Although its prosperous lifespan lasted less than a hundred years, Masada holds a surpassing symbolic value of Jewish pride and resolve due to the circumstances of its demise in 73 CE. The Roman legions laid siege to the seemingly impregnable fortress where a few thousand members of the Jewish revolt had found sanctuary. When the defenses were breached and the fortress was about to be sacked, the remaining people inside decided to kill themselves and their families rather than accept slavery.
So the legend goes – and there are scholarly doubts that this was exactly what happened. Nonetheless, the emblematic nature of the place, coupled with the fact that Masada is a large and varied archaeological site, is the basis of the World Heritage recognition. Masada is on the itinerary of every possible tour of Israel, the second most-popular destination in Israel after Jerusalem.
The Hebrew name of the place is מצדה, pronounced me-tsa-DAH, which simply means “fortress”. In the last third of the 1st century BCE King Herod the Great transformed a small fortification on an isolated rock plateau into a pleasure retreat and a possible sanctuary in case of a revolt, which, one could say, predicted its fate.
For me, the impressiveness of Masada is first and foremost manifested in the breathtaking views towards the Dead Sea and its basin.
There at the bottom of the shot is the visitor center at the foot of the mountain.
The archaeological site on the top of the plateau is pretty extensive, although its southern part is primarily empty spaces with partially surviving structures here or there.
Right in front of us in the above perspective are what is known as “officers’ quarters”,beyond them to the right is the Byzantine church, and further beyond that is the Western Palace.
Here are assorted details of other structures around the site. They range from ritual baths (mikveh) to columbariums to smaller palaces to regular dwellings.
In a few instances, the interior parts of the buildings survive in some shape, and the most eye-catching decorations are found in the form of floor mosaics.
In the northern complex, there are even fragments of wall decorations that survive until present times.
The north part of the site is most densely packed with partial walls and buildings.
The structures in this area were auxiliary to the Northern Palace, a pleasure creation of King Herod. This model illustrates what incredible achievement of design and architecture this was in its time, from around 25 BCE until the destruction at the hands of the Romans.
The lower terrace of the three-level palace is still over 250 meters above the valley floor.
General outlines, a few columns, and some decorative elements are all that remains of that beauty today.
Another model, of the Western Palace, built as one of the first main structures in the complex around 35 BCE.
A couple of shots of the mountains to the west.
The square outline in the shot above is the boundary of one of the Roman siege forts. Another one – with partially reconstructed walls – are close by the visitor center and serves as the background for this cable car shot.
A wider perspective of the cable cars includes yet another siege fort outline.
To the east between Masada and the Dead Sea lies the natural reserve of Havarei Masada.
A couple of parting views towards the visitor center as I was waiting to board the cable car.
A visit to Masada is frequently combined with a stop in Ein Bokek for a dip in the Dead Sea, which is exactly what I did afterwards.
Masada is the costliest of all national parks in Israel to visit by far, but if you have an “orange card” Israel Pass – which allows one entry to almost every national park over the course of two weeks – Masada is included on that (and will instantly justify half the cost of the entire pass). Cable car, however, is for an additional fee, which itself is higher than most other national park entry tickets. Walking to the top along the winding mountain-side path is not something that an average visitor would attempt – and even if you do, you should avoid doing that at midday. Majority of people – including every single group tour – opt for the cable car, which at peak times can lead to 25-30-minute waits to board it (additionally, to get to the cable car on the way up, you have to go through a video presentation, consisting of a barely coherent “Cliff’s Notes” version of an otherwise good movie which is freely accessible on YouTube).
You need about three hours to see the site in depth (not counting the time for ascent/descent), although I can see how the highlights may be covered in half that time. The brochure seems detailed enough for an unaccompanied visit, although in a site such as this having a professional guide alongside might lead to a more illuminating experience.