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Located on an isolated rock plateau in the remote southern part of the Judean Desert, Masada takes a special effort to reach. Yet famed for the Jewish uncompromising fight for freedom in ancient times, Masada is among the most popular tour destinations in Israel.

A Brief Historical Review

The benefits of Masada were possibly recognized already by King David and later by the Maccabees. However, the first to develop and build in Masada was King Herod. During the first century BCE he transformed the mountain into a fortified desert palace. He may have also stored some of his wealth at the site, but it was mainly intended as a refuge for the king. Fearing his subjects, Herod designed several fortified palaces throughout his kingdom, but Masada was the biggest and most protected of all. It included a casemate wall, two palaces, 18 storage halls, 2 bath houses, and a large swimming pool. To ensure the water supply, Herod’s engineers gathered seasonal flash flood water in 12 giant cisterns. Slaves and donkeys would then haul the water up to the top of the hill. But Masada’s famous and tragic chapter would take place some 70 years later.

Masada’s Conquered by the Romans

Following the failure of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire, Thousands of Jews fled from Jerusalem. Some ran away to Masada, held by a militant Jewish group called the Sicarii. However, by 73 CE the Romans decided to capture the rebels of Masada. The tenth legion marched to the site and formed a siege wall, eight camps, and a massive ramp up the side of the mountain. The rebels attempted to reinforce the wall facing the ramp, but it was in vain. When loosing hope, the leaders of the rebels favored a mass suicide to being massacred or taken into Roman slavery. All women and children were killed, and the man killed one another by lots. The Romans conquered the site but found only 2 women and 5 children alive. The site would be briefly settled again only centuries later, by Christian Monks.

The Site Rediscovered and Excavated

Following the Muslim conquest of the land the site was again abandoned, and eventually its location was forgotten. Masada was rediscovered in 1838 by American Scholar Edward Robinson. In the 1960s the state of Israel launched an archaeological expedition to the site. Led by the famed archaeologist Prof. Yigael Yadin, the team uncovered most of the site. The expedition discovered a wealth of finds. Most dramatic were the personal artifacts originally owned by the Jewish rebels and a synagogue they had built.

Masada as a National Symbol

In the early 20th century the Zionist movement adopted Masada as a symbol for Jewish heroism. Youth groups would climb up the steep ascent, and shout on the top the famous slogan “Masada will never fall again!” To this day Israeli and overseas Jewish youth groups follow the tradition with a hike to the top of Masada at sunrise. Until recently IDF units also held induction and graduation ceremonies on top of Masada.

Touring Masada

touring masadaFollowing the excavations of Masada in the 1960’s, a large conservation project was launched, restoring mosaics and walls, and setting paths , shade and drinking fountains. At the base of the site a visitor center and a museum were also added, as well as a cable car. Nevertheless, touring Masada can be a challenge, especially in the summer. It is about 2 hours drive from Jerusalem, and the temperatures during the day can reach 100 Fahrenheit. It is recommended to get to Masada before 10:00. But whether you climb Masada at sunrise or reach it by cable car, Masada is an unforgettable experience. The wealth of finds relating to its dramatic history, the majestic beauty of the desert, and the panoramas of the Dead Sea will continue to resonate with you also long after visiting the site.

Touring Masada can be integrated in a Day tour of the Dead Sea Area

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