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Masada: Ancient Fortress

Masada: Ancient Fortress

DESTINATIONS, ISRAEL, MIDDLE EAST, SITES TO SEE, TOURS

Masada (Hebrew for fortress) is a place of grim and majestic beauty that has become one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols as the place where the last Jewish stronghold against Roman invasion stood. Next to Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination of tourists visiting Israel.

See other posts on visits in Israel such as Behind the Wailing Wall  or a Stroll Through a Hasidic Neighborhood in Jerusalem.

 

Masada, near the Dead Sea, was excavated 50 years ago. Photograph: Duby Tal / Albatross / Alamy/Alamy
Masada, near the Dead Sea  Photograph: Duby Tal / Albatross / Alamy

 

We were excited to see that Masada was on our National Geographic Expedition tour. Masada is an ancient fortress that sits on top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.  The plateau of Masada is located on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert near the shore of the Dead Sea, between En Gedi and Sodom. It is a mountain bloc that rose and was detached from the fault escarpment, surrounded at it base by Wadi Ben Yair on the west and Wadi Masada on the south and east. The plateau, 450 meters above the level of the Dead Sea, is approximately 650 meters long and 300 meters wide. East of the mountain is sediment left by the ancient Dead Sea, scored by numerous cracks.

Visitors enter at the base and have the option to hike to the top on snake path(about an hour) or opt for the quicker, far easier route: the cable car. We were limited on time and some of our group members had mobility issues so we took the cable car up.

 

Snake Path Masada
Snake Path – Masada National Park
Snake Path, Masada
Snake Path – Masada National Park
Heading up on the Cable Car to Masada
Heading up on the Cable Car to Masada
Cable Car Base in Masada at the top
Cable Car Base at the top of Masada, Israel 

 

Going up on the cable car really made us realize how big the fortress really is.  It made us wonder how material was carried up.  We went up with our guide from  Mejdi Tours. You cannot get a guide at Masada, you have to arrange for one beforehand. Some people like the ‘short tour’ which would include the Western Palace, synagogue, breach in the wall, the bath house, store houses and to overlook the Northern Palace. This would take about an hour to an hour and a half at least. If you do your research before hand and are more adventurous, then you may also want to walk the whole way around the top, go down into the water cistern at the southern end, explore the ruins in the casement walls, and go down the two levels (if you don’t have vertigo) into the Northern Palace. The longer visit could take 2-3 hours if you want to see all the sites, photograph the desert which is spectacular, and not rush.

 

Masada Fortress with the Dead Sea in the background.
Masada Fortress with the Dead Sea in the background.
Masada Ruins, Israel
Masada Ruins, Israel
Masada Ruins, Israel
Masada Ruins, Israel
Judean Desert from Masada
Judean Desert from Masada

 

Masada’s remote location and its national defenses were the advantages that transformed it into a fortress during the Second Temple period.

 

Part Of The Northern Palace of Masada, Israel
Part Of The Northern Palace of Masada, Israel

 

Herod, who ruled from 37 BCE to 4 BCE chose the site as a refuge against his enemies, and as a winter palace. During his reign, luxurious palaces were build here in addition to well-stocked storerooms, cisterns, and a casemate wall. After the death of Herod in 4 BCE and the annexation of Judea to the Roman Empire in 6 CE, the Romans stationed a garrison at Masada.

 

Model of Masada,
Model of Masada Fortress
Romans garrison at Masada
Romans garrison at Masada
Storerooms at Masada
Storerooms at Masada
Storerooms at Masada
Storerooms in the Northern Palace at Masada

IMG_4736

 

A Columbarium (housing structure for doves and pigeons) is seen on a tower on the  west casemate wall. It was used for multiple purposes – as an observation tower, raising pigeons for their meat,  and bird droppings which were used as a fertilizer for growing food.

 

IMG_4738

 

The synagogue on Masada is one of the oldest in Israel, and was probably used for worship by Herod’s family. During the Great Revolt, Masada’s defenders made a number of structural changes: using stones taken from the palaces, they added several columns, combined the entrance with the prayer hall, and added stone benches. Fortunately, for these extremely observant Jews, the house of worship already faced Jerusalem.

 

Synagogue on Masada, Israel
Synagogue on Masada, Israel

 

The Large Bathhouse served the guests and senior officials of Masada. It consisted of a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and several rooms, all with mosaic or tiled floors and some with frescoed walls. The largest of the rooms was the hot room (caldarium). Its suspended floor was supported by rows of low pillars, making it possible to blow hot air from the furnace outside, under the floor and through clay pipes along the walls, to heat the room to the desired temperature.

 

Masada North Bathhouse
Masada North Bathhouse
Mosaic tile on the walls of Masada, Israel
Mosaic tile on the walls of Masada, Israel
Remains of Masada bathhouse
Masada Large Bathhouse Remains 
Mesada Large Bathhouse Remains
Mesada Large Bathhouse Remains

 

More than two thousand years have passed since the fall of the Masada fortress yet the dry climate and its remoteness have helped to preserve the remains of its extraordinary story.

 

Exploring the ruins at Masada
Exploring the ruins at Masada

 

Declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in 2001, Masada National Park features a sand-colored Visitors’ Center which hugs the slopes, a fascinating, interactive museum, and a  thrilling audio-visual production. But the most exciting portion of a visit to Masada is a tour of the mountaintop — which is accessible by foot by the winding “snake path” or by a wheelchair-accessible cable car that runs from the tourist center at the feet of Massada to the top.

Make sure to bring water, a hat and good walking shoes.

See other posts on visits in Israel such as Behind the Wailing Wall  or a Stroll Through a Hasidic Neighborhood in Jerusalem.

 

About the author

Carmen Edelson is the Founder and Senior Editor of Carmen's Luxury Travel. Carmen has been traveling the world for over a decade. Our travels allows her the opportunity to pursuit her itch to travel to the best luxury destinations, and experience those first class tastes from around the world.

8 Comments

  1. The Dessert Engineer
    March 15, 2015 at 6:43 pm
    Reply

    What a unique and amazing place to visit. I really like that view of the Dead Sea from up above. I am always amazed by how resourceful people were back then – like the Columbarium and the bath house that you described on this post.

    • Carmen
      March 15, 2015 at 11:46 pm

      I agree they were very resourceful. They stored food for months in storage rooms and had all the supplies to keep themselves barricade from the outside world.

  2. Anda
    March 15, 2015 at 7:50 pm
    Reply

    Grim and majestic indeed, Carmen. This place is so loaded with history, I’d love to visit it someday. For now I am sort of reluctant to travel to that area. Hopefully Israel will see better and more peaceful times.

    • Carmen
      March 18, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      Hi Anda,

      Israel has so much biblical history to see. We had been wanting to go for years, and each time we had something plan a war would break out. I hope you get to go someday.

  3. Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields
    March 18, 2015 at 10:50 am
    Reply

    Wow. What an amazing place!

    • Carmen
      March 18, 2015 at 3:26 pm

      Hi Lyn,

      I can only imagine what it would of been like living in the fortress back in those times. What a view!

  4. Sandy N Vyjay
    February 14, 2017 at 1:00 am
    Reply

    The Mysterious barren landscapes of Masada have a wild beauty about them. A gasp escaped my mouth as I looked at the pictures, they are so stunning. The view of the dead sea and the surroundings are really spectacular. Want to get there some day.
    Sandy N Vyjay recently posted…Weekend Fun With Nilkamal Pillow Fight ChampionshipMy Profile

    • Carmen Edelson
      February 14, 2017 at 3:24 pm

      It’s a very special place! I hope you can visit, Sandy!

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