Masada is the name for a site of ancient palaces and fortifications in the South District of Israel on top of an isolated rock plateau, or large mesa, on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea.
Masada became famous after the First Jewish-Roman War (also known as the Great Jewish Revolt) when a siege of the fortress by troops of the Roman Empire led to a mass suicide of the site's Jewish Sicarii fugitives when defeat became imminent.
Masada is both recognized for its Roman fortifications and as a symbol of Jewish cultural identity.
Map of MasadaLoad map
As a kid, I loved to read P.M., a German popular science magazine. You would get stories about stealth bombers, ghosts, space lifts, and occasionally history. It was here that I first read the Masada legend.
In 60 CE, Jewish freedom fights (i.e., rebels) had revolted against the Roman occupiers and had valiantly fought for the liberty of their homeland. After being expelled from Jerusalem, they had retreated to Masada, an impenetrable fortress on top of a large rock overlooking the Dead Sea. They felt sure that there was nothing the Romans could do. But Romans being Romans, there was something they could do: They built a large ramp and siege tower. But when they finally breached the walls, they found all rebels dead. They murdered each other by drawing straws, and only the last rebel had to commit the eternal sin of suicide.
As other pointed out, the suicide pact is considered a legend nowadays. It's only mentioned by Josephus, a Jewish author with close ties to the emperor, considered a traitor by other Jews, so he may well have been biased. Side note: It's also Josephus who first mentions Jesus Christ.
But the suicide pact to me is not the legend that I meant. It's what modern day Israel has turned Masada into: a patriotic symbol of the state of Israel. Indeed, some official info signs in Masada call the site and rebels "patriotic". For me, this is never appropriate when dealing with supposedly universal world heritage sites.
My personal, sober reading of the First Jewish Roman War which ended with the siege at Masada is this: Riots were started due to economic hardships and taxation. Some Jews revolted, others did not, some like Josephus relented. I think I would have been on Josephus' side. Any sensible citizen of the Roman Empire at 60 CE knew what a revolt would trigger: the Romans sending their legions and mercilessly applying the full force of their empire to this province. The result was a foregone conclusion, even if the Romans had to put a bit of extra work in by sieging Masada.
One casualty of the war was the Temple in Jerusalem, which was desecrated, plundered, and burnt after Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 CE. Another were the Jews themselves who got taken as slaves, the rebellions against Romes a major reason for the Jewish diaspora. I am hard-pressed to see the Jewish upsides of all the rebellions. For a more elaborate discussion, I recommend the Rest is History podcast.
Leaving history behind, Masada is two things:
- It's a well preserved fortress and palace dating back to Herodot with later Roman structures in stunning scenery.
- It's the remnants of a Roman siege.
I think the latter point is often overlooked by the previous reviewers. I have not seen any as tangible remains of Roman (or for that matter any other pre modern) siege warfare as here in Masada. You still see the camps they set up around the fortress way down below you. The rebels must have laughed at the Roman effort. And then you see the ramp and how the Romans crossed over. And it's hard not to be astonished by the Roman engineering.
Apart from the siege warfare and the views, Herodot's palace tucked on the cliff side (picture) is the highlight of any visit.
Masada can easily be done as a day trip from Jerusalem, thanks to the a Highway 1 cutting right through the West Bank. While all car rental agencies say, you can't take your car to the West Bank, what they actually mean is this: You can't take your car to any area in the West Bank, that has a red "Israelis not allowed to enter" sign. This is way smaller, and not discernable from looking at official maps.
As mentioned by Wojciech, the fast access is from the Western entry and follows the Roman ramp. The default entry with visitor center and cable car is the Eastern one.
We skipped paying and waiting for the cable car and hiked up ourselves. I would say 45min and a reasonable fitness level are fully sufficient. One thing to consider, though, is that you don't get any shade before lunch as the snake trail faces east. Especially in summer, this could be gruesome, so bring water and sunscreen. In any case, you should have bought one variation of the Israel pass as it covers Masada (but not the cable car), reduces hassle and saves you money.
