I am floating like a cork on the salty Dead Sea, 1,400 feet below sea level, thinking about mud and history.
Earlier, at the spa in the Hotel Dan, I was slathered in mineral-rich ooze said to be a remedy for arthritis, skin ailments and even wrinkles. Not the usual pampering of a spa, but rather a return to something primeval.
Now, in the hazy distance across the pale blue/green sea, I can see the shores of Jordan; above is the mysterious stony desert, with its whispers of history. Nearby are the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls lay curled in jars for 2,000 years, preserved by the dry desert air I breathe today.
Could this place have looked much different two millennia ago? Around the hilltop caves there is no Dead Sea souvenir shop, no falafel stand. There is an archeological site with a visitors centre where a pottery-making compound was found dating to 1200 BC. But, according to a 10-year Israeli excavation, the authors of the scrolls were not the inhabitants of this site but refugees who hid the documents haphazardly in various caves as they were fleeing the Romans.
As for the caves themselves, with their aperture-like slits, getting to them in this rocky landscape would be daunting. It took a young Bedouin goat herder, who in l947 idly threw a stone into a cave and heard it hit a vase, to open the way to what has been called the most important archeological discovery of the 20th century.
The scrolls are the earliest version of the Hebrew Bible ever found. Written on papyrus and parchment and even on copper, these 900 documents, many pieced together from scraps, date from the third century BC to the first century AD, which makes them more than 1,000 years older than any previously known copies of the Hebrew Bible.
There are also non-biblical scrolls - commentaries and descriptions of daily rituals. The War Scroll and others predict a good-versus-evil struggle that sounds a lot like the beliefs of today's End of Days Christian fundamentalists.
"What kind of thinking was in the air - why did these powerful themes of the apocalypse and the messiah come forward," muses Toronto archeologist Dan Rahimi, vice-president of gallery development for the Royal Ontario Museum. The answer is not clear, and the scrolls are still being studied.
The desert, of course, is where the three monotheistic religions were born. I explore this sun-baked terrain by riding in a rattling Jeep from Hotel Dan to the top of the monochromatic landscape. Standing on top of a tan-coloured hill, long-haired Gil Shkedi, who runs Desert Tours (shkedig.com), points out a glittering substance veined in some of the rocks. Salt, he says. It was one of the most valuable commodities of ancient times, and the Dead Sea was a trade route.
Looking down from the hills, it's easy to imagine this area as a hideaway and a fortress. It's not far from the most famous fortress in Israel, Masada, where Jewish Zealots resisted the Romans from 66 to 73 AD, choosing to kill each other rather than surrender.
The area was first excavated in 1963, and the work has continued. Today, instead of walking up the snake path, as it's called, visitors can take a cable car. Many of the rooms in what was originally a Roman site, complete with palaces and baths, have been uncovered and offer tantalizing hints of their past. For those who want things rendered visually, there is a museum at the entrance, opened in 2007, with dioramas and dark sculptures of Romans and Jews engaged in daily life.
"I don't go to the museum, and neither do my colleagues," remarked Dan Bahat, one of the archeologists on that first dig and an associate professor during the winter session at the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College. "So much is revealed in the site itself."
Bahat points to links between Masada and Qumran, explaining that there were fragments of scrolls at Masada, and that lids were found that matched the jars that held the scrolls: not surprising, since communities along the west coast of the Dead Sea were connected through the Dead Sea trade route.
Who exactly were the people who wrote the scrolls? The consensus among scholars is that they belonged to a breakaway ascetic sect called the Essenes. That was until last month, when Hebrew University Professor Rachel Elior published a book (in Hebrew) insisting that they were most certainly another sect, namely the Zadoks, a priestly group deposed from the Temple. For one thing, she said, the Essenes are not mentioned in any of the scrolls, but the Zadoks are, repeatedly.
For non-scholars, this doesn't change much - the scrolls are still authentic documents. But in the competitive, trash-talking world of scroll scholarship, Elior's theories are a big deal. "It's shocking the scientific world," said Bahat, who formerly taught at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.
Elior theorizes that the scrolls originated in the library of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and were removed by the deposed priests (they could have walked from Jerusalem to Qumran in less than a day).
True or not, the Old City of Jerusalem is the natural starting place of the trail of the Dead Sea scrolls. Conquered by everyone from the Babylonians to the Romans, the Muslims to the Crusaders, Jerusalem's Old City remains a hilly, multilevel profusion of monuments to the three monotheistic religions; it is all the more awe-inspiring for being real, not a sanitized archeological theme park. On the highest level is the Al Aqsa Mosque and the gleaming gold Dome of the Rock, which dominates the landscape. For Muslims, this is the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. For Jews, this is the place where the two Temples once stood.
