While visiting Israel, be sure Masada National Park and the Dead Sea make the itinerary. Just 60 miles and a 1.5 hour drive southeast of Jerusalem, both places may be visited in a day.
Masada National Park
Masada, a UNSESCO World Heritage Site, is an ancient fortress perched on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Today, its ruins are a popular tourist attraction, and the plateau may be reached via cable car, the Snake Path or the Roman Ramp.
Entrance to the park is 31 ILS, and the cable car which may be purchased one way or round-trip costs extra. On extremely hot days, the Snake Path hiking times are restricted to early morning hours, thus any mid-morning arrivals and later will require cable car tickets.
The Snake Path and cable car are located at the Eastern Entrance along with a restaurant, gift shop and a museum which requires advance reservations. The Roman Ramp and sound and light show may be found at the Western Gate. The Eastern entrance is the most popular choice, at least for tour operators.
The Snake Path
The Snake Path ascends approximately 1,100 feet over a half-mile, and due to its steepness takes approximately 25-45 minutes to reach the enormous plateau. Alternatively, the cable car is about a three minute ride.
History of Masada National Park
The Herodian Period
The plateau, which measures 1,000 ft by 2,000 ft, was first fortified in the first century BC by the Hasmonean King Alexander Janeaus. Herod the Great, who recognized Masada’s strategic advantages, expanded the fortifications between 37 and 31 BC. He constructed two luxurious palaces which included greeting halls, his residential wing, bathhouses, and guard rooms.
In addition, the complex included a swimming pool, stables, well stocked storerooms, columbarium towers, as well as an intricate water system with dams and cisterns. Herod the Great built Masada as a refuge from enemies, but also used it as a winter palace.
The Romans and the Jews
After the death of Herod in 4 BC and the annexation of Judea to the Roman Empire in AD 6, the Romans stationed a garrison at Masada. During the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans which began in AD 66, a Jewish rebel group, the Sicarii, overtook the garrison. Upon the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, the last of the Jewish rebels fled to Masada which was under the command of Eleazar Ben Yair.
The Sicarii, whose name was derived from the sica (a curved dagger), added mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) and converted the stables into a synagogue while they lived at the fortress. By AD 73 or 74, Masada was the last rebel stronghold, and it fell under siege to the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis, led by Flavius Silva.
The legion, consisting of 8,000 troops, built eight camps around the base of the plateau, a siege wall, and a ramp up to the Western Gate. After a two-month siege, the Romans successfully battered and burned the wall above the ramp, only to find all but five of the 960 Jewish men, women, and children dead. The Jews decided they would rather kill themselves than to live as Roman slaves.
In order to ensure the suicide mission, which is against the Jewish belief, twelve men wrote their names on shards of pottery, and they drew names like drawing straws. This decided the order in which they would kill each other, before Eleazar Ben Yair, their leader, would take his own life. The chards along with other artifacts may be found in the museum at the East Entrance.
The Romans remained at Masada until the beginning of the 2nd century, after which the fortress was left uninhabited until the 5th century at which time a Byzantine monastery was founded by hermits. The Byzantine church, known as Marda, was the last structure constructed before the area was deserted and later identified in 1838 some 1,400 years later!
Now, to visit these ancient ruins. The Snake Path and the cable car both reach the plateau in the same area which is close to the Northern Palace. Once we all arrived, some via the cable car and some via the trail, our guide Jalal with G Adventures toured us around the plateau.
We began at the baths which is on the top level of the Northern Palace. From there, we checked out the view from the northern edge. The Roman camps and the Dead Sea can be seen from this area.
Below us, was the rest of the Northern Palace as it sits on different ledges of the outcrop. There is a great model at the viewpoint which provides perspective of the whole structure.
Continuing from the view point toward the West Gate, we investigated the cistern and the water system on the below cliffs. Thereafter we passed by the synagogue and the columbarium towers used to raise pigeons and for lookouts before we reached the Roman Ramp.
From the Roman Ramp, Jalal left us to explore on our own. He said there was an Olympic sized swimming pool to the south, so we headed that way. Perhaps my perspective was off on this grand plateau, but it hardly seemed Olympic.
That said, his comment got us to go to south which had wonderful views that we would have likely missed as there were less ruins that way. We continued around to the east while taking in the views along the way before we took the cable car down for lunch.
If I weren’t hungry, I would have likely stayed on the plateau longer to further investigate. I liked the black line drawn on the ruins which outlined the actual ruins versus the reconstructed. It was a useful technique to give visitors a better idea of the buildings, but to also show what remained intact.
Down below, we ordered quick lunch at the cafe before we visited the museum which is unique. We weaved through very dark corridors with displays of lit up in cases. Right before the exit are the shards with each of the twelve men’s names, individually cased. The display is very poignant.
We spent about three hours at Masada, but it could easily take five hours depending on the depth of the history and archaeology explored.
The Dead Sea
Masada is a perfect place to visit before a late afternoon dip in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is 1,512 feet below sea level and is the lowest place on earth. It is the deepest hypersaline lake in the world and is 9.6 times saltier than the ocean. Due to its salinity, plant and animal life cannot survive, thus the name.
As with Masada, the Dead Sea is a popular tourist attraction. It may be visited from both Israel and Jordan. I had previously visited from the Jordan side, but had yet to visit from the Israel side.
In Israel we visited a facility with a cafe, gift shop, changing room and showers. We changed into our swimsuits, left our bags with our guide, Jalal, and headed to the beach.
It’s a smoother entry into the sea on the Israeli side, though the facilities are nicer on the Jordanian side. Of course the big draw is to float which is easy to do with the Dead Sea’s salinity being 34.2%. It’s best to skip shaving beforehand and to keep your head above water.
The mud with special microorganisms is considered good for the skin, so many people lather up. Skin products may be purchased at the gift shop, though the Dead Sea is receding rapidly due to companies ciphering water into basins to make these products, so shop wisely. Overall, it is a fun experience once!
Masada and the Dead Sea may be visited as a day trip from Jerusalem, or it may be added in as an overnight stay during a longer tour through Israel. We visited as part of a G Adventures tour and continued north to the Sea of Galilee thereafter. To be continued…ETB
OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT ISRAEL YOU MAY LIKE
- Top Places to Visit in Jerusalem
- Bethlehem and the West Bank
- Places to Visit Around the Sea of Galilee
- The Mediterranean Coast of Israel
- Touring Tel Aviv
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