The Story of Masada

Residing 1,300 feet (400 m) high on a gigantic rock overlooking the Dead Sea, the remains of the desert fortress known as Masada tells a story of tragedy, pride and perseverance that makes it one of the most sought pilgrimages of the Jewish people. Anybody with an interest archeology or Jewish culture should plan to make a visit; however without a working knowledge of its history, the trip to this beautiful and unique, yet slightly disturbing site is practically meaningless.

Snake Path

Snake Path

A Story of Tragedy

After the Romans destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple around 70 CE, the remaining expelled Jewish population fled to the nearby stronghold of Masada located in the Judean desert, where they settled for 3 years. In 72, inhabitants of Masada could see the Romans marching towards them as they began their siege of the settlement. Lasting several months, the on looking population laid witness to the day to day development of at least 8 camps, construction on a siege wall, towers, and the assault ramp that would lead to the Romans conquering of the settlement.

According to the one recorded account of the city’s final moments, rebel commander Elazar ben Ya’ir delivered a speech to the remaining 960 inhabitants that the Jews should rather be dead than slaves to the Romans, and with that, the men killed their wives and children, and then themselves, leaving a virtual mass grave for the arriving Romans.

A Story of Pride

Today Israeli soldiers carrying torches proudly climb the Snake Path from ground level leading to the former settlement at the end of their military training and take an oath exclaiming “Masada shall not fall again.” It is a testament to both the endurance and pride of their people.

If you are planning on hiking up the famed Snake Path, it is recommended that you do so before sunrise as to not face exhaustion from the beating sun (that can reach 100 degrees before 8:00am). On the bright side to getting up so very early, Masada is also known to have one of the most majestic sunrises in the world. Another option for those who are not early-risers, you may take a cable car that runs to and from its grounds regularly throughout the day. Regardless of how you decide to get to up to Masada, it is recommended that you bring tons of water along.

A Story of Perseverance

The remains of the city after its excavation 1965 show original and insightful remnants of the old fortress, and unveils how its inhabitants were able to survive in its seemingly fruitless desert location for so long, from water cisterns and channels that collected water from the nearby bodies for freshwater called wadis, to the intricate workings of existing Roman style thermal baths, where perforated clay pipes helped to drive hot air.

Ruins of the thermal baths

Ruins of the thermal baths

Although much of Masada is restored, developers were careful to outline and preserve the remains of the old fortress, making it easy for visitors to tell what is original and what has been restored. You can visit remains of Herod’s Palace (who first built the stone-top fortress), the Northern Palace, as well as see where they held supplies in storehouses and synagogues. There is also a Byzantine church that is dated to have been constructed 1,500 years ago.

In a moment that will put you back in the 2nd century, you will discover along the west side of Masada that the ramp built by the Romans to infiltrate the city is perfectly still in existence.
While you are scheduling your trip to Masada, make sure you leave enough time to see some of the other major attractions that reside nearby. Very close to proximity is the Dead Sea, which is comprised of so much salt that swimming it makes you feel like a human buoy. Mud left aside by the sea is also said to be very medicinal, so many people cover themselves in it before wincing off. If you’re still feeling limber, make sure to also visit the stunning oasis Ein Gedi, also nearby and located just west of the Dead Sea. Ein Gedi provides a gorgeous hike that known for its breathtaking springs, caves, and fauna.

Philip Heijmans

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Israel tours & things to do, especially the Masada Day Trip from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.