The perfect day trip from Tel Aviv is combining a visit to Masada and the Dead Sea. From Tel Aviv, the Judean Desert-Dead Sea area is approximately a two hour scenic drive. With beautiful varying landscapes such as natural springs, the green oases of Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, fields and valleys, wadis (dry riverbeds) and deserts and mountains, the breathtaking scenery will make the drive to Masada pass by quickly!
For my visit to Masada and the Dead Sea, I hired a private tour guide from Rent-a-Guide. Meir Shalom, was my tour guide and driver for several days in Israel. Being a proud Israeli, retired police colonel and history lover, Meir made me feel safe and provided invaluable knowledge about Israel that one can’t find in guidebooks!
Just north of the Dead Sea atop a rocky mountain sits the desert fortress of Masada. Surrounded by steep cliffs and breathtaking (literally for those afraid of heights, take a deep breath and focus on the views before you!) views of the Dead Sea and the Judean desert, the isolated flattop rock of Masada blends in to the burnt-orange desert landscape. The archeological site of Masada has seen many great powers rise and fall in the 2,000 years since its construction. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors are treated to sweeping views, wonderfully preserved frescoes and mosaic floors, bathhouses, ingenious water systems, and a museum preserving the artifacts of this desert fortress. Masada holds so much history and archeological wonder, it is amazing to stand atop this mountain and revel in the history before you!
History of Masada:
King Herod the Great, who reigned over Israel in the 1st century BC, built this 18-acre site atop the more than 1,400-feet high mountain in the Judean Desert. Believed to be completed between 37 and 31 BC, this desert palace/fortress was an engineering marvel of its time and provided ingenious water systems still utilized today! Herod was a brilliant and ruthless leader, although a bit mentally unstable and paranoid about his enemies in particular, Cleopatra. The refuge site of Masada, with its inventive designs, houses a complex of palaces, storehouses and state-of-the-art water systems. Herod and his engineers built a dam in the valley below Masada so that reservoir water could be transported up to cisterns in the fortress. This impressive desert fortress provided Herod with luxury accommodations and natural protection from his enemies. It is believed that Herod had over 2,000 soldiers protecting him at all times. Although his ingenious architectural designs of Masada have been praised for thousands of years, King Herod was a brutal ruler and mentally instable. Many historians believe that his death was self-inflicted, Herod died around 4 BC.
Seventy-five years after King Herod’s death, tensions were high between the Israeli Jews and Rome. In 66 AD the Israeli Jews rebelled against Rome, by 70 AD the Roman Empire had destroyed Jerusalem and the majority of the Jewish revolt. Around 72 AD, the last remaining Jewish rebels seek refuge at Masada from the Roman soldiers. For at least one year, the enduring 960 Israeli Jews were protected from the Roman occupation in the surrounding valley. Determined to end the Jewish rebellion, the Roman general Flavius Silva surrounded the mountain fortress and built an assault ramp to ascend Masada. According to the last remaining Jewish survivors’ (two women and five children were found alive) stories, told to historian Flavius Josephus, the night before the Romans reached the summit of Masada the Jewish leader Elazar Ben-Yair resolved “neither to serve the Romans nor any other save God.” Elazar convinced the remaining Jewish community to commit suicide rather than be taken captive by the Romans. The Jewish leader chose ten men who would kill the others and then in return kill each remaining zealot. When the Romans breached the walls of Masada, they found hundreds of corpses alongside burning fires of Jewish belongings and weaponry and stashes of food so the Romans would know that the last remaining Jewish Zealots died of their own free will and did not perish from hunger. The tragic end of the revolt of the Jewish community haunts the mountaintop fortress.
Tips for your visit to Masada:
Despite the chilling Jewish and Roman saga, a visit to Masada is an amazing experience. Visitors can either take the cable car (about 3 minutes one way) to the top of Masada (I took the cable car up because the mid afternoon sun was hot!), the steep winding Snake Path (same way the Jewish rebels climbed Masada) on the east side of the mountain (a one hour + hike), or the Ramp Path on the west side of the mountain (about 15-30 minutes). All three ways to ascend the mountainside provides breathtaking views of the valleys and deserts surrounding Masada. Since Masada is in the desert, temperatures remain consistently hot year round. If you are going to hike the paths, take plenty of water, wear a hat and sunscreen, and start the trail in the early morning before the heat of the day.
The remarkable remnants of King Herod the Great and the last Jewish stand during the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire is awe-inspiring, tells a story of perseverance, and is an architectural achievement that has withstood the test of time to become one of Israel’s most visited sites. From archeological artifacts, stories of Jewish persistence and ingenuity, and the breathtaking views of the surrounding Judean Desert and Dead Sea, exploring the desert fortress of Masada will leave you feeling exhilarated!
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