holmes sweet holmes

sucking marrow and seeking more

Archive for the month “January, 2014”


The day after Christmas, we hopped in our rental car and drove south to Masada, a mountaintop fortress overlooking the Dead Sea.

Well, we didn’t exactly hop in the car. We had a brief mishap, which included an expired driver’s license, a credit card company doing its job but making our travel more difficult, and awful coffee. I don’t want to point any fingers, but it may or may not have been my fault. An hour and a half behind schedule, we were on our way.

The Judean Desert is quite beautiful. It looks very similar to Sinai, just taller mountains and more gradient colors. We edged around mountains, passed date farms, and flipped through radio stations, looking for anything in English. Ears popping the entire time, we finally reached the Lowest Point on Earth. And then we kept going, because floating in the salty body of water is for the Jordan side. 

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The Dead Sea

Because of our late start, we had to take the aerial lift of death to the top of the mountain (though it was much faster and less terrifying than Montseratt’s) rather than hike up the Snake Path, which is obviously what we would have preferred. It doesn’t really matter how we got there, because the views from the top were bound to be breathtaking no matter what. And they were.

Masada is a 2000-year-old fortress. Herod the Great — the same one who called for the death of Baby Jesus — captured the fortress and turned it into a palace on the mountaintop. His additional construction started in 35 BCE. Somehow he got water into cisterns and bathhouses and pools, on the top of an isolated mountain (1300 feet high on the eastern edge!), in the middle of the Judean Desert. Unreal.

Masada has almost a mythical history. Story goes something like this: between 66 CE and 70 CE, Jewish rebels called the Sicarii fled Roman persecution in Jerusalem and settled on Masada. The Roman legion surrounded the mountain, and eventually built a ramp all the way up to the top. The rebels, knowing they would be captured and tortured, committed mass suicide and/or killed each other in 73 CE. Josephus Flavius, the ancient historian, writes that as many as 960 Jews committed suicide and burned buildings.

Josephus apparently based his story on interviews with Roman soldiers, but the archeological findings only partially support his story. Archaeologists discovered evidence of a Roman base camp surrounding the mountain, and you can still climb the ramp the built on the western side of Masada. There is also evidence of burning buildings, and lots with the names of 10 different people, including the name of the rebel leader. Many presume these lots show the names of the rebels selected to kill the rebels before the Romans reached the top. However, remains of only about 30 bodies have ever been found on Masada, and the location of buildings and amount that burned do not match the descriptions from Josephus, who was writing based on the information he was told. So, inconsistencies abound and the truth is not entirely clear. But isn’t that all of history? Of life?

Regardless of the full story, Masada has come to symbolize strength in the face of oppression. A magical sensation permeated the entire complex as I walked through the ruins. Partly because of the history, partly because of the views (SO gorgeous), and partly because of the other people we crossed paths with. 

We stumbled upon Rabbi Shlomo, the impeccably dressed man we met on the aerial lift of death who happened to know every person at Masada, officiating a wedding in the remains of one of the old homes. An intimate wedding, with the enormity of the world as its witness. A few ruins away, we spotted a father and son praying together, the father holding his Siddur and the son his iPad. Then there was the father and daughter pair, holding hands, reading the placards. The daughter rapidly firing questions, and the father patiently answering them. All of it beautiful. 

Just like the history of Masada itself, the following photos can only provide glimpses of the full immensity.

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Overlooking the Judean desert, and beyond it, the Dead Sea

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Remains of the dovecotes

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Rebecca and Sheila on the steps leading out of one of the cisterns (plus a photo-bomber)

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Becks hanging out in what could very well be King Herod’s bathtub

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The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in mountains just like these, a few kilometers up the road from Masada

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Palace ruins, setting sun


Photo courtesy of Sheiler

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Mosaic floor in one of the many Roman baths

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The ramp built by the Roman Army

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Masada (far left) and surrounding mountains as we drove away along the Dead Sea Road

Because of our late start, we ended up stuck in Jerusalem traffic en route to Rina and Buky’s house in the north. But the majesty of this mountaintop fortress was well worth the frustration and white knuckles. (I can say that because I wasn’t the one driving.)


a rose-red city

i won’t be writing about this trip in chronological order because, well, because petra.

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i have experienced and explored some pretty incredible things over the last 3 weeks. but petra? it’s in a league of its own.

as we drove down into the city, past the petra magic restaurant and the cleopetra hotel, we were greeted with a stunning sunset over the mountains. and during check-in, our hostel manager asked if we wanted to attend the nighttime program at petra.

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view from my room. sun setting over petra.

at 8:30, we started walking through the siq, the massive alleyway flanked by stone walls. looking up, i felt the exact same feelings of euphoria and insignificance and magnificence that i feel when i am 30m underwater, staring up at a coral reef wall and beyond it sky. add to it the luminaries lighting our path every few meters, and the river of sky sprinkled with stars above, and you have yourself an awe-inspiring moment. 

