish and all was well in the depths of the earth.

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