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January 19, 2012

Exploring Masada, Israel

by Anne Paddock

On a family vacation to Israel, we decided to take a day trip from Jerusalem to Masada, an archeological ruin in the Judean Desert overlooking the southwest coast of the Dead Sea. The concierge at the hotel made arrangements with a local tour company and we were picked up very early the next morning. The driver had a large van and after picking up several other small groups of tourists at local hotels in Jerusalem, we set off for Masada – a roughly 60 mile trip southeast of Jerusalem on the southern coast of the Dead Sea.

The driver, a middle-aged overweight man was sweating profusely even though the morning temperature was cool.  He was also driving too fast and we all looked at each other wondering if someone should say something but everyone just buckled their seat belts and went along like sheep in a herd, myself included. We were seated in the front of the van and I was feeling uneasy enough that my husband noticed my anxiety and patted my hand.

When we arrived at Masada I was grateful to be out of the van with my two feet on the ground. A few hours later when we were getting ready to leave Masada for an afternoon at the Dead Sea, we learned our driver had a heart attack and was transported to a hospital in Tel Aviv.  A new driver was sent and no other information was provided so I don’t know what happened to our morning driver. I am grateful however that he didn’t have the heart attack while he was driving our tour group and the lesson I learned that day was to speak up, especially if your family is in danger.  My instincts were telling me something was wrong but I didn’t act. The day could have turned out a lot differently but luck was on our side.

Masada is a breathtaking sight to see from afar.  Located approximately 1,400 feet above sea level, Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Upon arrival, tourists have to decide how to ascend to the fortress and there are three wayswalking the snake path, using the gondola, or walking up the Roman ramp. The snake path, as illustrated below is a walking trail that curves up the cliff and should only be done early in the morning because of the heat. Depending on your stride, the walk generally takes two hours.
The second option is to take the gondola up, which takes minutes. The gondola also can be taken down to the main parking lot when the tour is finished.
The final option is to take the Roman ramp which is not accessible from the main parking lot. The Roman ramp is on the other side of the fortress so if you want to walk up the ramp, plan ahead to avoid the additional travel time from the main parking lot to the ramp access.
Once the summit is reached, Masada can be explored. There is the North Palace built within the side of the fortress, as illustrated below:
The Judean King Herod built the palace (in about 30 BC) on this site because the fortification was deemed to be virtually impenetrable due to the natural geography. Nearly one hundred years later in about 65 AD, Jewish zealots decided to flee Rome and capture Masada in the name of freedom and independence from Roman rule. Most historical records say that approximately 960 Jews lived in Masada at the time.  There are towers, storehouses, cisterns, apartments, and various other buildings, all of which can be explored.
Upon hearing the zealots took control of Masada, the Romans sent thousands of soldiers to recapture the fortress.  A difficult task, the Romans took several years to penetrate the walls and did so by building what is referred to as the Roman ramp: a ramp of stones and sand on the side of the fortress.  Our tour guide advised us the Jewish zealots and their families, save for 2 women and 5 children who hid, killed themselves rather than let themselves be taken by the Romans.  However, the guide also pointed out that historical and scientific accounts differ on the mass suicide in the first century. Bones were found on the site but nowhere near the 953 skeletons that should be there. Excavations are ongoing and the whole story has yet to be learned.
Masada is a dry, hot site that lacks fertile soil and an abundant fresh water source so in walking through the ruins, I kept wondering why the zealots wanted the land and why the Romans were intent on taking it back.  I realized the reason had nothing to do with resources but had everything to do with power and freedom.
On site is also the Yigael Yadin Masada Museum which is open everyday from 8:00 am – 4:00 pm. Named after the Hebrew professor who oversaw much of the excavation of Masada, the museum showcases archaeological finds from the site.
Helpful Hints
  • Visit Masada early in the morning, if possible as the climate is hot and there is very little shade.
  • Wear a visor or a cap.
  • Bring lots of sunscreen and water in backpacks.
  • Plan on seeing the museum at the end of the visit during the hottest part of the day.
  • If planning on a Dead Sea visit afterwards, do research on the beaches and spas as the quality varies greatly.
  • Don’t pick a tour that includes a stop at the local tourist trap that sells Dead Sea skin products.
  • Lunch can be purchased at the on-site cafeteria.

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