Masada - Herod's Winter Home.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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a good reason why back in 2001 UNESCO selected Masada as the first
historic venue in Israel to be bestowed with its coveted World Heritage
Site status - the national park is simply a must visit for first-time
visitors to the Holy Land. But with the recent opening of new amenities
and a spectacular museum, Masada has also become one of Israel's premier
tourist attractions for repeat visitors.
While an underground
parking lot, spotless bathrooms, elevators, souvenir stores and a modern
food hall including McDonald's are nice upgrades for mass tourism, the
true new draw is the interactive museum. Dedicated to the memory of
Prof. Yigal Yadin who excavated the Second Temple Era site from 1963 to
1965, the museum houses more than 700 artifacts excavated at the
2,000-year-old Judean Desert palace and fortress by the Dead Sea. Among
them are a piece of tallit (prayer shawl), and Roman arrowheads - some
with their wooden shafts still attached.
To view the 12 ostraca -
shards of pottery each bearing a single Hebrew name, which may have
been used as the death lots in the final moments of the Jewish rebels'
last act of defiance against the Roman army - is to feel a shiver of
recognition at the enormity of Jewish history.
designed by Eliav Nahlieli, uses a series of nine three-dimensional
tableaux to suggest the settings where the artifacts on display would
have been used. Visitors, equipped with audio headsets (in either Hebrew
or English), pass from one gallery to the next, viewing black,
life-size statue-like figures engaged in activity. Thus one passes from a
Herodian banquet to the synagogue frequented by the 950 Jewish rebels
during their years of refuge atop the mountain - from when the Temple in
Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. until the community's mass suicide
three years later on the eve of General Flavius Silva's final assault by
his 9,000 legionnaires and their slaves.
The last room suggests
the difficult field conditions for Yadin and his international army of
volunteers as they painstakingly excavated the remote mountain - and
forged a national myth with its leitmotif "Masada shall not fall again."
with a $1-million donation by Shuki Levy, a Tel Aviv-born music
composer now living in Los Angeles, the new museum is part of a broader
restoration program of the UNESCO World Heritage Site initiated by
Israel's Nature and Parks Authority, including upgrading the cable car
to the top of mountain, which towers more than 400 meters above the Dead
While there is a wealth of material artifacts discovered at
the site and the eight Roman army camps which ring in (the world's best
preserved Roman siege works), including frescoes, mosaics and
Legionnaire's uniforms, there is only a single literary source about
Masada - The Jewish War, a Greek-language history written by Josephus
Flavius, a Jewish general turned renegade who ended up living out his
days in Rome at the villa of Vespasian.
Historians are divided on
the reliability of Josephus' text. Did the mass suicide he describes
actually occur, or was it a literary invention? No bones were found to
substantiate the legend. But in a sense the question of mass suicide is
secondary. Here at Masada one viscerally sees how Jewish sovereignty
ended and two millennia of exile began.
* * *
feel of Masada changes according to the time of day and the seasons.
While summer temperatures can soar past 35 degrees Celsius in the shade -
hence the cable car that connects the visitors center to the mountain
plateau - summer visitors will be rewarded for ascending the Snake Path
in the pre-dawn darkness to watch the spectacular sunrise over the
mountains of Moab in Jordan. Try to finish your tour before 10 a.m. and
descend by the cable car when the heat becomes unbearable.
you have the luxury of visiting between November and April, the weather
at Masada can be balmy. Regardless of the season, hikers must bring a
1.5 liter bottle of water and a hat. While no food is allowed on top of
the mountain, refrigerated water is dispensed free at several spots.
Make sure to top up!
Less challenging than the Snake Path is the
Roman Ramp on the west side of the site. This can only be accessed from
Rte. 3199 via Arad. The road dead ends at Masada and does not connect to
Opera afficianados won't want to miss the Carmen Opera
Festival under the baton of Daniel Oren being held on the plain facing
the desert palace. Three performances are slated June 7-11 while the hit
fusion pop band The Idan Raichel Project is performing June 8.
2010, 42,617 people saw Verdi's Nabucco at Masada's first opera
festival. That number grew to 45,600 fans who took in Aida last year.
This year's spectacle promises to be even bigger. See www.carmen-at-masada.comIf you go:
The easiest way to
reach Masada is the daily tour from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and
this tour is offered daily and can be booked online on Travelujah.com
The tour includes a visit to the Dead Sea as well.
travelers can reach Masada by Egged bus from both cities. The earliest
bus departs Jerusalem at 7 a.m., meaning that in the summer months it
will already be too hot to climb the Snake Path by the time the bus
bulls in at 8:45 a.m.
An alternative suggestion for independent
travelers is to stay overnight at the Masada Guest House. (These very
comfortable lodges are no longer called youth hostels though they can
get noisy with boisterous teens.) See www.iyha.org.il/eng
choice is Kfar ha-Nokdim - an ersatz Bedouin encampment where one can
ride camels, join a drum circle and sleep under the desert stars in the
Another recommendation is to hire a private guide with
an air-conditioned car. This will enable you to pack in a full day's
itinerary of places few tourists visit such as the Inn of the Good
Samaritan site to see the new Good Samaritan Museum on Rte. 1 leading to
the Dead Sea, and the Mount of Temptations near the Jordan River. Time
permitting you can splash in the waterfalls of the Ein Gedi oasis, float
in the Dead Sea and finish the day eating scrumptious lamb chops at a
grill restaurant in Jericho.Gil Zohar writes for Travelujah-Holy
Land Tours, the leading Christian travel network focused on Holy Land
tours. He is a licensed tour guide and journalist. He may be reached at