Located atop an isolated plateau in the Judean Desert, surrounded by nothing but desert and the Dead Sea, Masada is one of the most widely visited sites within the Holy Land, and for good reason. Translated from the Hebrew for “fortress,” Masada’s storied past can be recited by rote by nearly every schoolchild in Israel. The site, standing approximately 1,300 feet high on the eastern edge and about 1,800 feet high on the plateau, has weathered the centuries, and provides an amazingly preserved look into a critical moment in the history of Israel.
Archaeological evidence dates certain findings to early centuries BC, but it was Herod the Great who truly developed this nearly impenetrable fortress. Masada is one of two of Herod’s palaces that doubled as fortresses, complete with customarily lavish appointments, aqueduct, and irrigation systems.
The only written record of Masada comes after the Jewish Revolt from first-century Judean general-turned-historian Josephus Flavius. Josephus states that the site was first fortified by Alexander Jannaeus prior to Herod capturing and completing his palace-fortress between 37 and 31 BC. After Herod’s death in 4 AD the Romans took control of the plateau until the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD. The Jewish freedom fighters held the complex for a few years until the Roman Tenth Legion stormed the fortress by means of a huge ramp in 73 AD.
According to Josephus, the Jewish rebels—about 960 men, women, and children—took their own lives rather than be captured and live as Roman slaves. Led by Eleazar Ben Yair, they ensured that their cisterns were fully supplied with water and that their food storage houses were abundantly filled. When the Romans finally broke through the wall, there was no one to fight. Rather, they found the bodies of the Jewish inhabitants carefully laid out before them.
Today, the fortress stands as an enduring symbol of the determination of the Jewish people to be free from oppression within the lands of their ancestors, a mission they have fought to protect for thousands of years. From King Herod’s residential refuge, to the Storehouse Complex, to the Western Palace and its intricate marble mosaic floors, the plateau holds myriad archaeological finds left by hundreds of people from thousands of years ago.
Nahal, one of the main infantry brigades of the Israel Defense Forces, has their swearing in ceremony (Masa Kumta), at Masada. It is a deeply moving ceremony where each soldier receives their unit’s beret. Imagine being a young Israeli, completing basic training and experiencing this profound moment; taking on the responsibility of defending your homeland while standing in this site full of the history of your people.
If you are planning to experience Masada, you can join visitors from around the world to ascend the Snake Path (east side) and sit atop this natural wonder. It is especially beautiful early in the morning when you watch the sun rise, and witness its panoramic vistas. If hiking is not in your plans, later in the day, you can also take the cable car to the top of the mountain. Stay for the evening light show on the west side of the site and check out the museum and shops at the visitors’ center. Private group tours are welcome, and you are also welcome to go it alone. Either way, you won’t be short of company.
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