|The Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites in Judaism and Islam; it’s also one of the most contested religious sites in the world.|
Ahead and to the left, the startling deep, blue Dead Sea waters emerge from the light haze, in jarring contrast to the desolate, brown world of the Judean Desert, over which our airplane has been cruising for the last 15 minutes. I’m flying over Israel, one of the world’s most historic regions. I’m overwhelmed as I try to process the country’s small size and absorb the rapidly changing landscape. With me is my host, physicist Emanuel Binnun, owner of the immaculate Cessna 182RG that transported me from Herzliya Airport, just north of Tel Aviv. The aircraft complied with the published noise-abatement departure procedure at the airport and climbed out in the prescribed stylized circle over the Mediterranean. We had set course to the southeast, first over city sprawl, then above the greens of farmland shoehorned into every available flat space.
Quickly (for someone used to the large distances between U.S. cities), we’re over Jerusalem, and ATC approves circles over the city, so long as we don’t venture below 9,000 feet MSL into a prohibited area. I open the side window and shoot pictures of the compact and long-fought-over old city, the Temple Mount and the golden Dome of the Rock. Rolling out to continue southeast, we see the land change to desert on the east edge of Jerusalem—as if a line had been drawn—and all trace of vegetation abruptly vanishes.
Approaching our first destination, the Cessna’s nose tips down as ATC clears the descent. Every flight over Israel—VFR or IFR—involves clearances and controllers. In a country surrounded by heavily armed neighbors, it’s no surprise that all airspace belongs to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), and security is a constant fact of life. Getting past the motion-sensing security fence that encloses Herzliya Airport necessitated a lengthy interrogation by one guard while another watched me with an Uzi. I couldn’t help but wonder how flight schools go about attracting prospective students.
Descending with our speed nudging the yellow arc, we parallel the rugged bluffs and canyons that jut skyward just west of the Dead Sea’s shoreline. Our destination is the reopened airstrip near Masada, the ancient mountain fortress where 2,000 Jewish rebels denied victory to hardened Roman legions five times their number.
Despite knowing that the runway ahead is the lowest on earth (more than 1,300 feet below sea level), it’s still disconcerting to watch the altimeter blast through zero while descending at 700 fpm.
After landing on the windswept runway, Binnun introduces me to Ali, a Bedouin responsible for reopening the airport who provides aerial sightseeing tours over Masada. Ali has erected a tent of the sort found in the desert with comfortable low couches and western-style tables and chairs. I learn that while Americans fly out for a $100 hamburger, in Israel, the destination lunch of choice is hummus, some delicious cheese and a collection of fresh vegetables and sweet tea or Turkish coffee. If we wish to stay, there’s ground transportation available—our choice of car or camel.
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