Confession time: I have this thing for Peter O’Toole (not old alcoholic Peter O’Toole. I’m talking Lawrence of Arabia Peter O’Toole).
And I also have this thing for rebels, be them of the Star Alliance, Jimmy Dean or Robin Hood variety. Peter Strauss isn’t too bad either.
Needless to say, the mini-series Masada rocked my world back in 1981. Even though I was still a kid, I found the story of the Jewish Zealots who chose death instead of slavery to the Romans meaningful and compelling.
So I was thrilled that my trip to Israel sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism would include visiting the ruins, located in the Judean desert along the Dead Sea.
Everyone says that the best way to see Masada is at sunrise, after a steep hike up the winding Snake Path on the mountain’s east side. Our packed schedule meant that we would take the cable car up instead; if I ever go back, I’d stay the night at the onsite hotel or a spa nearby on the Dead Sea.
So what is Masada anyway? The original fortress was built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC, as a refuge from his enemies (which included members of his own family). The plateau where Masada lies is a natural military defense; you can see across the desert for miles from its cliffs (which range from 1,300 to 300 feet high).
Herod never did anything halfway, and Masada was no different. Massive cisterns collected water for the populace stationed there, and the city contained all of the necessities of that time, including an elaborately decorated bathhouse with a heat room and cold pool. You can still see the frescoes today.
A paranoid individual. Herod built his private residence in tiers on the side of the cliff, accessible only by a short trail that was tightly controlled. At the site, you can explore each layer and imagine the view that Herod may have had – if he ever actually stayed there. Our guide told us that Herod never actually spent a night at Masada, despite all of his work.
After Herod’s death, Masada fell into disrepair. It became the perfect base for the Zealot rebels, who had been forced out of Jerusalem by Roman invaders following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The rebels found storehouses still full of food and cisterns still laden with rainwater. With these types of resources, they were able to fend off the Romans for nearly three years.
When the Temple was still standing, synagogues were merely community gathering places instead of places to worship. Because the Zealots were the first Jews to live without the Temple, they set up a room to worship on top of Masada. In effect, this served as the first religious-oriented synagogue. It’s marked by a menorah today.
Alas, the Romans figured out Masada’s weak point. At the lowest section of the wall, they spent three years building a rampart up the western side, which you can still see remnants of today. The Zealots inside didn’t stop the building; historians speculate that’s because the Romans were using Jewish slaves to construct it and that the rebels didn’t want to throw stones down upon their own relations. Once it was done, they rolled up a huge battering ram to smash their way into Masada.
The Zealots, led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, fought back against the Romans as best they could. Finally, on the last night, Eleazar gathered the men together and persuaded them that death at their own hands would be a more honorable fate than a life of slavery. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who spoke to several women who hid in a cistern, the men killed their wives and children, then drew lots to see who would kill each other, with the last man falling upon his sword. When the Romans entered, they found a storeroom of food among the dead bodies, proof that the Jews had “preferred death before slavery.”
It’s a chilling story that resonates today through many cultures, and it’s no wonder that Masada stands as symbol of Jewish pride. Israeli Defense Forces graduate there, shouting “Masada shall not fall again!” In recent years, it’s become a popular spot for bar and bat mitzvahs.
A couple of tips for visiting Masada:
1. Go in the morning, if possible, preferably NOT in the dead of summer. It can get really hot on top of Masada. How hot? Well, at noon in mid-May, the temperatures were easily in the 90s. I can’t imagine how disgusting you’d feel in July or August.
2. Bring plenty of water.Make sure you carry a bottle that you can refill, as there are spouts at the top.
3. Also lots of sunscreen and a hat. There’s almost no protection from the rays up there.
4. Even with all that, take things slow. It’s not the type of place that you want to rush, both for your health and for the site’s serenity and significance.
5. Hiking the Snake Path shouldn’t be done on a whim. If you want to do it, plan ahead. The people at the top who had taken the Snake Path up were clearly recognizable – because they literally looked ready to keel over. Make sure that you are in good physical shape to do the climb and that you tackle it at an appropriate time of day, ie, morning.
6. Familiarize yourself with the story ahead of time. Masada is truly one of those special places. I wish I would have had a copy of Josephus’ account before I went.
7. If you like to shop, make time for the Ahava outlet. My skin never felt so good as it did after my soak in the Dead Sea. Now I’m wishing I would have loaded up on Ahava products while I could. There are some great deals at the outlet at the Masada visitor center – and don’t forget to ask for more samples!
If you’ve been to Masada and have other tips to add, please do so in the comments!