The first I ever heard of Masada was from a very effective Israel tourism TV campaign way back in the early 1990s. Before then, I hadn’t thought much about traveling to Israel, if at all. The ad sparked in me an interest in the ancient land of Israel that continues to this day. It may have been the very gleam that became my work at Ya’lla Tours, including this blog.
Now that I have credited an Israel tourism ad with setting me on my life path, I must tell you I don’t remember much about it. There was a boy on top of Masada, wind in his hair, casting a poetic gaze out over the Judean desert. A dramatic voiceover spoke of heritage and heroism. Mostly I remember being stirred right down to my core. That’s good advertising!
Herod the Great, the Roman-Jewish ruler of Judea 37-4 BCE, was very fearful of assassination, so he built 8 isolated, desert fortresses in which to take refuge if needed. Masada is one. Around 30 BCE, he had a fabulous palace, complete with storage facilities to outlast a long siege, built atop this 1300-foot plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. It’s the perfect defensive spot. You can see for miles in every direction and the walls of the rock are steep. There’s no sneaking up on this place.
During the first Jewish rebellion against Rome (66-73 CE), a group of Roman-resisters escaped to Masada and held out there for several years. Towards the end of the war, the Romans laid siege to Masada. After spending a few months building a massive ramp, they overtook the fortress. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, they found almost 1,000 inhabitants, men, women and children, dead by their own hands, and buildings ablaze. Excavations have only found the remains of 28 men, so Josephus may have exaggerated for effect. Whether 1,000 or 28, the story and Masada came to symbolize Jewish defiance and resilience in the face of suppression, as well as the loss of the Jewish homeland.
Masada is an easy drive from Jerusalem, less than an hour. If you’re in good shape, you can climb up in about 45 minutes on the snake path, a good trail with lots of switchbacks, or zip up and down in a cable car. The extensive excavations and restorations include two palaces, a synagogue, a bathhouse, storehouses, and cisterns. From the top, look down on the Roman siege camp, the Dead Sea and out over the beautiful desolation of the Judean Desert.
Click to see tours that include Masada.