On our third full day in Israel, we woke up at 4:00 AM in order to hike up Masada in time for the sunrise. Masada is a large mesa on the eastern edge of the Judean desert. Its plateau (1800 feet by 900 feet according to Wikipedia) was the site of a winter palace of Herod the Great, a Roman client king of Israel. As we have learned, Herod took on a lot of his building projects as a direct result of his insecurity about being a Gentile king of Israel and Masada was no different. The palace was immensely fortified, requiring any callers to face a difficult hike up a 1300 foot cliff face (more on that later) and a 12-foot thick wall. The site remained in control of the Romans until 66 A.D., when the Sicarii, an extremist Jewish group, overcame the Roman garrison in the First Jewish-Roman War. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., the Sicarii and their families fled Jerusalem and made Masada their home base. In 72 A.D., the Roman emperor struck back, laying siege to the fortress and perhaps even using Jewish slaves to build a rampart. After several months, the rampart was completed, and the Romans breached the fortress wall with a battering ram, only to find 960 dead bodies. The Sicarii had chosen death over slavery. Because suicide is strongly discouraged in the Jewish religion, the men of Masada had each killed their families, come together to set the fortress on fire, then drawn lots to kill each other in turn. Only the last man had to take his own life.
After downing granola bars (no idea what flavor…it was in Hebrew and had only pictures of unrecognizable berries and nuts), we got on the bus shortly before 5AM and made the 10 minute drive from our hotel to the base of Masada. After a fairly hilarious 2-minute stretch, we started up the Snake Path, lit only by the moon. The Snake Path is very aptly named, as it simply winds back and forth up the east face of the cliff. And boy was it a difficult hike. Essentially 35 minutes of dragging yourself uphill over increasingly rocky ground as the temperature climbed from the 60s to the 80s. And just think, they used to do it in sandals! We all did make it to the top before the sunrise (nothing short of a miracle!) and the hike turned out to be well worth it. I’ve been to Palm Desert, CA, Las Vegas, and Tucson, so I thought I knew desert, but I’ve never seen a desert like this: sun-baked, arid, and brown forever. Not a plant in sight. And hot even at 6am on March 5th! I can’t imagine what it’s like now.
And the fortress itself was a sight to behold as well. Rows and rows of food storage, an armory, a shaded former synagogue, thermal Roman-style bathhouses, an intricate system of water cisterns, and of course the remains of the palace itself. Looking out over the edge of the cliff, you can still see the marks left on the ground by the camps the Romans occupied while they built the rampart.
After a rather exhausting trudge back down the Snake Path, we were back on the bus to pack up for the Dead Sea. It was about 6:45AM. Oh yeah, and speaking of the Roman rampart, turns out it’s still there and often used by those who want a more authentic experience than the cable car, but not quite as authentic as the Snake Path ;)