Jerusalem, Dead Sea and Security

(25th August 2003)

Dear friends,

my second weekend in Israel I have spent travelling to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Together with the other trainees, I rented a car to travel around and be flexible as well as feel better than travelling with public transportation. The security situation is very difficult to assess even when being here and we are all very cautious. But when you walk around in Tel Aviv, the only thing you see are security guards in front of all larger shops like supermarkets, banks, shopping malls as well as in the entrace of the student dormitory I'm staying in. The university campus is only accessible by passing guards who are checking all bags and people. Once one get used to this procedure, everything else is not much different than in other big cities around the Mediterranean. It is very warm and humid, there are many palm trees, a lot of cats living in the streets and beautiful, well watered gardens as well as dry, sandy areas that look not so nice.

So the main point is that one does not really feel like being under constant threat of terror attacks. And of course that's how it is. Although there are attacks every now and then, most of the time it is perfectly safe and my Israeli friends assured me that the rate of "normal" crime is very low. So I feel very comfortable when walking through the streets even at night.

One thing though reminds me of the tension around here: there are quite many soldiers in the streets wearing uniform and carrying their gun with them. Unlike in Germany, every soldier is obliged to take his gun with him when going home for a day off. Being not used to this, it looks rather scary and does not really give me a better feeling.

This rather positive impression changes a little when going to Jerusalem. We spent friday in the old town and started by an alternative walking tour with an African Arab who has a past in the PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine). We stayed in a hostel in the old town and saw a clip from the Jerusalem Post where he was portrayed. So we knew who he was when he approached us on the street where we were looking for someone to give us an introduction to the city. He took us around and gave us an insight of the Palestinian view of the Jerusalem and Israel question. It was very interesting for us to talk to someone who has been involved in violence, spent 17 years in prison and during that time changed his attitude and now works to foster understanding instead of violence. Although we didn't agree with all of his views, it was a very good experience which helps us to gain a better understanding of the problems between Israelis and Palestinians. Why does Sharon need an apartment in the Arab quarter which he never uses but nevertheless decorates with a big Israeli flag and a menora on the roof, for example ? Or why does the Arab quarter look rather dirty while the streets in the Jewish quarter are very tidy, although both are paying the same taxes ?

The trip gave us a lot to thing about and the rest of the afternoon we spend walking up the Mount of Olives and admiring the view of the Temple Mountain with the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock and the whole old city. The evening and night we spent on the roof of our hostel, first talking with the other IAESTE trainees who had come from Beer-Sheva in the south and Haifa in the north to Jerusalem, later sleeping under the stars.

Next morning, we had a late start because some of us wanted to try to gain access to the Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately, this day it was closed for all visitors even though it had been possible the day before to visit it. We drove from Jerusalem through the mountains to the Dead Sea making our way from +800m above sea level to -400m below sea level. On the way, we saw some Arab settlements and Beduin barracks along the road which were in very bad shape; especially compared to the nice Jewish settlements we also saw.

Our first stop at the Dead Sea was the oasis of En Gedi with the Wadi David waterfalls. Coming from a spring in a canyon, the water forms a number of nice waterfalls before being collected for further use by the nearby kibbutz. After having driven through miles of only rocks and sand, this canyon was really amazing with a lot of birds, ibex (German: some kind of Steinbock) climbing the rocks and lots of vegetation. It is really amazing what you can find as soon as there is a natural source of water.

Then we continued to the former mountain fortress Masada. Lying 350m above the Dead Sea on a plateau separated from the rest of the mountains by an approximately 80m deep saddle, this fortification had been existed for some time before being upgraded and extended by King Herod about 2000 years ago. He buildt large store rooms and fortifications as well as everything else connected to Roman civilization like public bathing houses and administrational buildings. The water was taken from a number of cisterns holding up to 40000 cubic metre or 1.4 million cubic feet of water that was collected during the rain falls in winter and spring. Probably because of the desert climate, a lot of these buildings are in very good shape considering their age of nearly 2000 years. It was very impressing to sea this huge fortification and imagine that it had to be buildt by hand under the desert sun.

The fortification was in the hands of Jewish rebels around the year 73 AD when it was attacked by the Roman army as the last stronghold. But because of the large storerooms and the cisterns, the Roman try to starve the rebels was not successfull. So they build a big ramp to be able to gain access to the wall for their warfare machines and weapons. Finally they fired burning piles and the rebels realized that there end was near. But instead of surrendering, they decided to die as free men, women and children. All about 950 rebels committed suicide in the night before the Romans would attack the wall. Before the rebels had burnt everything but the storerooms full of food to show that they were not suffering from hunger. This event is very important for the Jewish history and up to now serves as an ideal of people who did not surrender even though the enemy was much stronger.

When we were back down at the car we drove to En Boqek to float in the Dead Sea. It was a very strange feeling to float around in a saturated solution of salt. The sea ground was covered by salt cristalls and swimming was not possible because buoyancy (German: Auftrieb) was to strong. Another interesting observation was that the layering of the water was inverted. The uppermost layer was considerably colder than the rest and the temperature seemed to increase with depth. From the physical point of view, this is logical: the warmer the water is, the higher is the solubility of the salt leading to a higher specific density which in turns lets the water sink to the ground. Whether the so-called "cold skin" effect also is important I would have to ask experts on this field. This effect leads to a strong temperature gradient in the uppermost few millimeters and depends strongly on the heat diffusion in the water which might be influenced by the high salt content. Finally we showered with fresh water and drove back to Tel Aviv where we arrived around 9pm.

Today, I went back to work at the university and could finish the first little topic the professor had asked me to do for him some days ago. It involved creating some plots of a special function where the main difficulty was to find the right scaling for the different dimensions and to apply it correctly. The other project about the mirror design proceeds rather slowly because it is difficult to collect all the information about the instrument and the different parts. One of the Ph.D. students helps me with it and I hope to be able to start with the calculations very soon to have time to do a thorough investigation and come up with an improvement during my stay. The third topic is a presentation I was asked to give about the use of lasers in atmospheric physics. This is a home-play which does not require much work but some preparations to have nice slides for the presentation. But I already have a number of them and will ask my colleagues at the IAP to send me some more when needed.

These are all my news at the moment. I'm still exploring the country and collecting many new impressions every day...

Best regards to all of you from Tel Aviv !