One of the most popular tourist destinations in Israel is Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. Its unique geographical formation, challenging hike, and tragic story combine to make Masada a can't-miss stop on a Christian Holy Land Tour. Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
History of Masada
Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews, originally fortified Masada as a place of refuge for himself in case of a revolt. The fortress sits atop a plateau, and the steep cliffs and narrow footpaths provide a natural defense, which Herod saw as a distinct advantage, though he still added his own fortifications. In 66 AD, at the beginning of the Great Revolt, a group of Jews conquered the fort from the Romans. Following the destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 AD, the population swelled as Jews fleeing the exile and persecution in Jerusalem came to join their fellow refugees on Masada. The Jews modified the fortress to fit their religious needs, constructing synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths), the remains of which can still be seen today. After an initial failed attempt by the Romans to breach Masada, they laid siege to the Jews and began constructing a rampart. After three months of siege, the Romans successfully penetrated the fortress with a battering ram.
However, instead of taking the Jews slaves as they had planned, the Romans found that all 960 Jews - including women and children - had died, apparently victims of mass suicide. Two women and five children managed to survive both the suicides and the Roman invasion, and later told their story to the famous historian, Flavius Josephus. Josephus' account is the only written evidence of the story of Masada, since it is never mentioned in the Talmud or other rabbinic writings. According to Josephus, Eliezer Ben Yair, the group's leader, declared that death was preferable to enslavement and forced prostitution by the Romans. He also ordered that everything be destroyed so the Romans would not be able to benefit from it - except the food reserves, which they left untouched to prove that the Jews chose this end, and they were not forced into suicide because of starvation. Suicide is forbidden in Jewish law, so according to the legend, the men killed their families, then drew lots to kill each other, leaving only one man to commit suicide. Pieces of pottery with names inscribed on them have been uncovered, lending credence to the lottery theory.
Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin began extensively excavating the area in the 1960s, uncovering intriguing bits of history. The Roman ramp remains, and can be climbed by foot. Synagogues, storehouses, homes of the rebels, paintings from Herod's palace, and Herod's bathhouses have been uncovered and restored. Coins minted by the Jews and hundreds of ballista balls have been excavated. Water cisterns, built by Herod, connected through an intricate channel to nearby wadis were discovered as well; this water source accounts for the rebels' ability to survive for so long in such unforgiving desert terrain. Fragments from the Torah were found, as were the remains of twenty-eight people. The human remains were buried with full military honors at Masada in 1969. Of particular interest to the tourist on a Christian tour to the Holy Land are the remains of a Byzantine church excavated on Masada.
Many who come on a tour to the Holy Land want to climb Masada the "real way" - via the famous "Snake Path." It is a challenging, but exhilarating, hike up to the top of Masada. While trudging up the narrow, winding, brutally hot path, it becomes clear why Herod felt his choice of refuge would keep him quite safe from invaders. The hike is best done early in the day, preferably before sunrise, as it is extremely hot and shade-less. Bring plenty of water no matter what time you go! For those who want to get to the top without the hiking boots, the park runs a cable car which arrives at the same destination. From March to October, every Tuesday and Thursday, a sound and light show is performed, highlighting the history of Masada, and in 2007 the Yigael Yadin Masada Museum opened up at the site.
Masada, the site of the disastrous deaths of so many, has emerged as a symbol of hope and heroism. In a moving tribute to the rebel fighters, the ceremony for Israel Defense Forces soldiers who completed their training is held atop Masada. The soldiers climb the path at night, and the ceremony ends with the declaration, "Masada shall not fall again."