Masada is inseparable from the psychology of modern Israel: Schoolchildren are taken there to absorb its lessons; army recruits are obliged to hike up its steep slopes in the heat, the better to appreciate its message; and “No more Masadas” has long been an Israeli battle cry. Never again.
The story is famous (and became part of popular culture, thanks to a successful 1981 TV miniseries starring Peter O’Toole). Masada was built in the first century B.C. as a fortress and palace complex atop a 1,300-foot mesa overlooking the Dead Sea. The isolated rock on which it stands has virtually impregnable cliffs and is surrounded by a waterless desert. In A.D. 70, following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, around 1,000 Jewish rebels sought refuge there. The legions encircled the mountain for a three-year siege. Eventually, however, a huge ramp brought a battering ram up to the fortress walls. The Romans duly broke through, only to find that the 960 defenders had committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive.
Today, Masada is a day trip from Jerusalem, the 65-mile drive taking a little over an hour and a half. The road first descends through the epic landscape of the Judean Desert into the Jordan Valley before heading south along the western shore of the Dead Sea. In the 1930s and ’40s, prior to the founding of the State of Israel, Zionist pioneers would climb Masada in search of inspiration. In those days, the ascent was perilous and required some rock-climbing ability. Today, the Snake Path is a relatively easy hike of just over an hour. The trail is steep and the drop-offs can be alarming, but any fit people will make the summit, as long as they take plenty of water. Most visitors, however, opt to ride the modern cable car, having first stopped at the Visitors’ Center to view a rather breathless and melodramatic introductory movie.
The view from the top is extraordinary. The landscape is stark and austere — reminiscent in some ways of southern Utah — and extends across the Dead Sea far into Jordan. The remains of the Roman siege ramp are plainly visible, as are the rectangular outlines of the legions’ campsites, still etched into the desert floor.
Having gazed at the panorama and watched the birds of prey circling on the ascending thermals, we set off to explore the site. The ruins are extensive and include a thermal bathhouse, a synagogue and a vast cistern that supplied Masada with water. By far the most impressive remains, however, are those of the Hanging Palace, the extraordinary private residence of Herod the Great constructed around 25 B.C. Built on three levels cut into the side of a cliff, it contains living quarters with mosaic floors, as well as grand public areas for entertaining. (Herod is one of the most compelling figures of ancient history. A practicing Jew, he nonetheless ruled Judea for 37 years as a Roman client king. Fond of megalomaniacal building projects, he also constructed the city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean; the Herodion, a vast fortified palace built on a conical mound that dominates the landscape south of Bethlehem; and the immense Second Temple in Jerusalem.)
By the middle of the day, the heat atop Masada is intense. Even though the summit is 1,300 feet high, it is still 100 feet below sea level. Nonetheless, we lingered in the hot, gusting wind, draining our water bottles and strangely reluctant to leave. If you know the ancient story and appreciate its significance for modern Israelis, Masada is an astonishingly atmospheric place and one that should feature on any itinerary.