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As iconic today as the Western Wall, Masada is a high point for students of Jewish history. King Herod had built a magnificent palace complex and fortress atop this nearly inaccessible desert mountain plateau around 30 b.c. Underground cisterns assured the fortress of a lavish water supply for the palace’s baths and gardens. Most impressive was Herod’s personal winter villa, the extraordinary hanging palace on the northern tip of Masada, calculated to catch breathtaking vistas of the Dead Sea as well as refreshing breezes from the north. He furnished the luxurious place with every comfort as well as storehouses of food and arms, protecting the almost inaccessible location with impregnable walls. The audaciousness of such an undertaking tells much about Herod’s personality. After Herod’s death in 4 b.c., a small Roman garrison occupied the mount. However, during the Jewish Revolt against Rome in a.d. 66, a small band of Jewish zealots attacked and overtook the almost unattended fortress. They brought their families, lived off the vast storehouses of food, and used the arsenal of arms to defend themselves. They even raided the surrounding countryside.

Finally, in a.d. 73, 3 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the First Jewish Revolt, the Romans decided to put an end to this last pocket of Jewish resistance. They built a siege ramp up to the mountaintop, using captured Jews as slave laborers, knowing the defenders of Masada could not bring themselves to attack or harm their enslaved countrymen. After an onslaught using siege engines, flaming torches, rock bombardments, and battering rams, Masada was still in Jewish hands. But with 10,000 Roman troops camped on the hillside and daily bombardments smashing at the walls, it became only a question of when the 900 defenders would succumb. Flaming torches thrown at the fort’s wall were whipped by a wind into the midst of the defenders, and the garrison’s gates caught fire. The Romans, seeing that Masada was practically defenseless, decided to wait until dawn and take it over in their own good time.

That final night, the 900 men, women, and children who inhabited Masada held a desperate meeting. Their leader, Eliezer Ben-Yair, in a dramatic speech (as reported by the historian Flavius Josephus who, of course, was not actually present), persuaded his followers to accept death bravely, on their own terms. In the darkness at Masada nearly 2,000 years ago, a great mass suicide occurred. Ten men were chosen as executioners. Members of families lay side by side and bared their throats. After all the families had been killed, 1 of the 10 executioners was chosen to kill the other nine; he then ran himself through on his own sword. Two women and five children survived, hiding in one of the caves on the plateau. The Romans, who had expected to fight their way in, were triply astonished at the eerie silence and the orderly groups of bodies where they had expected to encounter battle. Josephus recorded the “calm courage of [the defenders’] resolution . . . and utter contempt of death.” So ended the Jewish resistance against Rome. Like almost everything in Israel, the meaning of Masada has become a matter of controversy, with some contending that glorification of a political stand that resulted in mass suicide is not good for the national psyche.

The Visitor Center & Climbing the Ascent

Masada is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a new, air-conditioned, state-of-the-art visitor complex has been set up at the entrance to the park. You’ll find a very useful history video and a model of ancient Masada, a small snack bar, and a souvenir shop. It doesn’t fit in with the isolation and antiquity of Masada, but the cool air and the chance to stock up on bottled water will be most welcome. There’s also a small museum, The Yigael Yadin Masada Museum (admission NIS 20; daily 8am–4pm). Portable audio guides can be rented for the museum and Masada itself for NIS 20. Park admission includes a pamphlet with a map detailing the Masada site.

From the parking lot at the foot of Masada National Park you’ve got two choices—climb on foot or ride the cable car that carries you almost to the summit. If you climb, especially in the summer months, be sure to start (literally) at the crack of dawn, before the spectacular heat. On days when the heat is too great, park rangers ban climbing, so get to Masada before dawn if you are determined to make the climb.

Climbers have two choices: the route from The Dead Sea side, or the Roman siege ramp originally built in A.D. 73 on the side of the mountain facing in the direction of Arad (this Roman ramp path is only accessible by car from Arad). The route from The Dead Sea side requires from 30 minutes to an hour; it's called the Snake Path because of the steep, hairpin curves. The Snake Path opens approximately an hour before sunrise (so climbers can catch the sunrise) and closes at 3:30pm, and you must start down by then just to get to the bottom before dark. The same hours apply to the path up the other side. The mountainside path is called the Battery, after a battery the Romans built there. Getting to the top via that route takes only 15 to 30 minutes. Most visitors are happy to use the cable car to ascend and descend. 

Sunrise at Masada -- The vistas from the top of Masada are awe-inspiring any time of day, but if you've made the climb up to the top in the predawn, you'll get to watch the sun coming up over the mountains of Jordan and its reflections in the otherworldly, sometimes mist-covered surface of The Dead Sea. There are many places to see dramatic sunrises in Israel, but sunrise at Masada holds special meaning and mystery for those who make their way to the plateau during the night. It's impossible not to think of the inhabitants of Masada, who made their way here after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, perhaps convinced they were the last hope for the survival of Judaism and belief in one god. In a quiet part of the plateau, you can understand the loneliness and despair they must have endured when it became clear defeat was certain, and you can almost touch the ghostly silence of the final dawn they never let themselves live to see.

The Ruins of Masada -- Masada excavations have unearthed perhaps the most exciting ruins in the entire country in terms of physical drama and historical mystique. Yigael Yadin's beautifully photographed book, Masada, carefully recounts the archaeological expedition that uncovered the original palace, walls, houses, straw bags, plaits of hair, pottery shards, stone vessels, cosmetic items, cooking utensils, synagogue, and important scroll fragments. Among the most intriguing finds are the ways the palace was adapted for use as a stronghold for guerrilla fighters and their families. Evidence from this period includes ritual baths (mikvahs) built by the observant defenders, and the ostraca marked with Hebrew names that might have been the very lots cast by the defenders in their final moments as they decided who among them would be chosen to kill the others rather than die at the hands of the Romans. You can also see the ruins of the Roman siege encampments, which provide an amazingly preserved visual lesson in Roman military field strategy. A later Byzantine chapel with a mosaic floor was built on Masada, and there are signs of Byzantine-era habitation in the ruined buildings of the palace. The desolation of the place in later centuries is testified to by archaeologists' discovery of the remains of a few human bones chomped on by hyenas and other wild beasts.