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the siq

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fig tree growing out of the stones

the large tour groups bustling down the corridor marred the ambiance slightly. we stopped and waited for large groups to pass a handful of times, and we ended up being some of the last to step through the crack that opens onto the treasury, with a circle of people on the ground surrounding more candles in paper bags.


al-khazneh, the treasury, at night

quiet descended (mostly) and the bedouins told stories and played instruments. the cold, the flickering lights, the vastness of the skies above, all created an enchanting experience.


sheila and rebecca, soaking it all in

the next two mornings, we returned for further exploration of petra. that siq may very well be my favorite part. it occasionally smells like animal waste, goes on for miles (okay, one mile — but it feels much longer when you exit, exhausted), and can be eerily quiet when you can’t hear or see anyone else (except the person ahead of you who is whistling the indiana jones theme song). but the dark red and ochre stony crags, towering above you, are outrageously beautiful. teasers for the rest of petra abound — some walls have niches, others have water channels, most just take your breath away. and then, the gorge narrows and the rock walls soar 80m up, and through the sliver, you get your first peak of petra. 

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it looks exactly how i imagined it. but i could not have predicted the sheer astonishment i felt.

i am struggling here to describe in words everything that petra is. and i’d forgo the words and use only pictures, but looking through them, i can’t find a single one that captures even a bit of the essence that is petra.

petra is the fusion of greco-roman, egyptian, byzantine styles. the nabataeans settled in southern jordan over 2200 years ago and quickly controlled the caravanning system across arabia, specifically the trade routes for frankincense and myrrh. and as they met and protected foreign traders, they absorbed their cultural influences, resulting in the remains of a gorgeous and diverse ancient city.

petra is the bedouin men wearing arabic kohl around their eyes, a la jack sparrow. the one wearing his ho chi minh t-shirt and traditional red scarf became our unofficial guide for a short time as we hiked into the depths of petra, up and down mountainsides, with his trusty donkey mickey mouse chasing us down steps and looking characteristically forlorn when we wouldn’t move fast enough. 

petra is the 700 twisting and turning steps to the top of the high sacrifice, and the 800 steep steps leading to the monastery, and the hundreds of other steps that bring you all around the massive city.

petra is the boys pushing silver bangles and packs of 14 postcards on every tourist they see. “one dinar.” “happy hour, very good price.” “you dropped something back there — my heart/your smile/other bad pick-up lines.”

petra is hidden niches and caves, ranging from ground level to impossibly high, requiring your eyes to constantly roam. 

petra is noel christmas, one of many shop owners on the hills leading to the monastery; and marguerite, the new zealander who married a bedouin and moved into petra in the late 70s; and GQ, Pretty Eyes, and Grumpy Cat, italian “archaeologist painters” who helped us find a shortcut to qasr el bint. 

petra is precariously perched cairns marking the paths through the mountains; and deep colors of crimson, blue, and white painting our landscape; and the smell of campfire urging us to climb higher. 

petra is the little girl sitting at a makeshift table covered with necklaces while her toddler brother arranges chunks of colorful stone in front of the garden hall. she’s a terrible salesperson, focusing all of her attention on the two books she’s cradling in her lap rather than the passing hikers. instead of hearing “lady, good price for you,” i hear her reciting her homework, as she’s copying phrases in arabic from her textbook into her notebook, then proudly reading her sentences aloud as she checks her work. 

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stairs to the monastery

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a cairn at the high sacrifice. this is where i sacrificed a snickers bar.

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the tomb of the urn.

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jack sparrow was on the steps in front of us, and then suddenly he was on this outcrop of rock. jack be nimble, jack be quick.

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r & s, stopping for a little r & r

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caves and crevices

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scarves for sale at noel christmas’ shop

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a donkey’s resting place, near the tomb of the urn

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the monastery, 800 steps later

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egyptian obelisks, greco-roman niches, and nabataean details

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i have no words for this place.

petra is, like the restaurant suggests, magic.

take aways: winter break, 2013

what a trip. after 18 days of traveling and exploring, i have finally arrived in cairo. my internet hasn’t been strong enough to upload photos to the blog, so anticipate a slew of travel-related posts soon. for now, here are my major take-aways from this trip:

1. arch support is vital. and fake-uggs-from-city-stars, you did not pass the test.

2. the holy land should be called the hilly land.

3. traveling with a fellow chocolate lover is equal parts dangerous and delicious.

4. jordan is perfect in the winter for hiking around the 45 square km complex that is petra, but it is terrible if you like to be warm while you sleep.

5. seeing your 100th teenager/soldier hybrid carrying around a semi-automatic weapon, in their street clothes, possibly while eating a popsicle, is just as terrifying as seeing your first.

6. getting hangry while traveling is worse than getting hangry during normal life.

7. middle eastern hospitality is alive and well. between the shop owners in the armenian quarter insisting we have tea with them (“armenians are just as hospitable as egyptians — we can’t let them offer more than us”) and the adorable manager at our hotel  in jerash who brought us tea and coffee on trays, we experienced constant kindness.

8. when a country has more roman columns than they know what to do with, they’ll end up everywhere. in gardens, lined up neatly next to the sidewalk, haphazardly strewn about.

9. i think i’m ready to drive in cairo. i survived crazy, packed streets in jordan that mimic what i see in egypt. i successfully used my “wait” hand signal, merged into nonexistent lanes, and navigated roads without any clear signs.

10. just kidding. i’ll never be ready to drive in cairo.


look out, ring road. soon i will be the king of the rood.

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