Masada - A mountain of history

My mother positively blanched when I suggested we take a trip to Masada National Park. 'Don't forget I'm over 80,' she protested. 'How do you expect me to climb 93 steps?'

Well I had news for Mom: while people who wish to do so can still walk up, down and around the imposing site, today Masada is accessible to everyone. In fact, if you choose to travel both ways by cable car you don't have to mount a single stair: a sturdy bridge walkway leads from the spanking new cable cars all the way to the mountain.

Begin a super-easy Masada outing at the sand-colored Visitors' Center that hugs the slopes and merges with the landscape. Inaugurated in September 2000, it includes a model of Masada, a small but enchanting museum, and a thrilling audio-visual production.

Park in the lot, then take the elevator up to the site's new main entrance and examine the model. Note that Masada differs from other desert heights, for its almost-vertical four sides are crowned by a plateau that makes enemy access extraordinarily difficult. Along each side of the model are relevant passages from the writings of Josephus Flavius, the Jewish commander who defected to the Romans two millennia ago and wrote books about the Jewish-Roman wars.

After roaming the museum and viewing a stirring production, you ascend Masada in a roomy, glass-enclosed cable car. You then take the wooden bridge, with transparent sides that provide a magnificent view of the desert beneath your feet.

Jews first fortified Masada during the exhilarating years after the Maccabees drove the Greeks out of Israel and became masters in their own land. Indeed, coins discovered on the mountain date back to the days of Alexander Janneus (103-76 BCE), one of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) kings.

King Herod, who ruled Judea on behalf of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century BCE, was the next to build up the mountain. Justifiably paranoid, and a brutal ruler who reputedly ordered the death of innocent babies around the time of Jesus's birth, the king also built splendid cities, fortresses and villas. Most history books call him Herod the Great.

Herod put Masada to use soon after the Romans appointed him king. Jerusalem was attacked by the Parthians, and Herod fled to Petra, but only after sending the women and children in his family to Masada. He began massive construction on the mountain several years later, erecting two luxurious palaces, a swimming pool, several lavish bathhouses, and a giant water system that seemed to raise Masada out of the desert.


Well below the mountain are the remains of eight Roman military camps.

Following Herod's death, a Roman garrison remained to guard Masada. At the beginning of the Great Revolt (67-73 CE), in which the Jews of Israel rose up against the Roman yoke, a band of daring rebels overcame the mountain's guards and captured Masada. They were known as the Sicarii because of the dagger, called a sica, which each one carried.

After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, hundreds of Jews joined the Sicarii on the mountain top. These brave men, women and children, dedicated to the eradication of pagan rule in the Land of Israel, are known as Zealots. It is their harrowing tale that has become an eternal symbol of the Jewish fight for freedom.

BEGIN WITH the largest building on the mountain - the western palace in which Herod apparently conducted business. While waiting to be shown into a very large hall, visitors could sit on plaster-covered stone benches in the foyer.

To see what remains of the elaborate bedrooms, including some gorgeous mosaic floors with geometric shapes as well as fig and pomegranate decorations, you must climb a few steps. Interestingly, where some of the tiles are missing, you can view the lines made by the artist as he prepared the floor - they lead right into the design! Look for pieces of the columns with which the ceiling was held in place.

Two bathtubs are easily recognizable below you near the steps as you exit. On the other side of the path is an enclosure whose inside walls are dotted with square holes. Believe it or not, this was a large desert swimming pool, and the holes were lockers for bathers' clothes! In order to provide water for his pools, bathtubs, cisterns and bathhouses, Herod built an intricate system of aqueducts and reservoirs that utilized winter floodwaters sucked from the riverbeds and stored in mountainside reservoirs.

During the fifth and sixth centuries, monks lived in caves and cells on Masada, and took advantage of the cisterns that Herod had prepared. Worship took place in the lovely church you see before you.

Archeologists here renovated one of the walls, so you can examine the manner in which the monks plastered them and added pebbles for strength. For some reason, they built the church out of limestone - a kind of rock not found on this dolomite mountain. In addition to an eye-catching mosaic floor, you will see a multitude of plain mosaics and remains everywhere you go. Near the entrance you will find holes in which a gate was bolted into the ground.

Continue on the path, this time to the northern palace on the highest part of the mountain. Built on three levels along the northern edge of the cliff, it commanded magnificent views of the Dead Sea, the adjoining mountains and the desert. A steep descent leads down the slopes, while other steps ascend to a tower.

The path leads into a foyer of the palace - incidentally the entrance to the rest rooms. Here you get a look at a ritual bath (mikve). It has three parts: one for storing water, one for immersion, and one in which you wash your feet.