Below is the Western Wall. And alongside it are tunnels opened by Bahat, who has been working on the project since 1982 and used to be district archeologist for Jerusalem. On this journey through what were originally streets are finely carved stone walls and columns dating from the rule of Herod the Great, once King of Judea. An aqueduct dates to the second century BC, and Arab Mamluk arches from the 14th century AD.
The tunnels exit at the Via Dolorosa, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the place where Jesus was buried. Each religion is etched in these honey-hued stones, the city's universal colour. If they could speak, they might say that Jerusalem belongs to the ages, to those who revere it, to no one group.
I recalled something Bahat had said: Jerusalem is a golden triangle - remove one religion and it's no longer Jerusalem.
It was a lot to take in, so I passed by the stalls selling menorahs and reproductions of Byzantine icons and walked downhill to the 21st century, and into the bustling shopping area of Ben Yehuda Street on a search for silver earrings.
Around the corner, at 19 King George St., I came upon Falafel Maoz. There, I ordered a pita stuffed with fresh falafel and an assortment of toppings - eggplant, pickled carrots, tomatoes - and variety of hot sauces: a high-quality version of Jerusalem's universal food.
At the end of my journey, I visited the scrolls themselves. They're housed on a rotating basis in their own circular space, called the Shrine of the Book, adjacent to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem. The low, dimly lit structure is topped by a dome that is supposed to resemble the top of a jar, but looks a lot like a flying saucer. The futuristic touch is a good fit with the treasures under glass, which come from the ancient past but have yet to yield all their secrets.
If you go
Air Canada and El Al run direct flights from Toronto to Tel Aviv.
Where to stay
Hotel Daniel, Dead Sea This four-star hotel is across the street from the Dead Sea and has a spacious spa with mud treatments, a Turkish steam room and several different pools, one with Dead Sea water, the other with a Jacuzzi. Ein Bokek, 08-6689999. www.tamareshotels.co
Shkedi's Camp Lodge and Desert Tours Jeep tours in and around the Dead Sea and the Negev by day, and tents with mattresses, cushions and a fireplace to ward off the winter chill by night. Washrooms and hot showers are outside the tents. www.shkedig.com.
The David Citadel Hotel Jerusalem's most opulent hotel, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, overlooks the ancient walls of the Old City and is a few minutes walk from Jaffa Gate. Not to miss: the extravagant buffet breakfasts with eggs, cheeses, smoked fish, a cornucopia of fresh salads, breads and pastries. 7 King David St., Jerusalem; 972 2 621 1111; www.TheDavidCitadel.com.
Where to eat
American Colony Hotel Cellar Bar This former pasha's palace is a boutique hotel with an East-meets-West feel; the famous bar draws the desperados of the foreign press. 1 Louis Vincent St., Jerusalem. 972 2 627 9777; www.americancolony.com.
The Olive and Fish Restaurant The decor is low-key elegant, and the menu emphasizes fresh fish and vegetables. Start with the small plates of artichoke salad, sweet potato and chili, fried cauliflower, white beans and eggplant with tahini. Aside from fish, there is chicken and meat. The wine list is impressive. 2 Jabotinski St., 02 566 5020; www.2eat.co.il/eng/oliveandfish
Maoz Falafel Not all falafel in Israel is good, but this takeout place with a few tables outdoors is outstanding. The falafel balls are fresh, and so are the free add-ons: pickled carrots and beets, peppers, eggplant, onions, tomatoes; red and green sauces come in various strengths. To wash it down, buy a fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice from the juice bar around the corner on Ben Yehuda Street. 19 King George St., Jerusalem; 02 625 7706.
The scrolls at the ROM
Can't make it to the Qumran caves? Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World opens at the Royal Ontario Museum next Saturday. Over six months, 17 scrolls will be rotated into exhibition.
This presentation - of what has been called the most important archeological discovery of the 20th century - includes not only the scrolls but artifacts found in the caves, a series of debates with noted authors Camille Paglia, Christopher Hitchens and A.J. Jacobs, and lectures by renowned scholars including:
Yuval Peleg, an archeologist set to publish findings on the pottery making site at Qumran (July 2);
Dan Bahat, former district archeologist for Jerusalem (July 23);
Emanuel Tov, editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project and Bible professor at Hebrew University (Nov. 15);
Walid Saleh, an associate professor of religion at the University of Toronto (Dec. 10).
For younger visitors, the ROM is planning hands-on digs and other activities to be offered on specially themed weekends throughout the summer.
To purchase tickets and for more information, visit www.rom.on.ca/scrolls.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Herod the Great. This version has been corrected.