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Best of Israel The Israeli Experience Magazine

Masada – the mountain and the myth

There are only a few sites which raise one’s curiosity and excite the imagination as Masada does. Masada, a World Heritage Site, offers a comprehensive experience of history, wild desert landscape and an abundance of views from the past
by: Israel Traveler   |   18.01.2012
In Israel everyone remembers the first time in which they climbed Masada. It does not matter if it happened in the 1970s, a few years ago or if it will take place in the near future. And it also does not matter if the visit to the mountain entailed a challenging climb up the winding "Snake Path” during sunrise or a relaxed ride in the cable car on a clear cool winter’s noon, in the clean air and the desert views which cleanse the mind. Because one does not forget Masada. And why is that? Because Masada is not only a high mountain with a flat top and impressive historic remains, but also one of the most important symbols in the Israeli culture and history. Just like that, no clichés and no unnecessary slogans.
But before we arrive at the desert atmosphere, the breathtaking views and the beautiful hints from the pasts - let us refresh a little our memory regarding this site, which was also declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site. The Mountain of Masada these days stands quietly and peacefully on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, high up above the Dead Sea. But do not let this peacefulness deceive you, because this mountain knew exciting days. Here is a summary of the great drama: Masada caught the eye of Herod the Great (74 BCE – 4 BCE), the controversial King of Judea. He decided to take advantage of the flat mountain top and build on it a complex of pleasures and entertainment, but also a fortified refuge for hard days. Herod, also called "the Builder”, embarked on a complex and astonishing engineering feat. The result was: a well-equipped and indulgent royal fortress which served as a palace and a stronghold. A dual purpose, just as Herod liked. One of the highlights of this place is a water conducting and accumulation system which Herod has created here in these harsh desert conditions. And it is of course not just drinking water that we are talking about here, but also water for more pleasurable purposes, such as a swimming pool, a bath house according to the best Roman tradition and beautiful gardens in the height of 400 meters above the lowest place on earth.
But nothing lasts forever. In 66 CE, about 70 years after the death of King Herod, a group of Jewish people took the structures on the top of Mount Masada. These were the first days of the First Jewish–Roman War or the Great Revolt against the Roman rule in the country. The royal luxuries were turned into modest residences and public structures as well as religious sites such as mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) and synagogues. For them, Masada did not mean pleasure but a strategic and fortified place in the vast wilderness. After the Romans completed their destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the Tenth Roman Legion arrived here in full strength with the purpose of destroying this rebellious group. More than 8,000 well-equipped soldiers were posted in eight camps around the foot of the mountain. They had a massive battering ram and a great number of catapult throwing rocks. They also raised a huge sand rampart on the western side of the mountain.
As the siege became tighter the rebels, at the head of who stood Eleazar ben Ya'ir, realized that the odds were against them and they decided that the right thing to do would be to commit suicide as free people rather than to surrender and become slaves. These were not only a few rebels but 960 men, women and children. It is difficult even to imagine the sights of what took place on this mountain during this mass suicide. At the end ten men remained. They drew lots in order to determine who will be the one who will kill the remaining nine and then fall on his sword. Incidentally, despite the site being surveyed by archeologists already in the 19th century, it was only in 1963, when the archeological team that was headed by Professor Yigael Yadin arrived here, that the pieces of clay that probably served for the drawing of the lots of the last defenders of Masada were discovered.

The way up

It is possible to reach the top of Mount Masada in several ways. There is the cable car which will take you up comfortably within a few minutes and there is also the hiking option. It is also possible to combine the two. It is entirely up to you. But there is no doubt that the more exotic and special way is that of climbing on foot the "Snake Path” before sunrise and reaching the top of Masada just in time to see the first strong orange sun rays rising from the mountains in the east. This is a relatively long but convenient path and climbing it takes about 30 to 45 minutes. And there is also the steep and difficult (but shorter) rampart trail which takes less than half an hour to climb.
And then, when you reach the top, the climb is forgotten. Only the vast flat mountain top and the surrounding landscape remain. A marked trail and informative brochure which you will get at the entrance will guide you among the abundant finds, sites and silent remains.
The trail starts at the "Snake Path Gate”, to which you arrive after a walk on the beautiful cliff bridge. Here stood those who guarded the mountain and from here also entered the mules which brought food and supplies into King Herod’s complex. From here you arrive at some shades and next to them there is a relief map of the mountain. It is very much recommended to study this map and get orientated in regard to the road that awaits you. You will pass by an ancient quarry and an old stone structure which probably served the commander of the mountain. From here it is a short way to the northern complex which was considered a VIP area in King Herod’s time. Not everyone could enter here, only the most important people. Beyond the magnificent views of the Dead Sea and the Moav (Moab) Mountains in the east, you can find other eye candy here, such as colorful frescos that just ask to be photographed. They are that special. After you pass by the large storage complex you reach the highlight: the place in which the northern palace stood. This is an excellent example of King Herod’s engineering capabilities (or those of his professional builders, to be exact). The palace is carved on the mountain slope, hanging on stone steps above the abyss and seeming to be an inseparable part of the mountain. Today they call it an "ecological construction”. Once upon a time it was just the right and most beautiful method of construction.
It has bedrooms and halls, a semi-round balcony, decorated walls and an intimate bath house. Later on you will find a larger and more sophisticated bath hose. How strange it all must have seemed, bathing in this bath house, in such large quantities of hot water, here at the end of the world, with only wilderness around. It is hard even to imagine. In any event, for those of you who do find it hard to imagine, there is a model of the palace here, of the days in which it still looked like a palace. The way continues and leads you to additional sites, including the place in which the clay lots were discovered, a Mikveh and a synagogue from the time of the rebels, smaller palaces, dipping pools, observation points and many others.
From the top of Masada you can also see well the remains of the Roman fortifications and the walls which served in the siege – another silent testimony to the drama which took place here about 2000 years ago.

A total experience

Masada is not only a high mountaintop. It is a place which provides a total experience. One of the most intriguing surprises here is a magnificent museum which was inaugurated at the foot of the mountain in 2007. So, should you go to the museum before or after your visit to the mountain? It is up to you, your imagination and your curiosity. The museum includes a few small wings in which you can meet sculptured and theatrical figures from this place’s past. Naturally, there is an abundance of archeological finds here: everyday cooking and work tools, various inscriptions and even clothes that were found on site. And all of these are offered alongside informative explanations and a highly dramatic atmosphere. There is even a reconstructed feast scene from the time of King Herod here. The visit to the museum entails the renting of headphones which give explanations in six languages. And if you arrive at Masada on Tuesday or Thursday evenings (between March and October), you are invited to the western side of the National Park. Here, at the foot of the mountain, a historic audio-visual display takes place, which tells the story of Masada in a way which incorporates the special natural features of this place. In other words, then, like today, the mountain is the setting.
Beyond all of the finds, displays and presentations – there is no doubt that the Masada myth raised and still raises many issues. And throughout the years it has caused many arguments between different schools of cultural, historical and sociological researchers. But there is no doubt that beyond the beauty of this place, a visit to Masada will give you perspective. On what exactly? Everyone will find here their own answer.

Important information

Arrival and contact details: Mount Masada is accessible from road number 90, about 18 kilometers to the south of kibbutz Ein Gedi or about 12 kilometers from the direction of Ein Bokek. There is an entrance fee to the site. The site is open between 8 am and 5 pm (in the winter until 4 pm and on Fridays and Holiday Eves until 3 pm). Site’s telephone number: 972-8-6584207/8. Audio-visual display reservation center telephone number: 972-8-9959333.
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