Masada is a dramatic rock outcrop rising out of the flat landscape of the Judean Desert in southern Israel. The rock mesa overlooks the Dead Sea just 20km away and is about 400m high with a flat rock plateau summit covering about 500m in area with steep cliffs on every side. This isolated cliff top holds a special place in the region’s history and Jewish history because of two major events. Masada’s place in history and the invaluable archeological finds made here have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Herod’s Palace Fortress at Masada
Between 37 BC and 31 BC Herod the Great (73 BC-4 BC), the Rome-appointed King of Judea had a massive palace fortress built on the top of this high, remote outcrop. He had the complex built as a retreat and refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. This incredible complex of structures included massive store rooms, guard houses, water cisterns, the commandant’s office, watch towers, a bath house and elaborate palaces for the king.
The Northern Palace is particularly impressive, built on the edge of the plateau on three descending terraces. The Western Palace is the largest structure on the summit covering 3700m². Today we can still see parts of the ancient mosaics and murals that decorated the bath house and palaces. Thanks to the remote location and dry climate much of the original fortress has survived.
The Siege of Masada
The second important event on Masada took place during the First Jewish-Roman War (66 BC-73 AD). A group of Jewish rebels desperate to preserve their freedom entrenched themselves on Masada’s plateau summit. They inhabited what remained of Herod’s abandoned fortress and took advantage of the excellent fortifications and inaccessible location to protect them from the Romans. The Jews of Masada became the last stronghold against the Romans. The Romans held Masada under siege and used all of their military strength to try and scale the steep cliffs.
In the end the Romans built an earthen ramp on the western flank of Masada so that they could bring their battering rams and military machines closer to the fortified walls that surrounded the summit. Once they eventually managed to breech the fortified walls the Romans found that all the 960 Jews had taken their own lives rather than be captured, tortured, enslaved or forced to forsake their religion. Masada became a symbol of heroism, martyrdom, selfless courage, Jewish determination and commitment to freedom of the Jewish nation.
Today visitors can enjoy a visitor center at the base of Masada where there is a small museum, food court and souvenir store. From there you can take a cable car to the summit. Alternatively it is possible to hike the “Snake Path” a twisting and turning path up the face of Masada. At the top of Masada visitors can tour the many excavated structures of Herod’s fortress and enjoy the breathtaking views across the desert and the Dead Sea.