The majestic fortress of Masada rises above the Dead Sea in the middle of the Judaean Desert. Today, it’s one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions.
History of Masada
Masada’s history is almost exclusively known through the eyes of the 1st century Jewish Roman historian, Josephus. It’s believed the site of Masada was first identified, settled and fortified around the 1st century BC by a Hasmonean king called Alexander Jannaeus, although archaeology is yet to confirm this.
Sometime around 37BC, Herod the Great, King of Judaea, captured Masada and refortified it, turning into a true fortress that could be a refuge in case of unrest or a revolt. As well as being a fortress, he also ensured it was comfortable – inside the walls were two palaces, even featuring a bath house, which is remarkable given the desert location.
In 66AD, Masada was captured by the Sicarii (Jewish rebels), overcoming the Roman garrison. Most famously, it was the site of a major siege around 73/4AD. Roman legions surrounded Masada, building a vast ramp to reach the fortress: rather than face capture and defeat, those within the fortification burnt everything they could, before committing mass suicide – killing women and children first, before eventually each other. As a result, Masada has become synonymous with resistance, the fight against oppression and Jewish heroism.
The site of Masada, which was unearthed in the 19th century, clearly marks out the passage of the siege. Major archaeological excavations took place during the 1960s, and revealed many of the fortress’ secrets. Thanks to its remote location, the site had been incredibly well preserved and offers a fascinating insight into the palace that once stood there.
Masada is breath-taking, even today: the sheer determination to build such a site so far away from civilization, and the serious efforts made by the Romans to capture it. Climb to the top for sunrise for romantic views over the desert, and gorgeous light.
Access is either via cablecar (speedy) or the long, sweaty climb up the side of the mountain itself. The Snake Path wiggles its way from top to bottom: traditionally, it was the only way up or down, and didn’t have enough space for two people to pass each other. It’s worth walking up or down it to appreciate quite how remote Masada is.
The ruins of the fortress and palaces are fascinating to explore: it’s worth taking plenty of water and a hat as the desert sun beats down hard. The Masada Museum, on the way up, is worth stopping in – it contains lots of archaeological finds and further brings Masada to life.
Getting to Masada
Masada is close to the Dead Sea: head down Route 90 and turn off at the intersection marked Masada. You can also access Masada via Route 31 (turn off at Arad) but this route is particularly wiggly. Bus 444 will take you there from Jerusalem, although check the most up to date timetable as services can be irregular.
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