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Israel Part 4: Beit Shean, Qumran, Dead Sea

Updated: Dec 20, 2023


I woke up early, once again, to see my last sunrise over the Sea of Galilee and bid farewell to the city of Tiberias.

On our way out of town, I got to see the mighty, Jordan River (which I shared about in my last post) one more time.


Bet She'an

Our first stop of the day was at Bet She'an, a large, ancient city strategically located where the road from Jerusalem meets with the road towards the Transjordan. The Bet She'an National Park has some of the best-preserved ruins in the Middle East. Extensive excavation of Bet She'an has revealed the Roman city's, public streets, bath houses, and theaters.

Roman Bath House

Bath houses were a prominent feature of Roman life and the location where people would meet to both bathe and socialize. This bathhouse, built in the fourth century B.C., was in use for 200 years. The room was heated using a hypocaust system developed by the Romans, where hot air passes through a hollow space beneath the floor.

Bathing Tools

Also found in the ruins were these bathing tools including an oil flask, strigils for scraping oil, sweat and dirt from skin, a patera for splashing cold water on the body and an ear scoop and nail cleaner.

Toilets

Lining three walls of a very public square, were these stone seats. To be specific, these are toilet seats, and they were considered luxurious and reserved for the upper class. A low stream of water flowed under the toilets and carried away the sewage. In lieu of toilet paper, the Romans used sponges mounted on sticks and then dipped in water, to clean themselves.


We learned that the first offer of wine, which Jesus declined during the crucifixion, was offered to him on one of these dirty sponges used to wipe the back-side of a Roman. (Matthew 27:34) The offer was made out of cruelty, to further torture and humiliate him. Later, and just before he took his last breath, a second drink was offered to him, out of kindness, by a bystander. (Mark 15:35-37)

Palladius Street

This is one of many colonnaded streets that cross the city. The paved, 77-foot-wide street could easily accommodate a chariot. On either side of the street were stores and houses. This particular street was named "Palladius" after the fourth century Roman governor.

Mount Gilboa

Biblically, Bet She'an is best known as the location where the Philistines hung the dead bodies of Saul and his sons. In 1004 B.C. the army of King Saul, Israel's first king, engaged in a battle with the Philistines at Mount Gilboa (pictured above) in which Saul's three sons, Jonathan, Abinadab and MalchishuaI, as well as much of his army, were killed. Sensing his impending defeat, and critically injured, Saul impaled himself with his own sword, rather than face capture. (This is where the saying, "to fall on one's sword," originates).


Subsequently, the Philistines found the dead bodies of Saul and his sons and fastened them to the wall at Bet She'an. In response, David, Jonathan's close friend and the successor to Saul's throne, composes a lament over the loss, stating in part, “How the mighty have fallen . . . ” (2 Samuel 1:17 – 27), which is the origin of the famous saying.


Qumran

As we headed south toward our next stop, Qumran, the landscape changed dramatically from pasturelands to ...

... desert.

Located in the West Bank, between the Judaen Desert and the Dead Sea, Qumran is in a relatively obscure location.

Qumran Cave

It became internationally renown however, when in 1947, Bedouins discovered a set of scrolls in the Qumran caves. The scrolls, which are the earliest known manuscripts of the Bible's Old Testament (minus Esther), were later named The Dead Sea Scrolls. The writings therein form the cornerstone of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.

Essene Ritual Bath

Qumran was established during the Hellenistic Period (134-104 B.C.) when the Essenes Jewish sect settled in this isolated area to create a monastery-like community. The sect was known to live communally, studying scripture, and sharing meals and housing. Community members operated in shifts, so that study of the scriptures took place 24 hours a day, quite literally fulfilling the Joshua 1:8 scripture which reads in part: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night..."

After the initial seven scrolls were found in the Qumran caves, teams led by French archaeologist, Roland de Vaux , embarked on further exploration resulting in a total of 972 texts being discovered between 1947-1956.

The texts, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, were recorded with reed pens and ink, mostly on parchment, and a few on papyrus. The most exiting find was the Isaiah scroll which was found completely intact.

In addition to the biblical texts, sectarian texts were also found. Aggregately, the texts have elucidated knowledge about rabbinical Judaism, early Christianity and Jewish life during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The site no longer holds the Dead Sea Scrolls which are now kept largely in Jerusalem, as well as elsewhere in the world.


Dead Sea

The Dead Sea

Our final stop for the day was at the Dead Sea, the body of water with the lowest elevation on Earth. Like the Sea of Galilee, which I visited earlier during this trip, the Dead Sea is a lake, not a sea. Its western shore, where we were, lies in Israel, and its eastern shore belongs to the country of Jordan.

The Dead Sea has an extremely high salt concentration that is almost ten times that of any other body of water in the world. The salinity of the lake is so dense in fact, that you remain buoyant in the water. Additionally, the salinity prevents any form of life, but for bacteria, thus the descriptor "dead" in the name "Dead Sea."

Salty Shore at the Dead Sea

The picture above hopefully illustrates just how salty this body of water is. That is all salt, not sand, that is lining the shore. When you visit, I recommend wearing water shoes (which I did not have the foresight to bring), as the salt crystals are quite sharp and uncomfortable to walk on.

The hotel's pool was also filled with water from the Dead Sea. The water in the Dead Sea is abundant with minerals including, but not limited to, magnesium, bromine, calcium, and potassium. The Dead Sea minerals are known to treat everything from skin conditions to rheumatological diseases.


While soaking in the waters, my skin felt soft and oily in a way I have never experienced before. With all of those benefits, it made sense to jump in for one last soak before heading to bed. With that, my one night at the Dead Sea drew to a close.


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Kristofer Chun
Kristofer Chun
Oct 17, 2023

These are so beautiful in an area being torn apart by war at the moment. Thank you for sharing

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