One of the most impressive archaeological site of Israel. Even if you are not a fan of archaeology and history, you should definitely visit the site. Masada in Hebrew means a fortress. It lays on the top of an isolated mountain that rise 450 meters above the Dead Sea overlooking the surrounding.
I visited the Macho Picchu in Peru and I think Masada is much more impressive. The site itself and the views are amazing combined with the dramatic story make this site a really unforgettable experience.
Some background on Masada
The unique location and structure of Masada made it an ideal defensive point. Herodes the great was the first one to build a fort on this spot as a last stand fortress in case of hard times. The fortress is isolated and far away from any settlement point or water sources. it has an impressive water system with big cisterns on the mountain that could hold up to 40,000 cubic meters. Aqueduct system that led water to the cisterns in times of floods.
In the time of the first Jewish roman war (66 AD), a group of Sicarii Jews took over the fortress from a small Roman garrison soldiers who were deployed in Masada. The Sicarii who were very zealots and opposes of the Roman present in the land were seen as fanatics by the main Jewish leadership. They were carrying short daggers (which in Latin is called “sica” and that is the source of the group name) and were assassinating political rivals and anyone who opposed them, Jew or Roman.
The Roman were sieging the fortress and slowly built a ramp on the west side of the mountain where it was the lowest. The whole campaign was under hard conditions for the Romans, with a lack of water sources and a steep slope. Building the ramp was hard and under a constant fire from the rebels. The Romans took Jewish prisoners and forced them to build the ramp, the rebels didn’t want to kill their fellow brothers and the ramp was completed.
The Roman siege system in Masada is the most preserved one in the world. Some archaeologists are coming here not because of Masada itself, but for the Roman camps and siege system.
Some of the Roman camps around Masada:
The Romans moved a battery ram up the mountain and under heavy fire managed to breach the main wall. The rebels had a secondary wooden wall which the battery ram is not effective against. The Romans used fire arrows to set fire on the wooden wall. As the wooden wall caught fire and burned, the Romans retreated for the night and waited for the morning to take over the mountain.
Death over slavery
During the night, the Jewish leader Eleazar ben Ya’ir gave a speech:
“Brave and loyal followers! Long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone other than God Himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind. The time has now come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it. We must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans God has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children.”(Elazar Ben Yair)
― Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War
Because committing suicide is a big problem under Jewish law, They decided to write their names on stones and randomly pick 10 names of people who will kill all the others, then one of the 10 will kill the other nine and the last one will kill himself. (in the museum you can see the stones with the names)
When the Romans breached the walls and stormed the fortress, they found that everything was set on fire and everyone is dead. They found 2 woman and 5 children hiding in a pit who told them the story.
Today you can see the remains of Herodes palaces and the fortifications on the mountain, the water pits and the Roman camps around the mountain.
The Site Today
Read a bit on the site before you visit. visit the Museum before climbing up. It will let you really understand the site and the story. Don’t do those sunrise tours. You came to this site for the story, you can see a sunrise in the desert tomorrow.
Not Just Warfare
People tend to focus on the last stand of Masada. They forget it used to be a luxury palace for king Herod before. The compound is full with delicate art work, bathhouses, palaces and even swimming pools!
bathhouses? Swimming pools? On a mountain in the middle of the desert?!?!
The Water System
Masada used to had a very sophisticated water system which allowed all this luxury. There are 11 huge water pits and water channel which leads rain water to those pits. Some pits were inside the fortress and some were on its slopes.
The Northern palace
The most beautiful place on the mountain and what gives Masada it distinct look. It was built on 3 terraces one above each other and used to have living quarters on the top and bathhouse on the bottom. it is also one of the places with the most amazing views. Still, many travelers miss this spot.
The main entrance and museum compound. This entrance is on road 90 the road that goes north to south along the Dead Sea. It’s a big compound with restaurants, the cable car and a museum.
The museum is very impressive with findings from the site, From Roman army tools, artifacts and more. Its also telling the story with historical references and using video clips and demonstrations. Very recommended before going up the mountain. Will enrich your understanding of the site and you’ll know what to look for when you are up there. for me, it was very special to see the actual lots which are in Hebrew. And that I could actually read it.
From here you can go up by the cable car which cost extra money or climb by the snake path.
Climbing up the snake path is climbing 300 meters up to the top, takes 40-60 min and will take your breath away, because of the view of course.
How to get to Masada
Western entrance/ Dead Sea side – on the famous road 90.
Bus – easiest will be to take a bus from Jerusalem. you can check here the time table.
Hitchhiking – if you are already on Road 90 its easy to hitchhike.
Masada Eastern Entrance
To get here you need to come from the city of Arad. There is a path to the top that goes on the Roman ramp, it’s easier climb than the snake path, 20-30 min climb. Is this entrance there is also the light and sound show which happens during the evenings.
you could see some models of Roman siege equipment which were made to the Hollywood movie and are presented here.
How to get to the eastern entrance
Bus – easiest will be to take the bus from Arad. time table here.
Hitchhiking – Only from Arad.
Opening hours and prices of Masada