Masada is puzzling. Built by Herod the Great more than 2000 years ago, the fortress, or what’s left of it, is perched on a mountain plateau 1400 feet high. Summertime temperatures on the summit daily reach into the 100s, vegetation is non-existent, and the nearby Dead Sea has salinity levels that make it toxic to life. And yet in its heyday the ancient Jewish fortress came complete with sumptuous palaces, a bathhouse, storehouses, living quarters for officials, even a cistern to collect and supply water year round. Masada later served as the base for a three-year resistance by Jewish rebels following a failed revolt against Roman occupiers in the first century CE. The resistance ended in defeat and the mass suicide of roughly a thousand Jewish rebels and their families. The rebels razed the fortress before committing suicide, leaving the food stores intact reputedly to show the Romans that starvation was not a factor in the decision to end their lives. The message – you can outnumber and outgun us, but you can’t outsmart us.
The only written record of Masada comes from the writings of Josephus Flavius, a governor of Galilee and historian who was alive at the time of the Jewish rebellion in 66 CE and wrote about the uprising and the origins of the Masada fortress in his book The Jewish War. A small monastic settlement was erected on the plateau during the Byzantine era but since that time the site had remained virtually untouched until it was rediscovered in the 1800s. Serious archaeological work began in the 1950s and 1960s and Masada was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Unlike 1st century Jews who had to traverse a desert then climb a narrow, winding path to get to the summit, visitors to Masada today can join any number of air conditioned bus tours that set off daily from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to what is now a national park. From Jerusalem the two hour ride takes you across the rolling hills of East Jerusalem and down into the Jordan Rift Valley, more then 1400 feet below sea level. It then follows a scenic route beside the Dead Sea before arriving at the Visitor Center at the foot of the mountain. There a gondola whisks you up to the top where you can continue on with a guided tour or walk around the site on your own.
My journey officially started at the Hebrew University in East Jerusalem where the bus tour I was with traded passengers with another tour then headed east and down. Our route would take us into the West Bank, skirting the ancient city of Jericho as we descended to the shores of the Dead Sea. At one point on our descent we pulled off the highway to take a look at sign that informed us we were at sea level. Our guide Ethan Katz warned us as we exited the highway that there was a lady with a camel at the site who was “not interesting” and that we should not waste time or money having our picture taken with the camel. When we arrived half our group high-tailed over the camel to do just that. Ethan was not pleased.
When we reached the Dead Sea our bus headed south, passing Dead Sea resorts, Jewish kibbutzim and the ancient town of Qumran. Qumran got on the map fifty years ago after a Bedouin shepherd stumbled across some ancient scrolls in caves near the town. Over the course of several years, researchers working with the local Bedouin tribe discovered scrolls in twelve caves. Some of these were Old Testament manuscripts (Isaiah, Psalms, Deuteronomy etc.) and have become among the oldest known biblical texts in existence.
An hour or so later, we were at the Masada Visitors Center at the base of the plateau. While it’s still possible to hike up paths to the top it’s probably not advisable in early July. The gondola runs regularly and takes you to the top in minutes.
The forecast for Masada was 104 F and I’m betting it was that and more when we reached the plateau. Our guide Ethan, who was at least 80 years old, didn’t seemed to mind but recognized that this might be a problem for some. He advised that we all bring plenty of water to the top and seek out shade whenever possible. That wasn’t easy with the sun directly overhead and many of the remains just roofless walls and columns.
With temperatures what they were Ethan limited our tour to Masada’s more developed northern and western sections, sites of King Herod’s residential palace, storehouses, administrative buildings, a bathhouse, and synagogue. According to UNESCO, the palace is an “outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the Early Roman Empire” while the camps and other fortifications that encircle the monument “constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day.” One of the more innovative features of the Masada fortress were cisterns that collected rainwater from nearby mountains during the winter months and was used throughout the year.
While two thousand years has clearly taken its toll on what was a surprisingly opulent arrangement, one thing that has not changed is the view.
When the Jews rose up against their Romans occupiers in 66 CE they took over the Masada garrison from Roman soldiers stationed there. The rebels were later joined by Jewish zealots who had fled Jerusalem after the fall of the city and destruction of the second temple. The Jews of Masada stood their ground for three years but eventually succumbed after the Roman Army constructed a rampart that they used to haul up a battering ram and break through the fortress walls. According to Josephus Flavius, the besieged Jews committed mass suicide before the Romans breached the walls, choosing to die rather than be enslaved. Remnants of the rampart remain and can be see from Masada’s western side.
After about an hour on the plateau and with most of our group if not overcooked, close to well done, we returned to the gondola and back to the Visitors Center. The Jews of Masada lasted three years; we lasted less than three hours. Not wanting us to go hungry, before leaving, the Visitors Center served us up a sumptuous buffet of baked fish, chicken, fruits, hummus, and felafels, to name just a few of the of treats waiting for anyone willing to stand in line with a tray. This was after directing us through the gift shop, where an assortment of luxury cosmetics, salt soaps, and mineral mud masks, all derived from the Dead Sea and able, was available for purchase. King Herod would be proud. We returned home safely in the cool comfort of our air conditioned tour bus.