If you can manage a few steps, you can visit the palace's elaborate bathhouse, which is decorated with splendid frescoes. The entrance included a covered, plastered pool with colored walls where people cleaned themselves before going into the sauna. They first entered the tepid room, then the hotter chambers.

People unable to climb stairs can rest in the shade while examining photographs illustrating the inside of the palace. Afterwards, you can explore the rooms on this level, including that in which 11 famous pottery shards were discovered. Each fragment bore a name, including that of Elazar Ben-Yair, the Zealot leader.

In 73, after the Great Revolt had been savagely subdued, the Romans decided to put an end to the last pocket of resistance - the freedom fighters of Masada. For three years the Zealots managed to keep the Romans off the mountain. Nearly 10,000 troops first tried starving the Jewish rebels, and when that didn't work, they utilized every conceivable kind of contemporary siege weapon in an effort to break through the seemingly impregnable fortress. After the wall was successfully breached, it became clear to everyone that the end was near.

That night, Elazar Ben-Yair called his people together - 967 men, women and children - and spoke to them. He reminded them that they had long ago resolved to serve only God, not the Romans or any other master. And he called upon them to die as free men and women, rather than face capture and slavery by the pagan conquerors.

His heartrending and moving speech persuaded the Zealots to commit suicide before the expected dawn attack by the Romans. They burned their belongings and weapons, leaving food so that the Romans would know they had died of their own free will and had not perished of hunger.

Lots were drawn and 10 men were chosen as executioners: the rest lay side by side and bared their necks. At the end one Zealot killed the other nine - and then took his own life. It was the first day of Pessah - the holiday in which Jews celebrate their freedom from bondage. Two women and five children hiding in a cave lived to tell this tragic and heroic tale.

Take the path to a bridge, from which you will peer down into one of Herod's huge reservoirs and view another mikve. To the right you will see a wine cellar. During excavations in the 1990s, archeologists uncovered part of an amphora used to import Italian wine. On the shard was the inscription, in Latin, 'Herod, King of Judea.'

Soon you will reach the Keren Overlook, from which you can observe not only the northern palace's three terraces, but also some openings in the mountainside. They were cisterns, filled by surging floodwaters. Look for the donkey trail below them: someone up here probably loaded the donkeys with jugs, slapped the beasts on the behind and sent them down to the cisterns. There, the jugs would be filled, the behinds slapped again, and up they would come with water.

From here you can also distinguish several Roman camps - including the large one where Commander Flavius Silva was based. To its left you will see a smaller camp and a hump. Twenty-five Zealot skeletons were discovered in a cave at Masada: they were buried beneath this little hill.

A layer of ancient cattle dung was found in the synagogue, your next site. Apparently used by Herod's Jewish family members for worship, it was turned into a stable by Roman soldiers after the king's death. The Zealots purified the synagogue and made a number of structural changes.

Using stones taken from the palaces, they added several columns, combined the entrance with the prayer hall, and installed stone benches. Fortunately for these extremely observant Jews, the house of worship already faced Jerusalem.

If you are wondering where the Zealots lived during those electrifying years, you are about to find out. Make your way to the casement walls - the double walls with which Herod surrounded Masada. The Zealots' simple rooms lay between the outer and inner walls. Among the findings here were nutshells, eggshells, and other homely residue.

Finally, you come to one of the most historic sites on Masada. Beneath you and next to the mountain is the embankment that the Romans built in order to wheel a battering ram up to the wall. And - yes - you are looking at a battering ram! This one, however, was used in a 20th-century cinematic epic called Masada, starring Peter O'Toole as Flavius Silva.

The earthen ramp was apparently erected by thousands of Jewish slaves whom the Romans brought to Masada especially for this purpose. The troops were sure the Zealots would hesitate to shoot at their brethren and, in fact, that is exactly what happened.

You are standing at the spot where the Romans breached the wall, before they finally entered the plateau stronghold. Note the pile of rocks, still waiting to be launched toward the Roman enemy!

On December 13, 2001, Masada National Park was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It was chosen as a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty. 

Getting there: Masada National Park is located on Highway 90, about 17 kilometers south of Ein Gedi and directly across from the Dead Sea.
Winter hours: Sunday-Thursday 8 to 4; Friday 8 to 3; Sat 8 to 4. Closing hours given are for the last cable car down the mountain. In the summer, add one hour. Most of the site is wheelchair accessible: museum exhibits are at wheelchair eye level. There are accessible rest rooms. Two wheelchairs are available on request - inquire at the cashier.
Phone: (08) 658-4207/8
Bus 486 from Jerusalem.