The fortress of Masada – the cemetery of the doomed. Israel

The fortress of Masada – slavery or death. Israel

Once a barren area on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea has now become a prosperous and very developed state of Israel. Its inhabitants over the centuries had to endure a lot, to finally find their happiness and independence. And of course in a country with a lot of attractions, in one way or another related to the historical events.

About one of these ancient sites with a tragic history will be discussed in this article. It is the fortress of Masada. Like the famous Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, the fortress is an ideal place of refuge from almost all enemies.

Masada Fortress

The fortress of Masada is located only 5 kilometers from the southwest coast of the Dead Sea.

The fortress of Masada on the map

  • Geographic coordinates 31.317556, 35.354050
  • Approximately 55 km in a straight line from Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.
  • The nearest airport is Bar Yehuda (in the original Bar Yehuda Airfield) about 3 km to the east. It looks more like a desert airstrip.
  • Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv 90 km to the northwest

The name of the fortress is derived from the Hebrew “metzada” which simply means “fortress”. Masada was built on a flat mountaintop in the Judean Desert, 450 meters high. The almost flat surface of the mountain measuring 270 by 550 meters provided the basis for the construction of the fortress and later of the palace.

History of the Masada fortress

The first information about the construction of the fortress dates back to 37-31 B.C. At that time, during the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty, a fortress was built here. A little later, in about 25 BC, King Herod I, having found buildings and structures on the mountain that were suitable for storing provisions, weapons and drinking water, decided to complete, fortify and equip a proper fortress here.

Masada - an ancient fortress in Israel

Herod I was not, to put it mildly, very fond of his subjects and preferred to live in inaccessible and defensible places. The fortress of Masada was a great fortress for him. The impregnable height of the arrows and throwing devices and the steep cliffs around its perimeter (100 to 300 meters) made Masada an impregnable citadel.

The only way to enter the citadel was from the Dead Sea. To get to the top, you had to overcome a narrow winding road, called the “snake path. Later there was another way to the fortress from the west. You will learn more about this below.

King Herod I was the ruler who commanded to kill all the babies in Bethlehem. He was afraid of the predicted appearance of the Savior Jesus Christ. So you can imagine what a vile man he was. His name even became a nickname with a strongly negative meaning. So he obviously had to fear for his life.

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In spite of the king’s vile character, let’s give him credit for his success in building the fortress of Masada.

On the territory of the fortress were built unique systems of water supply and water retrieval. Rainwater was carefully collected and accumulated in special reservoirs. For this purpose, canals were built from two canyons west of the Dead Sea, with the help of which water was delivered to 12 catchment systems. When necessary, water from the reservoirs was delivered to other places of the fortress by hand. Along the entire perimeter of the plateau, powerful walls four meters thick and about five meters high were built. The total length of the fortress wall was about 1,400 meters.

Masada Fortress - the fortress of the doomed

The structure of the wall is interesting. Inside it were equipped with rooms (it is good that the total width of 4 meters was enough), and patrols were conducted along the upper part. Towers were built every 40 meters. There were 37 towers in total.

The fortress also held the king’s gold. For the king and his entourage were built palaces, baths, similar to the Roman ones, synagogues. And here we should note another peculiarity. In those days, the Jews had the Temple, and there was no need to build synagogues, but they built them nevertheless. It turns out that in ancient times, the Jews had both Temples and synagogues.

The tragic history of the fortress of Masada

The most terrible story took place in the fortress in 73 A.D. In the 1st century A.D. the territory of modern Israel was under Roman rule. But not all locals were happy with that. In 66 AD the fortress was seized by the Zealots (followers of a political-religious Jewish current and fighters for independence from Rome). The Roman emperor in 70 crushed the uprisings in all Jewish territory except the fortress of Masada. This fortress held its ground for a full three years. Roman legions besieged the fortress tightly on all sides, but it was impossible to capture it.

Then the Romans decided to build (or rather pile up) a road to the Jewish stronghold. More than 9,000 slaves worked to build it. They fetched and poured earth, built platforms for battering rams and battering rams. Thus, there was a second way to the top, which can now be used to get to the fortress in half an hour.

