Islands in the sand

I’m not sure if I can take much more of this. That crash you just heard was yet another illusion being shattered. When I hear the word oasis I imagine an island of green with some palm trees and a pool of water smack bang in the middle of a sandy desert. Miles from anywhere. Add Lawrence of Arabia and a camel train on the horizon and my pictures I complete. What I don’t expect is a nature reserve along the lines of En Gedi (it’s also spelled Ein Gedi but I’m going with what I saw).

Located on the shore of the Dead Sea on the eastern edge of the Judean desert, En Gedi covers about 3500 acres, has two valleys, and four sweet-water springs. It has nine different walks varying in degrees of difficulty from 1 to 4 taking from 30 minutes to 9 hours and was declared a reserve in 1971.

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I’m not one for walking – unless there’s a good reason for it. And yet I found myself striding forth with an energy I’ve not felt in a long time. And uphill, too! It seemed as if something new lay around every corner. Waterfalls, springs, trees and shrubs I wasn’t familiar with, animals of all sorts, and don’t even start me on the tourists.

When the crowd stopped there was usually an animal to look at. Sometimes a goat, sometimes an ibex and sometimes a rock hyrax. There are even leopards and hyena but they tend to come out at night when the interlopers have gone home.

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Perhaps the heat was getting to me  (a balmy 27 degrees C) but I started to see shapes in rocks and trees, even in the pools of water (until I realised that it was my reflection). At one stage I quite fancied that I found the desert’s answer to Dobogókő although no one else seemed as impressed with it as I was.

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The Jewish town of En Gedi was a source of balsam for the Greeks and Romans until it was destroyed as part of Byzantium’s persecution of the Jews. Today, the Ahava factory which uses salt and mud from the Dead Sea to make beauty creams and such is alive and well and depriving tourists of their dollars by the minute. Pretty much all that’s left of the good times is the old synagogue – and even then we’re talking foundations rather than roofs and walls. Mind you, it has a fantastic mosaic floor dating back to the fourth century. There’s also a Judeo-Aramaic inscription warning inhabitants against revealing the town’s secret – which could well allude to the secret ingredients of the dead sea lotions and potions.

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Just up the road, there’s the Ein Gedi kibbutz (this has an ‘i’…am sure). And hear that crash? Yes – another illusion shattered. I saw separate family homes – not dormitories. And I didn’t see any headband-wearing hippies. And it’s a hotel, too. Founded in 1953, it’s been cultivated as a botanical garden and the grounds are really lovely. The reviews online for the hotel though range from terrible to fabulous… so I wonder what exactly it depends on.

The concept of a kibbutz was birthed in Israel in the early 1900s by Russian disapora who seemed to have been out of sorts with the world. The Communists were too anarchical, the Jews too religious. Based on communal living where the children belonged to all, these communities espoused the mantra ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. From what I can gather it’s a form of socialism that is run by a collective democracy. The first generation of Kibbutz kids departed the familial folds and headed to the big cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Country living wasn’t for them. So the 1930s and 1940s were quiet enough on the Kibbutz front. Yet  in the 1950s and 1960s they were back in fashion and today 2.5% of the population (about 130,000) live in some 240 or so kibbutzim around the country.

Sounds grand in theory yet that whole free love thing is pretty difficult for me to get my head around. Not to mention living in a communities of a few hundred people. Bang goes anonymity. But as they say, a kibbutz is a home for those who choose it.


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