The Dead Shall Rise Again
Exploring the Dark Remnants of History on the Eastern Side of the Dead Sea, From Earth's Lowest Point to the Heights of Herod's Fortress
The road winds deeper and deeper below sea level, with the temperature rising.
The high plateau of Dana transforms to a great Rift Valley, dominated by a large lake too inhospitable to bear life. Minus 380 meters below sea level our GPS reads once we reach the shores of the Dead Sea, an apt name for the barren land. But the sea is not the only thing to bear the deathly name. Numerous remnants and legends find root in this lowest spot on earth, often associated with death and destruction. We are exploring these remnants and uncovering what life may remain. The first stop: the cave of Lot.
Lot, the nephew of Abraham of ancient times, is synonymous with the destruction of Sodom. Found to be the only “good” person in the city, one of the five “cities of the plain,” he and his family was miraculously saved. His wife met a salty end, but he and his daughters sheltered in a cave above Zoar. Several thousand years later, we pull our car into the parking lot of the Museum of the Lowest Spot on Earth. High up in the ridge scorched by the summer sun, the cave of Lot remains.
Up we go.
THE CAVE OF LOT
It’s not hard to envision what Lot may have experienced when fleeing from his home. The view on the climb up stretches far along the plain, the sun blistering, and the cries of our three-year old boy perhaps echoing those of Lot’s daughters. Already carrying my baby, I also lug Zion up on my shoulders and together we make our way to the cave. We first passed through a crumbling Byzantine church discovered in the 1980’s, mosaics underfoot hinting that the mouth of Lot’s legendary cave lay just ahead.
Six laborers restored sections behind a fence, waving us into the modest cavern. We pass a few stone slabs and columns en -route to the modest cave, ample room to shelter refugees but little more. Bronze Age relics found here aligned chronologically with the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s ruin. I pondered where those infamous cities now lay buried. Archeologists noted ruins nearby, remnants of walls and gates. Gathering the family, we left the cave to seek out these out, that is if anything remains.
Off we go to the find remains of history’s most infamous destroyed cities.
THE WADI OF NUMEIRA
My research on the lost city of Gomorrah had led me to a scattering of ruins on a windswept plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. At just a mere mile off the main Dead Sea Highway, I at least wanted to attempt to see the ruins known as Numeira. Following our GPS, the turn off to the right was ended abruptly by locked chain-link fence. Moderately disappointed, I shifted the rental car into reverse when in-came a guzzling pickup truck. Two farmers pulled up beside me, sprang from the cab and unlocked the gate. I pointed inquisitively through the opening. “Numeira?” A silent nod and smile bid us to follow the rocky track.
A few hundred meters further when the road became questionable, I hopped out of the car as Mary tended to the kids and quickly walked through the dirt track until apprehended by large boulders. Squinting upward, I could just make out the ruins perched on a high ridge. As I attempted to clamber the rocks for a better view, sounds of a sheep dog barking viciously my way saw me make a quick u-turn back to my vehicle. The farmers chuckled as I passed, amused by the foreigner sent running from the sound of a dog. Even more amusingly, they pointed across to a gravel track I had earlier overlooked, drivable up to the precipice of a slot canyon.
It appears I will get a second crack at finding those ruins.
The gravel road wound past typical desert landscapes until suddenly the red rock walls of a canyon engulfed the road. We caught our breath at the unexpected sight - a wadi, one of the steep-walled canyons that flank this harsh landscape surrounding the Dead Sea. Wadi Numeira is the name, a stunning natural wonder found in the land of the dead. We parked under an overhanging rock, cooled by shade, and wander thereafter by foot. Looking back, I see the remains of Numeira in better focus, though too dangerous to reach. I felt compelled to explore those ruins, but the fractured cliffs made access too precarious, especially with a toddler and baby in tow. Instead, we would immerse ourselves in the splendor of the wadi.
Regardless those were the remains of Gomorrah or not, this wadi had likely witnessed whatever episode that befell those crumbling memories, far predating it and enduring throughout the centuries. Civilizations had risen and been erased from memory, but the patient canyon remained, slowly continuing its work. Perhaps there is a meaning in it. But in that moment, I didn’t look for it.
We were a family enjoying the moment - the melodies of flowing water over stone, majestic rock walls towering above, and Zion’s infectious joy with a pile of sand.
THE REMAINS OF SODOM
Our unexpected sojourn in Wadi Numeira had been delightful, but I still burned with questions about the biblical cities infamously destroyed by divine retribution. According to my research, the ruins of ancient Bab Ed-Dhra just up the coast could be the remains of Sodom itself, and an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up to investigate. I pulled our rental onto the shoulder of the road, the sun scorching the barren landscape. Leaving my family gratefully in the air conditioning, I ventured out towards the GPS coordinates.