The defenders of the fortress reinforced the walls on the inside with wooden constructions assembled from the remains of palaces and other buildings. But the Romans succeeded in setting them on fire, thus sealing the fate of Masada. The defeat of the Jews was imminent. At that time 960 people, including women and children, remained in the fortress. They all gathered together before their leader, Elazar ben Ya’ir. He gave a fiery speech in which he urged his fellow tribesmen to prefer death to humiliation and shameful slavery. With all the love of life and instincts for self-preservation, the decision was made. Ten men were chosen by lot, and they killed all, absolutely all the inhabitants, from small to large. Then they chose one of the ten, who killed the remaining nine people, set fire to the entire fortress and committed suicide. They left the food and water rooms to the invaders as proof that it was not for lack of food or water that the villagers had taken such a terrible step.

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All this horror was learned a little later from a few people who miraculously survived. They were two women and five children who managed to hide during the massacre and told about it later.

Masada Fortress

Now the Fortress of Masada is one of the most famous and iconic sights in Israel. At the beginning of the road to the mountain there is a parking lot and an information center.

Masada Fortress and the Dead Sea – Witnesses to Israel’s Dark Ages

Masada and Dead Sea

In Israel, near the Dead Sea, the road around which is considered the lowest point on Earth (altitude – 427 meters), near its south-western coast, on a flat top of a mountain at an altitude of 450 meters, is the ancient fortress of Masada. For history buffs it is renowned as the place of refuge of King Herod the Great, the same king who rebuilt the Second Temple and built the amphitheater in Jerusalem. The ruins of King Herod’s palace still attract many tourists. And I was very concerned with the questions, why and by whom was Masada built and then destroyed? As a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Masada is interesting both as a cultural and historical site. And just to climb to its top on foot along the serpentine trail is so interesting!

How to get to Masada from Jerusalem

In fact the area along Highway 90 leading to Eilat in the very south of Israel is Palestine. But buses and cars with Jewish license plates travel unimpeded here unlike in other regions. From the central bus station on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, there are buses to the Dead Sea. You can go to the extreme point of the route, and then go back. So, the fare is 36 shekels. Once again the Martian landscape will begin behind the window, then the Dead Sea will show up, blue and cold.

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Masada will not fall again.

For me the destination was Masada (pronounced Mezada with an accent on the first syllable), national Jewish pride. Jews, with pursed lips, sorrowfully exclaim: “The fall of Masada must never happen again! It is both a cause for pride and tears of shame. And the young soldiers of the Israeli army, taking their oath, solemnly swear, “Masada shall not fall again!”

Climbing Masada on the serpentine trail

The fortress of Masada is located on a mountain 450 meters high. The Jews of the first century AD climbed the serpentine trail and did it very skillfully. At least the Romans, who had been besieging the rebel Zealot fortress city for about two years, never dared to go up, not wanting to waste their strength. Patiently waiting for the enemy to surrender, they camped around the mountain. The Jews did not surrender, but all committed suicide to avoid being defeated. If you want to relive it, the pain and the courage of the ancients, pay 27 shekels to enter the park and go up the comfortable stairs (the Zealots did not have that luxury!)! 700 steps – that’s how many you will have to walk to get to the top! And if you think that this seems too long (an hour to an hour and a half) and tedious, you can always take the cable car (72 shekels) and be at the top in three minutes.

I, of course, went to Masada on foot. My interest is history in feelings and emotions, so the cable car would only put a boundary between me and the people who lived here two thousand years ago. The snake trail really turned out to be a snake trail. Looping from rock to rock, it gradually climbed higher and higher. Every time I looked back, I noticed the beautiful views that opened up to me. Still, the desert can also be delightfully beautiful and mesmerizing. The Dead Sea, which is joined here by a thin strait, caught my eye. The people below seemed like little figures. In the same way, the Romans, in their shiny armor, must have seemed like a weak opponent to the Jews.

