The vantage points from the top of Masada in Israel are wildly inspiring. You might glance down in awe dumb struck by the wonder you’ve been cherished enough to witness first hand. For myself, memories of past glory days and hikes from my travels came rolling back. Machu Picchu, Sigiriya, Mount Amos, Mount Kinabalu and Danxiashan all flickered through my mind as I marvelled on the views down into the deserts, the Dead Sea and the very mountain I was stood on. Masada. A bit of perspective needed though. A sadness is hidden within. And it feels odd. It’s important to know the story of Masada to get an understanding as to where this glorious mountain top fits into the whole equation of life, death, war and peace.
Masada became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 and deservedly so. It was built by “Jonathan the High priest”, at least according to Josephus. It was ruled by King Herod, who was the King of Judea. It was an ancient Roman style fortress. It features not just the palace, main fortress and living quarters but camps by the base and an assault ramp. It is believed to be the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world.
Masada has a completely decorated history, from its early days in the Hasmonean Period (103 BC) through the Herodian Period, the Great Revolt and the Roman Siege of Masada, which is where the sadness comes into play.
What happened at Masada?
Mass suicide. At least according to sources, and reported in detail by Josephus Flavius so that’s the story we go with. Basically Masada was the last remaining Jewish rebel stronghold in Judea in the year 73 AD. The Romans , with their 8,000 troops apparently built camps all around the base of the mountain. These bases are still visible today or at least the ruins of them. The plan was to invade of course and make the whole place theirs. But the Jews had other ideas. Except they were destined to lose the battle, so one of the leaders, Eleazar Ben Yair gave speeches to the 960 people living on Masada and told them that suicide was the way forward.
The opinion was that when the Romans came to attack, they would find all the jews already dead and slaughtered, meaning the victory and siege of Masada would be bittersweet for the Romans. Hell, they may even have caught disease seeing all these dead bodies at the top of a mountain, or on the cliffside. And with a self inflicted mass act such as this, it would also have been hard for the Romans to move in there after the siege. The thought of a mass suicide of dead Jews lying there would in essence not be a victory for the Romans. It was the belief of the Jews that they did not want to become slaves or to be killed by the Romans so they did it themselves. And they did. They set parts of Masada alight, they killed themselves and they killed each other.
When the Romans came to the top of the mountain they saw the dead Jews, except for seven people it is believed who remained alive. These were two women and five children, who had been hiding in the cisterns. Everyone else was dead.
The raised plateau and mountain top of Masada is located on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert. Masada is near the Dead Sea and not far from En Gedi, a desert oasis and nature reserve. Masada itself is a lone mountain in a plateau of mountains which are 450 metres above the level of the Dead Sea.
Masada may be an old city or fortress, but its isolated location adds to the wonder of it. I’d recommend going to Masada for sunrise. It’s a truly rewarding hike up to the top, and when that orange sphere rises through the Jordanian skyline in the East, shining it’s rays over charming Masada in Israel, you’ll have your fix of travel memories to last a lifetime. Sunrise at Masada is sensational and needs to be seen.
For sunrise, hiking up the mountain is the only realistic option. The cable car to the top doesn’t open until 8am, so walking up the mountain is what you will do. You walk up a twisting path on the mountain side known as the “Snake Path”. Its name relates to the zig zag design of the path rather than the threat of an unexpected viper rolling around on the rocks as you ascend. Get onto the snake path and make your way to the top. It should take about one hour. Faster hikers can kill it in 45 minutes. Even the “slow coaches” will have it done in 90 minutes. Going back down is considerably easier and shorter.
You’ll need to head up when it’s dark. It varies on the time of the season, so do check things out in advance. We were there in early October and we woke up at 3 am, took a 4 am bus and started the hike before 5.30 am. We were at the top by 6.30 am before the sun had risen in the distance.
You can go anytime of day and it is open from dawn until dusk. Going up late at night isn’t an option, however but anytime during the day is fine. If your schedule means you have to go during the daytime, the views will be equally amazing, the hike a fantastic experience and you’ll love it. Just be aware that in the daytime you might encounter more tourists, tour groups on guided tours and you won’t see the magical sunrise. Another added advantage of doing it for sunrise is that you avoid the crowds and can have the peak mostly to yourself.
Once you’re at the top, you’re free to walk around at your own leisure. You can do it all, you can pick and choose and you can walk around and relax. Despite the history, it’s a pleasant place to walk around. Information boards are everywhere in Hebrew and English. The key places to see are The Peak – the top of the Plateau, The Western Palace, The Synagogue and The Northern Palace.
If you really want to explore more of the historical aspects, you can spend much longer there and take in the Western Entrance too, including the tomb of the Zealots and the siege ramp path. There is also a massive tourist centre at the Eastern entrance (the main one) to check out. Souvenirs are available there.