While You Are There
En Bokek has a large, open Dead Sea beach. Note that due to the sinking Dead Sea, many historic beaches now have sinkholes and are closed. En Gedi is an oasis with an old synagogue. Supposedly, King David hid here from his mortal enemies. Further North, is where the Qumran scrolls (T) were found.
Personally, I wanted to see Lot's Wife and Mount Sodom a bit further down. It's on the way to Eilat and Beer Scheeva where you can tick off Incense Routes and Ancient Tels.
Well, almost as good as Jersulem according to the rating but just glancing through the reviews you should notice they ain't all that great.
The most breathtaking are the views. Outstanding. And slightly remote which makes it bit more challenging to tick off. There is a good reason this place opens up an hour before sunrise. So I camped at the nearby spot (no facilities but it's free, legal and helped my budget quite a bit, Israeli hotels are expensive!) and drove over to the gate at 5am in March. I wasn't alone but the other couple were slow plus not having a fancy Israeli Pass makes buying tickets a little slower too, they didn't make it up for sunrise. The hike requires a good 45min of steeeeep ascent to reach the site. The snake path is not forgiving and there are only a few places to rest and you should be pretty fit to attempt it. You don't have to reach the top to view a glorious sunrise but it's kinda the goal here. Little did I know that others had arrived from the west gate with only a 15min ramp path already. You can also stay in the inn below by the way, if comfort is required but the cable car doesn't start until 8am or something.
So, the issue is that once you reach the top there are hardly any highlights anymore. Closeup it all seems rather lackluster and uninteresting. The only thing I would recommend are the outlooks you can see sticking out at the "front" (Southeast) of the site.
Love how they converted one of the ancient buildings into a modern state of the art restroom, half a star extra just for that! ;)
The legend of Masada - the mass suicide of several thousand members of the Jewish revolt in 73 AD who chose death over slavery when the fortress was about to be sacked by the Roman forces - holds a surpassing symbolic value of Jewish pride and resolve. That, coupled with the fact that Masada is a large and varied archaeological site, puts Masada on the itinerary of every possible tour of Israel. It is the second most-popular destination in Israel after Jerusalem. I visited in November of 2019. Whereas on the same day I had the biblical tel of Be'er Sheva and the Incense Route town of Mamshit practically to myself, at Masada I was but one of several thousand visitors.
For me, the impressiveness of Masada is first and foremost manifested in the breathtaking views towards the Dead Sea and its basin. The most interesting archaeological remains all belong to the last third of the 1st century BC when King Herod the Great transformed a small fortification on an isolated rock plateau into a pleasure retreat and a possible sanctuary in case of a revolt (which, one could say, predicted its fate).
The site at the top of the plateau is pretty extensive, although its southern part is primarily empty spaces with partially surviving structures here or there. They range from ritual baths to columbariums to smaller palaces to regular dwellings. In a few instances, the interior parts of the buildings survive in some shape, and the most eye-catching decorations are found in the form of floor mosaics. In the northern complex, there are even fragments of wall decorations that survive until present times.
The northern part of the site is most densely packed with partial walls and buildings. The structures in this area were auxiliary to the Northern Palace, the principal creation of King Herod, a three-level incredible achievement of design and architecture built into the side of the cliff, whose lower terrace was still over 250 meters above the valley floor. General outlines, a few columns, and some decorative elements are all that remains of that beauty today.
Masada is the costliest of all national parks in Israel to visit by far, but if you have an “orange card” Israel Pass – which allows one entry to almost every national park over the course of two weeks – Masada is included on that (and will instantly justify half the cost of the entire pass). From the visitor center at the foot of the mountain, you can either walk to the top at no extra charge or take a cable car for an additional fee that itself is higher than most other national park entry tickets. Walking to the top along the winding mountain-side path is not something that an average visitor would attempt – and even if you do, you should avoid doing that at midday. Majority of people – including every single group tour – opt for the cable car, which at peak times can lead to 25-30-minute waits to board it (additionally, to get to the cable car on the way up, you have to go through a video presentation, consisting of a barely coherent “Cliff’s Notes” version of an otherwise good movie which is freely accessible on YouTube).