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

The rope elevator takes you quickly to the fortress of Masada

Israel - Dead Sea

Along the narrow, difficult sections of the ascent to the hill there are railings

Israel - Dead Sea

Here begins the ascent of the hill with the fortress of Masada

Israel - Dead Sea

View of the Dead Sea from the hillside

Israel - Dead Sea

Path around the hill

Israel - Dead Sea

Remains of a Roman camp at the foot of Masada

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Tour of the fortress of Masada

The ruins of the partially rebuilt fortress leave a grand impression. These structures, standing under the scorching sun, are scattered sand-colored, witnesses to courage and valor. King Herod’s beautiful Northern Palace, consisting of three tiers, retains colorful frescoes. So it was once not so desolate and deserted. The brightness is a very brave thing to do next door to the Dead Sea.

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Israel - Dead Sea

View of the Dead Sea from Masada Fortress

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

A beauty with an orange feather.

Israel - Dead Sea

There is plant life on top of the hill at Masada Fortress, too

Israel - Dead Sea

The preserved columns of the lower level of the North Palace in Masada

Israel - Dead Sea

Remains of the great palace

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

The ruins of the northern palace on three levels in Masada

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

The fortress offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding area

Wealthy Jewish Americans consider it an honor to bar mitzvah for their children at Masada Synagogue.

The fortress city is a completely self-contained structure capable of functioning for a long time. Had the Romans not cut off the water supply, they would have had no chance to take the mountain by storm.

Israel - Dead Sea

The two pillars and the broad staircase in the Synagogue

Israel - Dead Sea

A Pile of Large Stones

Israel - Dead Sea

The fortifications at Masada

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

The tower of Masada is on a hill.

It is a good idea to check the bus schedules at the museum ticket office when you buy your tickets and plan your trip so you will be downstairs before the buses arrive. If you get hungry, rejoice: plenty of restaurants await the tired tourists, including a large McDonald’s located near the ticket booths and visitor center.

How to get from Masada to the Dead Sea by bus

From Masada to the Dead Sea, or more precisely to the free beach of Ein Gedi (not to be confused with the Ein Gedi Spa hotel) you can get to the Dead Sea by bus for 18 shekels. This area of the sea belongs to everyone and is often bathed here by locals. Tourists from the CIS countries like to come here, so you will hear Russian speech for sure. After the obligatory photo where you lie on the surface of the sea with a newspaper in hand, do not forget to take a shower (they stand near the water’s edge under the open sky) to wash the salt from your skin. And be careful not to get water in your eyes while swimming! It’s very, very unpleasant!

Israel - Dead Sea

There are palm trees growing on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Israel - Dead Sea

Is the Dead Sea an ancient Chernobyl?

The Dead Sea is a rather curious place. It is a well-known fact that it is the lowest point on Earth, and the difference in elevation when traveling from the highlands where Jerusalem is located to the beach can be more than 500 meters. So be prepared for some discomfort if your blood pressure is not good. Personally, I found this place to be unkind. As if some tragedy happened here in ancient times, that life still can’t recover from its consequences. I believe the ancients, they simply will not call the whole sea Dead. Which means something happened here. I would compare this valley to Chernobyl, still in a state of non-existence.

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Israel - Dead Sea

On the shore of the Dead Sea

Israel - Dead Sea

From one shore of the sea you can see the opposite shore and Jordan.

Israel - Dead Sea

Your onward journey by bus from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem will cost you – 31.5 shekels.

What else to see near Jerusalem

If you are based in Jerusalem, it is worth visiting the caves of Qumran, the famous place of discovery of the manuscripts of the Hesites. And if you are traveling by car and you can’t get enough of the views from the buses, the place Wadi Qelt, the mystical Martian desert, is also worth your attention. Roman aqueducts, the Monastery of St. George, the oldest Hasmonean synagogue in the world, and water springs are all waiting for visitors. All these attractions are located along Highway 90, near Jerusalem.

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2 comments
  • Marina Samorosenko to 06/12/2016 at 17:59

And we did not have time to go to Masada, when we were on vacation at the Dead Sea. We wanted to go from the opposite side (from the city of Arad), arrived by car there at about three o’clock in the afternoon. We were told that we will not have time to go up on foot (there is no cable car from that side). So we will have to settle for your photo report

  • Ariana by 12.06.2016 at 21:31 Author

It’s a pity we didn’t get to go up to Masada. But now there is a reason to go back! We too, when we talk about another trip to Israel, we definitely want to go up the trail again.

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