A one day trek in the "Judean Wilderness".
From Nachal Rahaf via Mount Elazar to Masada.
There is nothing that really can surpass getting to know a country than with “boots on the ground”. In Israel there is the opportunity to experience this through a well-established network of sign-posted nature trails. In February of 2015 I participated in one such trek through part of the Judean desert to the mountain fortress of Masada.
More specifically our destination was Mount Elazar (Lazarus). It is located, as the crow flies, one hundred meters south of Masada. Mount Elazar is named after Elazar ben Ya'ir who led the Jewish resistance against the roman garrison at Masada. It was also the site of the eighth military camp that surrounded Masada during the siege.
We began the hike at 9:30 AM, at on a dirt track (elev. -320m), just off route 90, some 10 km north of Ein Bokek. The trail leads to the canyon of Nachal Rachaf (Rachaf [Heb.] = Soar), past a number of watering holes and a spectacular waterfall.
After climbing over oversized boulders and squeezing through crevasses we settled down, in a shady spot, near one of the pools for a well-deserved rest, refreshments and a quick dip in the water.
After the break we continued on our way. More boulders, ravines and steep ascents! At about noon we reached the Judean Desert Plateau (elev. -30m).
The Upside: No more steep climbs!
The Downside: No more shade from the midday sun either!
However, next to a large boulder, on the plateau, we did manage to find some shade. We huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, evading the midday sun. We took as short break – Water and vegies mostly.
We were joined by a flock of native starlings known as Tristram’s grackles (Onychognathus tristramii).
The species is named after Reverend Henry Baker Tristraman, an English clergyman, Biblical scholar, traveller and ornithologist.
The birds have a glossy black plumage, black beaks and legs. What makes them particularly noticable are the orange or chesnut patches on the outer wing.
Back to the trail…
The next part of the trail is long, hot and monotonous – more or less a path that runs parallel on the western face of Mount Elazar.
Although the path is not terribly steep, it is filled with minor accents and descents. The terrain can also be very rough and a little tricky to maneuver through at times.
The vista is a scenic compilation of differently shaded desert mountains which are composed of a few types of rock strata.
The path changed from mainly loess to very rocky which made the trail a lot more difficult. As we ascended the path kept getting harder which also made the trail very tiring to climb.
However, it was definitely well worth the slog because the view from the peak of Mount Elazar (elev. +25 - All this effort, trudging uphill for an hour and only being 25 meters above sea-level!) is absolutely stunning.
It's a panoramic view of the south side of Masada and the surrounding mountains with Dead Sea in the background.
Masada - A little bit of History.
Masada itself was first fortified in the first centaury BCE by Alexander Jannaeus. He was king of Judea from 103 BCE to 76 BCE. It was subsequently captured by Herod the Great who built himself two plush palaces on the premises aside from his additional fortifications. The top of Masada is very flat and rhomboid in shape. Two dams held rainwater from the two wadis west of Masada, and open plastered channels carried water from these dams through the mountain to 19 water cisterns. These cisterns were able to store over 40 thousand cu.m. of water all together.
The view from Mount Elazar is especially interesting since one can see the remains of the water channels and the openings of the tunnels leading to the water cisterns.
There, on the peak of Mount Elazar, facing Masade, two ladies started singing. What great choice of a song! Psalm 121 – The second psalm of the 15 Songs of Ascents. Its origin – nearly 3000 years old! It was the song of pilgrims as they ascended to Jerusalem.
(1) A Song of Ascents.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains:
From whence shall my help come?
Esa einai el heharim:
me'ayin yavo ezri?
(א) שִׁיר, לַמַּעֲלוֹת:
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים--
מֵאַיִן, יָבֹא עֶזְרִי.
(2) My help cometh from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
Ezri me'im Adonai,
ose shamaim va'aretz.
(ב) עֶזְרִי, מֵעִם יְהוָה--
עֹשֵׂה, שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.
(3) He will not suffer thy foot to be moved;
He that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Al yiten lamot ragleicha,
al yanum shom'recha.
(ג) אַל-יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ;
(4) Behold, He that keepeth Israel
Doth neither slumber
Hineh lo yanum,
(ד) הִנֵּה לֹא-יָנוּם,
(5) The LORD is thy keeper;
The LORD is thy shade
upon thy right hand.
al yad yeminecha.
(ה) יְהוָה שֹׁמְרֶךָ;
(6) The sun shall not smite thee
Nor the moon by night.
hashemesh lo yakeka,
(7) The LORD
shall keep thee from all evil;
He shall keep thy soul.
yishmor'cha mikol ra'ah,
yishmor et nafshecha.
(8) The LORD
shall guard thy going out and thy coming in,
From this time forth and forevermore.
yishmor tzetcha uvo'echa,
me'ata ve'ad olam.
Song of Ascents is a title given to fifteen of the Psalms, 120–134 that each starts with the ascription Shir Hama'aloth (Hebrew: שִׁיר המַעֲלוֹת, meaning "Song of the Ascents").
Many scholars believe the title indicates that these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals or by the Levite singers as they ascended the fifteen steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.
It is also traditional for some Jews to place a copy of Psalm 121 in the labor and delivery room to promote an easy labor by asking God for mercy.
Our descent to the parking lot (elev. -280m) was very precarious.
Measured in a straight line, the distance from the top of Mount Elazar to the parking lot is only 500m; the difference in altitude is a drop of 330m. The actual path (about 1200m) was still extremely steep and difficult. It took us more than an hour just to get down – and our knees remember it well!
When we finally made it, we were met with tea and cakes. It was the best finale to a long day anyone could ask for.
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