Under the cracked mud and hardened sand, I scan for human craftsmanship while keeping my rental car and family in focus. At last I come across a section of crumbling wall along with fragments of stones and building foundations. Too weather-beaten to discern their original shape, they nonetheless stirred my imagination. Could this very well be Sodom, under the soles of my feet? I head back to the car, photos taken, and full of contemplation. According to Genesis, righteous Lot had fled from here with his daughters, spared from the destruction. Yet he too later fell into drunkenness and shame in the cave. Perhaps there were lessons here after all - that even the righteous can fall, and that our trust should be in the Creator rather than our own feeble faculties.
Under the relentless sun, I felt small and humble, grateful not to stand in judgment over history's fallen.
THE DEAD SEA
Our journey continued north, the road nearly touching the azure waters of the Dead Sea, shimmering brightly amongst the barren landscape. Its name evoked ominous images, yet gazing out across its tranquil expanse now, it was difficult to associate this beautiful sight with anything "dead." The beaches literally glistened white, with bathers soaking up the blistering sun. A large pull off beckoned us to stop and join them, and how could we resist following a long day exploring dusty ruins and ancient caves.
The hike down to the sea, however, proved deceiving. The once-distant shoreline was now revealed to be receding year by year, the depths falling below the old water line. And upon reaching the sea, the mirage of beauty slowly disappeared. The glistening beach was actually crystallized salt, encrusted on the shore with painful corners. The welcoming azure waters stung bitterly from their extreme salinity. Nothing survived in this harsh environment - no fish, no plants, no birds. Minutes before we had admired the “oasis” from above. Now at the shore, we are confronted an entirely different reality - barren, acidic, scorched by a remorseless sun.
The Dead Sea earned its reputation.
THE KING’S FORTRESS AT MACHAERUS
We did not linger, as the sun was dipping low and we were eager to find rest before another day of exploration tomorrow. Leaving the crystalline shoreline behind, what awaited us was enigmatic fortress perched over three thousand feet above the sea, known most famously for a gruesome and sorrowful act that reverberated the landscape here 2,000 years ago - Herod’s fortress at Machaerus.
A steep road climbed up from Earth’s lowest spot to 2,200 feet in elevation. The Dead Sea stretches from north to south up here, with Jerusalem seen in the hills to the west. Herod, in his great wealth and cruelty, probably enjoying watching his slaves camber up these steep slopes to build one of his most exorbitant palaces. The location made famous through Salomes sensual dance to please the King, moving him to make an offer up to half of his kingdom (which at the view here, probably encompasses everything seen in the horizon). However, it wasn’t land or money that Herod was forced to give up, but rather the head of John the Baptist.
Walking up the hill to the remains of the fortress in mid-June heat, I cannot help but to imagine I am still in the first century. Shepherd’s caves dot the landscape, some of them up to three chambers deep. Off in the distance, a herd of goats clamber up the steep slopes, looking for the littlest morsel of grass at the direction of the shepherd boy on donkey. As we walk up to the top, a carefully constructed walkway guided our steps, likely the same pavers that bore witness when Herod ruled ruthlessly.
What remains of the fort is scant, with only the foundations remaining. Beyond that, it is better left to the imagination. But with the history stacked up with the backstory, not much imagination is required. Here, one of the most influential figures in Christian history met an untimely end. The palace, like Herod himself, has decayed and become nearly forgotten. And although he felt on top of the world that day when he killed his prisoner, it was the beheaded, and particularly his cousin, that has forever remained unforgotten.
Leaving the tragic fortress behind, we pressed on to our final stop along this road trip, a spot that turned the tides of history thanks to the beheaded’s cousin – the true King.
THE BAPTISM SITE
Just north of the Dead Sea, eight kilometers to be exact, lies a portion of the meandering Jordan River. In ancient times, stories of the river being miraculously departed to cross leads me to think the waterway as a grand barrier between the modern nations of Jordan and Israel. The reality is sorely disappointing as it is just a narrow stream engulfed by plants. This spot of the river though, or 130 meters to the east as the stream has changed course over the years, lies the spot of the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Contrasting with Herod’s opulent palace, John lived in such meagerness here, eating locusts and honey and sheltering in the simplest caves, yet he paved a way here in this wilderness with his cries to repent and prepare. But it was the One who came after, being baptized by John, who upended kingdoms without wielding a sword., signaling a new life.
In a region synonymous with death - from the sea that is too salty to support life, stories of cities being destroyed to ashes, and a palace made famous by a beheading - life is found. A new life through the words of Jesus.
Thank you for reading the story.
If you enjoyed this story and want to read all the newest stories, please subscribe to Into Far Lands and join the family!