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By Margo Fallis 2007

Have you ever been so thirsty that you started hallucinating, visualizing yourself crawling around on your hands and knees through the middle of a hot, arid desert, with sand blowing all around you? I’ve seen this happen in the movies, but never in my life did I think this would become a reality for me.

My mother and I went on a trip to the Holy Land with a group of fifty other people. We spent the first week touring the northern, more agricultural parts of the country and then drove south, to the desert; our first stop – the Dead Sea. Being the lowest point on earth, 1320 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea offers many natural wonders. Besides being one of the hottest places on earth, with 330 full days of sunshine each year, it is also the saltiest and most mineral-laden body of water in the world.

One of the biggest attractions is to swim in its ‘unsinkable’ waters. When Mom and I walked across the burning sands of the beach to the sea, we saw people of all shapes and sizes bobbing up and down, arms outstretched, floating in the clear water. Anxious to try it ourselves, we joined them for a refreshing swim. Afterwards, we stood under the showers for half an hour, trying to get the black mud and dried salt off our skin. I felt like a lizard, or a tortoise, with dry, leathery skin. I doused myself in lotion I’d purchased at the gift shop. The minerals in it, which actually claimed to come from the Dead Sea, supposedly made one’s skin look and feel young again. At least I stopped feeling like elephant hide.

A few minutes later we piled into the tour bus with the others. Our guide, Aliyah, mentioned the next stop was at Masada. Having neglected to study up on the geography of the Holy Land, the name meant little to me. She gave a brief account of the area’s history as the bus chugged along the road. It looked like a black snake, meandering through a vast desert, which is exactly where we were. This area was called the Judean Desert and the temperature outside was nearing 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. It was barren and desolate. I couldn’t see any plants, trees, shrubs, or flowers. I saw one animal, a surefooted goat, bleating as it clambered among the rocks.

When the massive stone tower came into view, I pushed my face against the bus window and stared. “Is that Masada?” I asked. The isolated, flat-topped rock reminded me of the mesas back home in the American Southwest. It jutted from the desert floor to the height of 1300 feet above the Dead Sea.

Using the bus microphone, Aliyah continued with her informative lecture. I heard words like King Herod, fortified, Romans, ramp, and suicide. I was too enthralled by what I was seeing to listen to her words. The bus stopped at a small group of buildings. The visitor’s center stood among palm trees, offering shade and inside - air conditioning. Green grass and pools of water looked out of place among the desert sands. A guide met our group and huddled us together in a room to watch a short presentation. He explained that those of us who wanted to go to the top had two choices. We could either walk up the Snake Path, an ancient and very steep serpentine trail that made its way up the side, or we could take the modern tram. I opted for the tram, as did most of the others in our group. Some, like my mother, chose to stay at the visitor’s center and wait for the rest of us.

I’ve never enjoyed cable cars and once I saw the height of Masada close up, I hesitated to go, but knew this was probably the only chance I’d ever have. I found a place in the corner where I felt safe, and when the doors shut and the cable car began to move, I knew it was too late to change my mind. I looked up at the cable. One large pole dangled from the steel ropes, noisily inching its way to the top. After being encouraged by the others to ‘enjoy the moment’, I looked down on the Dead Sea. It sparkled like a blue sapphire, glistening in the sunlight. The arid desert surrounding it was dreary. When the cable car stopped, I whispered a silent prayer of thanks for making it up there without plunging to our deaths. We poured out of the cramped car and when I noticed we still had eighty steps to climb to reach the top, I let out a loud sigh. Most of the people in my group were elderly and climbing was difficult for them, but stoically they went up, slowly, one step at a time.

I listened to Aliyah as we strolled from one ancient ruin to another, stopping to view the crumbling walls, towers and gates. We entered rooms to find the floors and walls decorated with mosaics; still as beautiful and colorful as the day they were laid. Ceilings painted with frescoes and marble-like columns urged me to use my imagination, envisioning the people who thousands of years ago lived high on top of this rock. Storerooms, swimming pools, bathtubs and saunas brought this place of ruin to life for me.

When we moved to the ramp on the other side, Aliyah told us the story of the Romans and how they forced Jewish slaves to build it, dumping buckets and barrels of dirt in a mound, until the ramp reached the summit. I saw the battering ram used to knock the stone walls of Masada down. I couldn’t move. My heart went out to the people who must have watched in terror as the soldiers came closer and closer to their homes, and then chose to end their lives, rather than be taken captive and forced into slavery.

