Many visitors to the Dead Sea also like to tour its historic surroundings – there are quite a few interesting sites around this salty, beautiful lake. One of these sites is Masada: the ruins of an ancient fortress scattered on a majestic cliff overlooking the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert. What is the story behind Masada and why is it so symbolic to the Jewish people? If you plan a visit there, make sure you read this article beforehand.
Masada (“Metsada” in Hebrew) is the name of the mountain on which the Masada fortress was built. It is more like a plateau or a table mountain, and quite isolated from its surroundings, as there is only one narrow, winding pathway leading up, fittingly called “the Snake”. According to Josephus Flavius, an ancient historian and the only one to record what happened on Masada, Masada was first built by the Hasmoneans, a Jewish dynasty who ruled Judaea in the years between 140-37 BC. Then, between 37-31 BC, King Herod the Great built two palaces there and further fortified the place as a refuge for himself in case of a revolt. However, it proved to be a refuge for Jewish rebels about 90 years later.
In 66 AD, Masada was a Roman garrison when the Sicarii, a group of Jewish extremists, overcame it and settled there. In the next several years, more Sicarii people joined as well as other Jewish families following their expulsion from Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple. The Sicarii used Masada as a refuge, and also a base from which they raided the surrounding countryside.
The famous siege of Masada happened in 72 AD. Lucius Flavius Silva. The Roman governor of Judaea, led the Roman Legion X Fretensis, as well as several auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners, to a siege of Masada, which was the last Jewish stronghold at the time. About 2-3 months of siege culminated in the construction of a siege ramp and tower, the purpose of which was to enable the attackers to enter into the fortified hill. However, upon their storming forward, in the spring of 73, they discovered death and destruction. The 960 Zealots, trapped in their fortress, preferred to die rather than surrender, setting fire to all the buildings and committing mass suicide. There were only a handful of Masada survivors left – 2 women and 5 children.
The symbolism of Masada
The story of the Masada siege and consequent suicide of its inhabitants in deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition. The Zealots did not kill themselves because they were afraid or hopeless – they believed it was God’s will that they die bravely, and more importantly, free. In addition, according to Josephus Flavius, what took place in Masada was not strictly suicide (as Judaism forbids suicide); instead, the people had drawn lots, killing each other in turn until only one man was left, the only one to actually kill himself.
For many, this story symbolizes Jewish heroism, courage and strength; not only that last harrowing decision is a symbol of this, but also the fact that the people of Masada managed to keep hold of the mountain for nearly three years.
How does one get to Masada? You could either join an organized trip to the site or travel there independently. Many group tours to the Dead Sea and Masada leave from central locations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem daily. These are usually day trips, but if you want to climb Masada at sunrise, you can join a special sunrise tour which leaves from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem three times a week. Private tours with a guide are also a great option and can be booked independently.
If you want to travel to Masada independently, you can do so by bus or car. Buses to the Dead Sea area leave daily from Tel Aviv (421) and Jerusalem (486), and make a stop at Masada Junction. To get to Masada by car, you can either drive south on Road 90 (if you’re arriving from the north or Tel Aviv), or, if you’re coming from Jerusalem, head east on Road 1 and turn right to Road 90 when the road ends.
While you’re in the area, it could be worthwhile to visit nearby sites, such as Ein Gedi, Lot’s Wife (the pillar of salt symbolizing the tragic historical heroine from the sermon on lot’s wife looking back, in the Book of Genesis)., the Qumran Caves and of course, the Dead Sea.