You need about three hours to see the site in depth (not counting the time for ascent/descent), although I can see how the highlights may be covered in half that time. The brochure seems detailed enough for an unaccompanied visit, although in a site such as this having a professional guide alongside might lead to a more illuminating experience.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
Masada is one of the the most visited tourist attractions in Israel. It's the total package: spectacular scenery, Roman ruins, and Jewish significance. This shows when arriving at the cable car station in the middle of the Judean Desert because it is absolutely packed with tourists on the May morning when I visited on a day trip from Jerusalem in 2018. When I first arrived, I found that the experience of exploring the remaining structures might not be as interesting as it sounded on paper. Having seen so many Roman ruins on my trip to the Holy Land, especially highlights like Jerash, Bet Shean, and Korazim, Masada's ruins didn't impress me that way. However, there are definitely a few very different things about Masada that make it a deserving WHS.
The cable car stations are the only modern structures in the vicinity of the site, which is a blessing and a curse. Almost the entire landscape is completely uncompromised, but the modern structures are somewhat distracting. I would've preferred they leave the site inaccessible to keep the visitor numbers lower, but to each his own. Walking through the inner parts of Masada, it honestly wasn't very picturesque, since the view of the vast deserts below is blocked, and the buildings didn't seem as impressive as others I had already seen. The small jagged blocks of sandstone used just didn't offer the same majestic Roman feel to them as the marbles and basalts in the Galilee sites. They were pretty much the same old residential areas, bathhouses, cisterns, and churches. There's a room with a few original frescoes, though, so check that out. That's where similarities stop.
More buildings are actually armories, barracks, surrounding walls, and other military structures, as this is a fort. There's also the palace of King Herod at the far end, overlooking the Dead Sea. There's also a cool columbarium, just to note. Then there's the setting. Being located on a tiny isolated plateau may mean good views for the tourists that come here today, but back then, that meant challenges, as it may mean for those who choose to walk the trail up. Firstly, how did they keep a water supply? This was no lush Machu Picchu, this is the Judean Desert. With gravity and climate against them, they devised a complex system of drainage basins, pathways, and donkeys to make sure their cisterns were always filled (sorry, that's as far as I can explain it at this point). But it wasn't just hard for the inhabitants, it was even more difficult to invade. That's why Masada is home to the best examples of Roman siege works in the world. Its military camps and siege ramp can be seen from the edge of the fortress, making their historic mark on the desert landscape.
Lastly, this is, of course, one of the most symbolic sites for Jews as the site of their mass suicide to escape surrender to the invading Romans, and that's a theme that should stay with you as you immerse yourself in the Masada experience. Overall, Masada is a unique, not to mention extremely scenic, site in the world. It's significance as a monument to Judaism, a model Roman military remain, and a once lively fortress and palace with a unique water supply system mean it's definitely worth exploring and looking into deeper than I once looked at what I thought of as underwhelming Roman structures. Lastly, the parts of Masada that didn't have to be reconstructed are actually marked by a black line, like in the photo, so it's really easy to see how authentic the site is.
Before thinking you are about to see a major Jewish site, note that Masada is a Roman ruin all in all, the only exception being a synagogue converted from a stable by the Jewish rebels. Despite Josephus' claim that Masada was first occupied by the Hasmonean, no archaeological finding can support such claim and the current consensus points to Herod founded the site as a fortified palace between 37 - 31 BC.
Many have even cast doubt on whether the mass suicide by the Jews had in fact occurred, pointing to the fact that Josephus couldn't possibly have known what had transpired since he was based in Rome at the fall of Masada, this compelling story nonetheless has taken a life of its own. This was a major source of national pride during the first decades of the founding of Israel, a myth that rallied a newfound nation-state to not let its precarious homeland to fall again.
Whatever really happened during the Jewish revolt, blessed with a dramatic setting and a well-preserved core, Masada is well worth a visit. Being able to also see the Dead Sea from a bird's-eye view is just icing on the cake.