A gust of wind suddenly blew across the ruins, sending grains of sand and small pieces of rock up our nostrils and into our eyes and stinging our bare arms and legs with needlelike pings. We began to feel thirsty as the dry heat and wind parched our throats. A small fountain provided us with fresh water and though I’d only drank bottled water during our tour, the need for quenching my thirst was more powerful than the fear of drinking contaminated water. I stood at the edge of the rock looking across the desert. A brown wall of sand was barreling towards us. “It’s the khamseem,” a man standing next to me said. “It’s an Arab word that means a hot, dry wind from the desert,” he explained. “You’d better find shelter.”

I had never seen anything like this before. It moved so quickly that before he uttered the last word, the sandstorm descended upon us. I ran for cover, gathering the others with me. Some of the elderly women coughed as the wind and dust seeped in through cracks. Soon the air was unbreathable. Vacating the crumbling building, we ran in search of somewhere less exposed to the elements. After finding a room that offered more protection and seeing that they were able to breathe better, I left to check on the cable car. Much as I feared, I was told it was impossible to operate in this wind. It was far too dangerous and may blow off the cable. “How do we get down?” I asked.

The cable car operator said, “You either stay here and wait it out, or you walk down the path.”

“Wait it out? How long do these storms usually last?”

“Sometimes three hours; sometimes three days,” he said, nonchalantly, like this was something that happened regularly.

I couldn’t imagine stay on top of this isolated rock slab for three days with no food. Many of the women with me needed their medication. Some were suffering terribly with asthma. I started to walk down the trail to see how difficult it would be. I soon realized there was no way these women could do it. It was too steep and the wind blew with a ferociousness. I went back up and fought my way through the blinding sand, not sure if I could find them. When, at last I went into the right room, I announced, “Ladies, it’s time for a prayer.”

These sweet women patted my hands. “We’ll be fine,” one said. “The Lord will take care of us. Don’t worry.” Here I was trying to comfort them and they were comforting me instead.

I couldn’t help but worry. Three days from now we were leaving Israel and I didn’t feel like spending those days on top of Masada during the worst sandstorm they’d had in twenty years. We gathered in a circle and offered prayer. When we finished, I took them down to the cable car. “We’ll wait here,” I said, assuring them we’d be fine. Within a few minutes, the wind died down.

“We’ve enough time to take one carload down; maybe two, if we hurry,” the operator announced. I told him of the women’s medical needs and they were given space on the cable car. I was younger and healthier and had to wait for the next car down. I waved at them as they headed down the mountain. I watched it bounce on the cable and feared for them. Once they were safe at the bottom, I relaxed. The operator announced that it was far too windy and the cable car would not be coming back up. The rest of us would have to walk down the mountainside, like the goat I’d seen earlier in the day.

Nearly blinded by blowing sand, I struggled down the path. It took every ounce of energy I could muster. Between the wind and the steepness of the path, it was physically exhausting and extremely dangerous. The loose rock on the narrow path made it slippery. My legs buckled and I nearly collapsed with every step. I cried in fear when I ended up crawling on my hands and knees, along with the lizards! My throat was swollen with thirst. I didn’t have any spit left to moisten my lips. Finally, after two of the longest hours I’ve ever been forced to endure, I made it to the bottom of Masada. I staggered to the shade of a tree and collapsed. My mother, frantic with worry, came rushing to me, as did the other ladies who’d ridden to the bottom earlier in the cable car. My hair was full of dirt and sand. “We were so worried about you,” she said, hugging me, and then she started to laugh. “You look like a ghost.” Light brown dirt caked around my tear-streaked eyes and mouth.

“Water,” I gasped. “Water.”

Mom handed me her bottled water, which disappeared in one gulp. I refilled it three more times. I poured another two bottles over the top of my head, just to cool my body temperature down. It took me ten minutes with a hose to get the dirt off my face and out of my hair.

Once everyone was accounted for, we boarded the bus. I fell into my seat, looking at Masada, in all her glory, standing majestically, like a stone giant. Dust and dirt swirled around it, making it difficult to see the top, or the people who were still making their way down the path. I was so grateful that the wind had died down temporarily allowing the sick and elderly to take the cable car to safety. They’d have never made it otherwise.

The khamseem, or sandstorm, lasted three entire days. It didn’t just cover the Judean Desert but all of Jerusalem and most of the country. At the time, I didn’t enjoy the events that were transpiring, but that night as I lay in my clean bed, with clean sheets and clean hair, and a huge bottle of water by my side, I realized what a blessing it had been to have that experience. I’d been able to see something fascinating, and yet tragic, out of Israel’s past. I had been touched by the women’s faith as we prayed for a respite in the wind, and rejoiced when it let up for a short while. I learned compassion for those who have in the past, or will in the future, be forced to endure the physical trials of thirst and exhaustion, but most important, I was thankful that I had survived!

khamseem - israel