Under stones and over mountains

Masada offers an array of ways to remember history with modern-day displays.

masada museum 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
masada museum 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You're trying to plan your next day trip and someone suggests Masada. Your knee-jerk reaction? "Been there, done that." But unless you've visited the ancient site in the last month or two, you may have been there, but you certainly have not "done that." Yes, the mountaintop archeological remains remain more or less as they were. The view of the Dead Sea and Judean Desert from the cliff top is still breathtaking. Even now, shade is a precious commodity at the historical site. But the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (which runs Masada) has inaugurated a brand-new museum at the foot of the mountain. In addition, organized camping facilities are now available on the west side of Masada. But first things first: a refresher course on Masada's history and significance. The Hasmoneans (first and second centuries BCE) were reportedly the first settlers on the desert mountain, followed by King Herod (37-4 BCE). Herod built up the site with magnificent palaces, a bathhouse, sophisticated cisterns and other amenities. In 72 CE, after the Romans had taken over the Holy Land and destroyed the Second Temple, they sent a large force to subdue the nearly 1,000 Jews (mostly Sicarii) barricading themselves at Masada. After several months of laying siege to the mountain, the Romans finally broke through the walls. According to the only record we have of the event - a history entitled Wars of the Jews by Josephus Flavius (Yosef ben Matityahu) - the Jews opted to commit mass suicide rather than succumb to and be enslaved by the conquering Romans. Professor Yigael Yadin led excavations at the site from 1963 to 1965; artifacts were found, preserved and examined, and structures were uncovered and partially rebuilt. Nearly 40 years later, in 2001, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared Masada a World Heritage Site. For years, visitors to Masada have been able to ascend the mountain and view remnants of Herod's northern and western palaces, a place of congregation thought to have served as a synagogue in the fortified settlement's later years, colorful frescoes and mosaics that adorn the walls and floors of a number of the buildings. The bathhouse and sauna are particularly impressive structures, as is the mikve (ritual bath). But now, for the first time, some 400 artifacts found at Masada are being displayed in an impressive "museological experience." The museum was designed by Eliav Nahlieli (who is also responsible for projects like Tel Aviv's Palmah Museum), with the help of Gila Hurvitz, the curator. The two insist on the participatory nature of the new exhibition, rejecting the mundane term "museum." The display is divided into nine rooms, each one dedicated to an aspect of Masada and its saga. The first is the history of Josephus, the storyteller, followed by a room dedicated to Herod, and then one relating to the Caesarea Port. Visitors then proceed to a room filled with artifacts connected to the storehouses on Masada. Next is a room conveying the tale of the Jewish revolt, followed by the story of the rebels at Masada. Tourists then progress through the synagogue section of the museum, and continue to the Roman siege stage. The last room is devoted to Yadin, the chief archeologist who uncovered the site. The literature in the exhibit is particularly careful not to draw definite conclusions as to the fate of the Jews at Masada, emphasizing that our one source may not be entirely reliable; visitors are left to decide for themselves whether the Jews killed themselves or suffered some other destiny. The whole experience is dimly lit, and the floors, walls and ceilings are black - in order to dramatize the story. Each room holds artifacts (ranging from pottery shards to coins to a piece of Torah parchment) related to the aspect of the story it presents, in addition to well-written placards describing the scenarios and historical finds. A large part of the encounter is the sculpted figures which serve as actors for the saga. Visitors to the museum are given headsets (for now, only Hebrew and English are available) with sensors. As guests move from room to room, the headsets automatically tell the tale of the section. It is worth noting that if you miss something on the audio program, nearly all of the same information is located on the placards in each room. A nice feature on the audio program is that once the narration concludes in each room, four minutes of musical interludes play to allow visitors to determine their own pace. The trip through, therefore, can range from 20 minutes to 45. Aside from the museum, the air-conditioned buildings at the foot of Masada house the requisite gift and snack shops, as well as a restaurant. There is also a seven-minute movie (Hebrew or English) retelling the story of Masada which is shown before visitors ascend the mountain. The trip up Masada itself can be done either on foot via the Snake Path - a strenuous 1,700-meter, 45-minute hike that should be conducted in the early hours of the day - or via the cable car, a three-minute trip traversing 900 meters and ascending 400 meters. On the western side of the mountain, there is another footpath up a rampart. Visitors can rent headsets (Hebrew, English, German or French) for self-guided tours of the mountaintop, and maps with explanations are available in Hebrew and English. But hold on to your belongings while you're on the plateau, as the desert winds are often surprisingly strong. While you're touring the remains, you may notice at the old gathering place/synagogue there is a small building with a wooden door. Unless you're there at the right time, you probably won't be able to see inside. But to satisfy your curiosity: it is where the geniza (repository for old religious items) of Masada was originally found, and it has been turned into a functional synagogue, used for prearranged events - especially early-morning prayers. Three Torah scrolls are housed in a beautiful wooden ark, and a shofar is kept in an adjacent cabinet. You can take note of the exceptional mezuza case on the entranceway to the building, even if the door is locked. Most tours of Masada include the eastern side: the gift shop, cable car and/or Snake Path, mountaintop, then back home. But the western side is a trip in itself. It offers access to the mountaintop by foot, and at night it features an audiovisual show which, too, tells the story of Masada. Spectators are seated in an amphitheater and shown a brief film. Then, the real show begins. Lights play on the sides and top of Masada as voices reenact the end of the Roman siege and subsequent mass suicide. The 50-minute show is in Hebrew, but headsets with simultaneous translation into English, French, German, Russian and Spanish are available for rent. It seems like it would be overkill to hear the story of Masada yet again, but the show is surprisingly captivating, and a good way to unwind after a day in the desert. The sound-and-light show is not a new feature, but the adjoining camping facilities are. The Nature and Parks Authority is currently expanding its overnight "campgrounds" across the country; the new one at Masada includes parking lots, restrooms, refrigerators, electricity outlets and shaded areas (for groups, catering is available as well). Camping arrangements need to be made in advance. A nice bonus: The entire Masada tourism complex is accessible to the physically disabled, including the hearing and visually impaired. One word of warning: the east and west sides of Masada are not connected by a road; to do both sides in one day, allow an hour and a quarter to drive from one side to the other, or have someone meet you with a car when you're done. So, even if you've been to Masada before, if someone suggests a trip there, you may want to give it some real consideration.