Read more from DL here.
Masada is undisputedly one of the must-see places in Israel, and, in my opinion, the best WHS in that country, after Jerusalem. There are two access points to the fortress – western and eastern. Be careful which one you want to reach, as the distance between them is more than one hour by car. At the eastern one you may choose a cable car or 45-60 min hike, while at the western only hike is available, but the path is much easier and takes up to 20 minutes (it is not difficult and my 3-year-old son was able to climb it by himself).
Masada is a really well-preserved 2000-year fortress. If most of the buildings had roofs, it could almost look like a fully reconstructed place. Even some original mosaics remained to this day. And the sights from the top of the mountain – at Judean desert and Dead Sea - were really marvelous. The bonus – to the joy of my son – was a domesticated ibex, who was not afraid of tourists and stood still posing to photos. Although Masada is a bit distant from other tourist spots in Israel, I highly recommend visiting it, especially when combined with Dead Sea.
Kenneth B. Jackson
I have been to Masada 3 or 4 times the first with a tour party, the remainder with me acting as the guide for friends and colleagues and always during the Summer months.
I would always recommend the walk up (take plenty of water) and allow plenty of time to wander. It is imposing, it is much larger than perhaps you would surmise from below, but equalkly there is not much shade. However, take your time and see the different areas between the many tourist groups. I would recommend trying to get there either very early or go up for the last few hours of the day and wait until the number of people have fallen away. And if the people startgetting on your nerves look out at the views which on a claer day are outstanding.
Masada holds a special place in the hearts of the Jewish people. It was there, in the first century A.D. the Jews made their last stand on Masada, in the end deciding to commit suicide rather then be captured. Because of this, Israeli army cadets take an oath of allegiance when the join the army, on Masada, with the word "Masada shall not fall again!". I was lucky enough to see one of these ceremonies during my trip, quite a site, many uniformed soldiers with guns, in the midst of 2000 year old ruins, the Israeli flag flapping in the breeze.
Dawn at Masada is very special, the light coming up over the hills, makes the stones glow with a radiance of their own.
the ruins themselves are fairly standard of the middle east, what makes them impressive is that they are on a massive mesa in the middle of the desert. its hard to see how they could move all the material needed to build the fortress/palace complex. The Highlight of my trip to Masada, was looking over the edge, a viewing all the way down. The second highlight was the bathhouse, very nice mosaics.
interesting fact: if you yell from the top of Masada, you can be heard at the bottom. but if you yell from the bottom, you can't be heard at the top. So during the siege, the Jews would rain down insults on the romans, who where unable to reply.
Zillions of sightseeing tours can take you from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to Masada and it is actually the most convenient way to visit the site. It’s an interesting piece of Jewish history to be told here, but not the most interesting of World Hertitage sights. Once up on the mountain you realise easily that it was virtually inaccessible for the Romans, who needed more than two years to concur it and when they finally did, all Jewish people had then committed mass suicide.
Make sure that your “tour” also includes a visit the Dead Sea. Wheather you want to roll yourself in healthy mud or just walk along the salty beaches is up to you but don’t miss the opportunity to visit a unique piece of nature. The Dead Sea is located -400 meters below sea level and the water contains over 25% salt. Make sure you have not shaved before you jump into the water…!
Whilst non Jews might not be fully aware of the history surrounding the event for which Masada is most famous they will have come across the word “Zealot”. These were anti Roman rebels who, during their final stand at the fortress, committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of their captors.
The Masada Fortress is at the top of an imposing 440 metre high “battleship” of a crag which stands apart from other hills close to the Dead Sea. It is eminently defendable.
Today its grandeur is perhaps slightly diminished by the huge car park and the cable car which takes many visitors to and from the summit. There is a footpath however (not difficult) which would qualify you to wear one of the “I conquered Masada” T shirts if you were so minded!
The view from the top over the Dead Sea is very fine and there is enough left of the excavated “buildings” to give a reasonable picture of what existed at the top. The site is well worth taking in if you are in Israel.
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