Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.A visit to the Dead Sea may seem a lot of trouble once you’ve been there a few times. After all, for many people (including me), one float in the brackish salt water is enough. Beside the Dead Sea, Qumran and Ein Gedi offer wonderful reasons to return to the lowest place on earth. But Masada clinches it for me every time. One visit is never enough. As many times as I’ve returned there, I always want to go back. Towering 1300 feet above the Dead Sea, Masada looks as intimidating today as it did to those who stood at its base thousands of years ago. This natural mesa looms tall across from the Lisan at the southern half of the Dead Sea. Steep cliffs on all sides make the mountain look virtually impregnable. And it was.
Getting to the top comes at a price. It always has. For modern tourists, that price represents a cable car ticket. But in antiquity, the price was a tough hike up the steep path that Josephus labeled the “snake.” In 1867, explorers rediscovered this pathway that lies along the eastern edge of Masada. For most folks, climbing the “Snake Path’’—the serpentine trail that snakes back and forth up the mountain—takes almost an hour. Going down is another story. With a good set of shoes, I can testify a person can run down the snake path in twelve minutes (especially if your bus is about to leave you). During his fugitive years on the run from King Saul, David sought sanctuary for his parents across the Dead Sea in Moab. Upon returning to Israel, David took refuge in “the stronghold.” Some scholars identify this with Masada, the Hebrew term that means “stronghold” in 1 Samuel 22:4. Interestingly, in 40 BC before Herod the Great became king, he too fled to Masada from the current ruler. After Rome made Herod king, he returned to the mesa in AD 37 to fortify it, erecting an eighteen-foot high wall around its perimeter. His winter palace there, as was true with all of Herod’s citadels, had every comfort and convenience Herod could manage. The palace clung to the northern cliffs of Masada like a barnacle. Covered staircases gave access to three levels of terraces and portions of his beautiful mosaics are still visible. After Rome destroyed Jerusalem’s temple in AD 70, a number of Jewish patriots took refuge in Masada. Led by Eliezar Ben Yair, they stood firm against Rome for several years. According to Josephus, on April 15, AD 73, the Romans crested the summit to discover that almost 1000 patriots had chosen to take their own lives rather than surrender their lives and families to the cruelty of Rome (Wars 7:394-397). The western side of the mesa still bears the spine of Rome’s siege ramp—an earthen incline constructed to breach the defenses of the Jewish fortress.
Some historians give serious doubt to Josephus’ account, even though it offers our only history of the patriots’ demise. His story represents what we would want to believe occurred, whether it did or not. Masada remains a symbol of Israel’s resolve even today. Many soldiers have stood atop the mountain and uttered the oath: “Masada shall not fall again.” The celebrated archaeologist Yigal Yadin excavated Masada in the cooler months between December 1963 and April 1965. Two expeditions identified a number of Herodian buildings, as well as bits of clothing, children’s games, writing implements, and household utensils from the time of the Jewish revolt. The patriots left behind a ritual bath, or mikveh, a synagogue, food stores of corn in sealed jars, and coins dating from year five of the Jewish revolt. Most visitors enter Masada at the Visitor’s Center. Remodeled in 2007, the center includes a museum that displays a number of archaeological discoveries. Along with hundreds of artifacts, the museum displays a dozen potshards inscribed with Jewish names. Some consider these the means by which Masada’s Jews drew lots before the mass suicide. The center tells the story of the siege, including a wall-sized painting of hand-to-hand combat. The renovation has paid off. Masada remains the top tourist site in Israel.Unless you take Josephus’ account literally, especially the part where Eliezer claims that God’s judgment is the cause for the Jewish defeat under Rome (Wars 7:327, 359), there isn’t a lot of biblical significance to Masada. But the one-inch painted black line across the walls of the ruins made me think. The line revealed the separation between the original ruins below the line and the reconstruction on top of it. For the most part, I could make no distinction between the original and the reconstruction. I thought about the fact that we have no visible line running down our lives to reveal the partition between the authentic and the phony. We think we can see the line in the lives of others, but it’s tough even to discern it in ourselves.
Masada! Just hearing the word brings to mind the sounds of battle, the courage of a few, the passion of a nation, and the reminder that no place on earth is ultimately secure. How to Get There: Travel Route 90 south from the Jericho area beside the Dead Sea. The signs will point the way. What to Do There: A brief article can’t begin to feature all Masada has to offer. In fact, one visit fails to give the full picture. Go first thing in the morning, wear a hat, and take water. You’ll get a great head start at the Visitor’s Center. You can save yourself a few bucks and skip the audio guide, as most of the commentary you’ll read in the displays. Take the cable car up, explore the ruins, then walk (or run!) down the Snake Path.Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.