After our lovely respite at a spa along the Dead Sea we continued to Masada. Meaning “strong foundation or support” in Hebrew, Masada is a naturally hewn fortress, built right out of the mountaintop.
Reaching the gates of Masada’s sprawling 840 acre complex means getting to the top of a 1300 feet barren mountainous desert plateau. Many people choose to hike the “Snake Path” which was originally built around 35BCE. It is a winding switchback road of about 2.7 miles. It is not a difficult hike and the road is fairly wide with not too great an incline, but in the desert sun with no cover it can be uncomfortable.
Instead we opted to take the cable car and through this video, you not only get to see portions of the snake path but also hear a little commentary from our great guide, Moody:
This is the path we took to get to the entrance, as Moody mentioned, once we left the cable car:
And this is the view from Masada:
Herod the Great, King of Judea, (who ruled from 37 to 4 BCE recognized the defensive advantages of Masada, Herod built his complex there as a winter escape for his family members as well as a haven from enemies.
Herod was a monster, but he was also a brilliant architect. His “hanging “ palace is overwhelming in its design, and the engineering expertise required to build this in such an extreme environment with just the tools available in the first century BCE is nothing short of miraculous. Most astounding is the water system that can collect, in a day’s rain, run off water that could sustain life for 1000 people for two or three years. Herod created a lavish royal hideaway on top of an arid, isolated mountaintop.
Frankly Herod also used this fortress as punishment for his wife. If you recall, I mentioned in a previous post that while Herod was a master builder, he was also a cruel megalomanic despot. The beautiful Jewish princess, Mariamne was offered to Herod as a means to soften Herod as he tried to destroy the Jews of Judea. Despite the fact that he fell in love with Mariamne and that their marriage would make him royalty (Herod was a lowly Judean commoner who had curried favor with the Romans) he proceeded in his schemes to destroy the Jews (such a common theme).
Herod murdered most of Mariamne’s family. He did have to answer to Rome for some his cruelties and so left word with his sister’s husband that should he be found guilty, Mariamne was to be killed. Joseph the brother-in-law instead fell in love with Mariamne and in a fit of jealously his wife, Herod’s sister Salome told Herod and Joseph was killed. Judean soap opera.
When Herod next had to leave his Mariamne for official business, he left her in Masada – a veritable prison. He also left Salome there. When he returned, Salome told Herod that Mariamne was planning on killing him, so Herod in a fit of rage ordered the death of his beloved.
Here is a photo of one of the lower terraces of the Northern Palace with a graceful yellow winged grackle bonus:
I also found a fascinating schematic showing the various parts of the Masada plateau – including the Northern Palace:
After Herod’s death the Romans built a garrison at Masada but when the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans broke out in 66 A.D., a group of Jewish rebels took over the Masada complex. A legion of 8,000 Romans built a siege wall, and after several months of siege without success, the Romans built a tower to try and take out the fortress’ wall. When it became clear that the Romans were going to take over Masada, on April 15, 73 A.D., all but two women and five children within the complex took their own lives.
After several centuries, Islam took hold of the region. Masada was then abandoned for nearly 13 centuries, until 1828, when it was rediscovered. Over the years it has been explored, mapped and excavated.
So what is there?
- A storerooms complex of 29 rooms that held the food and weapons that sustained Masada’s inhabitants
- A tall palace on the northern edge built by Herod, with several rooms, a central hall, and a semicircular terrace with a stunning view of the desert valley and Dead Sea below, which “hangs” on the edge of three rock terraces
- A western palace with several rooms surrounding a courtyard with a water cistern
- Roman bathhouses with fresco walls and an immersion pool, as well as a larger public immersion pool and a swimming pool built by Herod
- A water system, which channeled water from the gate to cisterns – the runoff collected from a single day’s rain could allegedly sustain over 1,000 people for two to three years
- A Herod-age synagogue
- A Byzantine church, with walls and floors decorated in colorful pottery and stone mosaics, and a Byzantine monastic cave
The view at the top:
There is no way, in words or photos to ever adequately illustrate the historical import of Masada as well as its aura of power. It is the site of brilliant architecture and the site of anguish and death. It is the site of unbreakable bravery, heroism and strength in the face of insurmountable odds. It is the site of holy worship and incorruptible faith .
It is Masada.