If ever there was a desert destination to inspire, the desert fortress of Masada is surely it. And reading about Masada before you head down to the south of Israel is a must; it’ll leave you filled with awe and admiration, as well as itchy feet ready to carry you to the top of the mountain upon which Masada sits.
Masada is the Hebrew name (it actually derives from the Hebrew root for fortress) for an ancient rock plateau in the south of Israel (just south of the Dead Sea). It is famous for housing palaces and a mighty fortress largely built by King Herod the Great.
In a quick aside – the breathtaking scenery in the area, especially the view from the top of Masada (and especially at sunrise), is quite simply stunning, with amazing views across the Judean Desert and Dead Sea. DO NOT forget the camera!
In order to fully enjoy a day at Masada, it is essential for you to acquaint yourself with major events in Masada’s history, which in turn, give an insight into the history of the Jewish people, who hold this fortress close to their hearts. In fact, Israeli soldiers who used to complete their basic training were sent to Masada as part of a swearing in ceremony, complete with the declaration that “Masada shall not fall again” – these days that ceremony takes place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Masada: A brief history
Early records indicate that King Herod The Great (believed by some to be behind the legendary biblical story of ordering the death of every first-born son in Israel) built a fortress to protect himself from revolts or external threats. These fortifications were later taken over by Jewish fundamentalists known as the Sicarii, some of whom came down from Jerusalem after the fall of the Second Temple.
In 72 AD, the Romans mounted a massive siege of the Masada fort, including the building of a giant rampart on one side of the mountain in order to reach the top. Upon breaking into the fortress with a battering ram, they discovered that the 960 inhabitants had committed mass suicide. As Judaism prohibits suicide, it is believed the inhabitants drew lots to kill each other, with the last remaining inhabitant the only one to actually commit suicide.
Here’s a great clip telling us more about the history of Masada.
Masada: What to see
OK, so getting to the top is your first mission and an integral part of your Masada experience. There are two options: hike it up the side of the mountain or take a cable car.
In our opinion, the thrilling natural beauty of Masada National Park is best appreciated on the Snake Path, a long, winding route up the plateau that takes about an hour to complete from Masada’s eastern parking lot – A Must Do, if you have the energy for it! The crags of the surrounding cliffs, the salt pillars of the Dead Sea and the endless sky stretching out for miles and miles are sights you will take to the grave, honestly guv! For those seeking a faster route, the ramp trail ascends from the western parking lot, veering steeply up the plateau for a 20 minute climb.
For those who are unwilling or unable to undergo physical exertion, a cable car operates from the Dead Sea side and takes about 3 minutes. However, if you are able-bodied, there is really no excuse for not taking the hiking trails. Taking in the vast landscape is a vital part of your Masada day, so don’t miss out!
The first priority for most visitors once at the top of the mountain will be to wander around the Jewish fortifications and soak up some ancient history. Undoubtedly, you will want to visit the massive Northern Palace which resembles an overhang on the plateau’s steep face. The wall paintings within the palace have been restored and provide an intriguing insight into daily life as well as the culture prevalent under Herod’s rule.
In addition, the fort boasts other attractions such as gigantic water cisterns, Roman baths and storehouses. For history fans, it is easy to become lost in the grandeur of the palace. There is a supreme, ageless beauty to the place, and taking the effort to become well-versed with Masada history only makes it easy to visualise its 960 inhabitants committing their final, gruesome act of defiance in the various dwellings.
Don’t miss out on the local museums which display a vast array of historical artefacts in a highly entertaining dramatic setting. Audio guides can also be rented at a reasonable price and provide insights on the history of various artefacts and rooms.
Military buffs should definitely set aside time to examine the siege wall (2 kilometres long and over 2 metres thick), siege ramp and ancient weapons left over from the Roman camps. Many historians consider Masada to be the best-preserved siege site in ancient history.
There is also a sound and light show about the inhabitants’ final days, which is displayed on the western side of the mountain. It runs from March to October ever Tuesday and Thursday.
Masada: best time to visit?
You can visit Masada all year round, though in the summer months it will be extremely hot. Bring plenty of water!
From April–September the Masada National Park is open from 8 A.M.–5 P.M (though the Snake Path is open one hour before sunrise – be aware that on extremely hot days the Snake Path can be shut). From October–March it’s open from 8 A.M– 4 P.M. On holidays and Friday evenings, it closes one hour earlier than mentioned above. The cable car runs similar hours, though closes an hour earlier.
Prices vary according to the options you take (cable car/Snake Path) but the cheapest you’ll pay for an adult is if you take the climb up the Snake Path (27 shekels/for children 14 shekels). If you want the cable car and entrance to the Masada site, you can get tickets for 54 shekels (for children 27 shekels). If you’re in a big group, you’ll get it a little cheaper.
**** Prices correct at the time of writing this article****