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Nearly 400 metres below sea level… and counting

It seems as if much of what I’ve taken to be true is being challenged this week. And equally, what I’m expected to know as fact is requiring every ounce of belief that I have. On the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, we passed an unusual marker…. and had I not being standing on the side of the road looking off into a deeper valley in the distance, I might have been able to get my head around the fact that I was standing a sea level. But if I was on flat ground and the valley in front me was deeper still, how could it be possible to be on land and yet be below sea level?

IMG_7864 (800x597)I’ve come to the conclusion (sad that it might be) that my brain has a limited capacity for facts. And to repeat the well-worn adage, the more I learn the more I realise I don’t know, and all I can say is that it’s frustrating.

I’m tripping over phrases that should mean something to me other than pure words: green line, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank… but those I can write off to a geopolitical ignorance that although embarrassing, might be understandable. But this sea level stuff – that’s something my nephews would know.

IMG_8032 (800x558)While I mightn’t have known that  down the middle of the Dead Sea  runs the border between Israel and Jordan, I did know that you can’t swim in it – you can only float. I mightn’t have known that it’s called the Dead Sea because it’s 8.6 times saltier than the ocean and thus nothing lives in it, but I did know that it’s famous for its mud. I mightn’t have known that it’s the source of balms for Egyptian mummies to potash for fertilizers, I did know that it’s bath salts are famous.

IMG_8021 (489x800)There’s a ritual. First you go the water and slather yourself head to toe in mud. Then you wait for 15 to 30 minutes (or as long as you can stand it). It’s surprisingly hard to sit still when you’re caked in black gooh. Then you get in the water and float … on your back. Floating on your stomach is strictly prohibited. It’s a must for anyone with psoriasis, dry skin, acne, muscle aches, dandruff, or those suffering from stress. Not for those with pacemakers or high blood pressure. Which leaves me wondering though… aren’t high blood pressure and stress sort of related?

IMG_8020People watching is great – wondering what they’d be like with their mud off… and then realising that it was off… and they were African. Obviously I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

And, while I wasn’t actually driving myself, so technically it might not count… I did get to drive on the world’s lowest road – Hwy 90 – that runs along the shores of the Dead Sea at 393 m below sea level. Not quite Route 66 but… Szilvester checked the altimeter on his watch at one stage and it read 345 meters below sea level so I know the signs weren’t lying.

The Dead Sea is said to be over 3 million years old – that’s old. And while water flows into it, none flows out of it; what disappears evaporates.  It was Cleopatra who started the Dead Sea cosmetic rage, a woman before her time, that one! And I couldn’t stop running my hands up and down my arms afterwards… soft doesn’t begin to describe the feel. I was wishing I’d brought a few ziplock bags – I could have carted the mud home.

Perhaps most interesting though is that each year, the River Jordan contributes less water to the Dead Sea – so the shoreline is dropping at a rate of about a metre annually. A massive problem. I’ve heard it said numerous times this week that long after the political situation is resolved, the region will still be fighting over water. There’s a plan afoot to build a pipeline to draw water from the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, thus refilling the Dead Sea and desalinating the water for human consumption. I tell you, it’s given me a whole new respect for the scarcity of water …. and the talent required to translate.

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No women allowed

With donkeys and goats competing for space with plastic bags and rubbish of all sorts, the Judean desert isn’t what you’d call pristine. Actually, what I’ve seen of Palestine so far leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness. There’s rubbish everywhere. People nonchalantly toss plastic bottles out of cars as if they were apple cores that would magically biodegrade. It’s hard to imagine why, in a region so dependent on tourism, that some bright spark in the Ministry of Tourism doesn’t do something about it.

Driving deep into the desert, where the only things growing are olive trees and scrub, what fences there are have trapped flying plastic and empty beer cans. Miles from anywhere, evidence of human carelessness abounds. It was putting me in a bad mood.

IMG_7687 (800x600)IMG_7724 (600x800)When we switched to a smaller bus to navigate the windy roads to the Mar-Saba monastery, I could feel my blood pressure rising with the temperature. Closer to the ground, I was closer to the detritus. And then, when we got there and were told that only men were allowed inside, I was fit to be tied. It’s the twenty-first century, people.

Saba himself, the chap who may or may not have founded the places in the fifth century AD, came from Cappadocia. He lived in  cave near the present site of the monastery for about 10 years and, when he was 45, he established what’s known as a Laura – a cluster of caves or cells of hermits residing around the central monastery. (Even his mother wasn’t allowed inside…) A second account by one James Kean, says that it may have been founded by Saba’s teacher –  St Euthymius. Seems like the region is awash with either/ors, mights and maybes.

IMG_7715 (800x600)IMG_7693 (800x600)So when the men go inside to see the heads of old monks, and the body of Saba himself, and God only knows what else, the women content themselves by writing out petitions which they hand in to a monk (Greek Orthodox) on duty at the entrance and in return receive some oil and a postcard. I’m all for tradition and I know I’m on record as saying that the feminist streak in me is small enough to go unnoticeable, but for some reason, this upset me hugely.

IMG_7721 (800x600)IMG_7723 (600x800)IMG_7732 (580x800)That said, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Reputedly one of the oldest monasteries in which monks still live, it’s about half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, overlooking the Kidron valley. With tour buses disgorging passengers every 30 minutes or so, the place was awash with people from all over the world. Folk groups brought their guitars and sang from the cliff side. One female choir pitched up outside the doors and sang the same tune over and over and over again. Perhaps that was their sweet revenge!

IMG_7714 (800x600)No matter what I might think of it being so exclusive, the place itself is nonetheless impressive, standing as it does in the middle of nowhere. It’s been around for eons and despite repeated invasions, it’s stood the test of time.IMG_7710 (800x600)