06 November 2013


Masada is a place of which I had never before heard but will now always remember. After calling the tour company the morning before to report our coach was then 30 minutes late, we were apparently assigned the first stop the following day. As we were leaving our hotel room at 7:14 for our 7:15 pickup, we unexpectedly received a call stating the tour guide was downstairs. Super. Two hours and a half dozen stops later, we finally had all of our passengers and were officially on our way to the lowest point on earth.

Yet another hour on the road awaited us but the views and the experiences were certainly worth the trip. To anyone visiting Israel, Jordan or Palestine, Masada is a must see.

The drive was spectacular. We drove from Jerusalem east on Highway 1 into the desert (turns out there really is one!). 

Even in the desert, trees abound

We learned of small groups of desert clanspeople called Bedouin. To me the Bedouin were similar to the American Amish in that most Bedouin villagers maintained simple lifestyles foreign to electricity or running water, while others were allowed modern conveniences such as cell phones. The clans also reminded me of gypsies due to their nomadic lifestyle and regional work practices.

The homes, once tents made of goat hide, now seem to be constructed with scrap pieces

According to our guide – who, by the way, fluently and beautifully spoke Hebrew, English, French and Spanish throughout the day (and made me sometimes feel again like a stupid American only fully understanding English and half understanding Spanish) – the Bedouin often accepted visitors but visitors must follow proper protocol.

“If someone wants to approach the village,” Liat explained, “the person must first call out, ‘Hello….hello! Is there anyone at home?’ The wife stays in the tent all day and is only allowed to greet visitors if the husband is home; otherwise, she must stay inside the tent until the husband returns. If the man is home, he and his wife will come out and greet the visitors, welcoming them into the settlement.”

The host will then excite the camp, alerting nearby desert villagers that guests have arrived by possibly playing drums, by lighting a fire or by battering the objects needed to make special tea or coffee. The compounds consist of the family dwelling and a guest dwelling for wanderers or those wishing to experience the Bedouin life, so guests can sleep over. Internet research unveiled tourist experiences in Bedouin-type camps.

As we drove further from the City of Peace we were introduced to another famous city that we could just make out that clear day. The city in the distance, like most in the area, was settled well before Christ walked the earth. In fact, archaeologists have reportedly found settlements within the city dating back to 11,000 years B.C.

Among sand dunes and brown colors, a City of Palm Trees populated as well with plentiful springs is known for its wall and a march led by a man named Joshua; Jericho is one of the oldest occupied cities in history. Looking at the city, even for just a minute, I had a moment witnessing a integration of Bible stories, historical evidence, archaeological evidence and actual existence right in front of my eyes.

We continued on Highway 1 until we met a real-life painted masterpiece: the Dead Sea, a glistening embodiment of peace and incomparable beauty, the focal point amidst light blue watercolor strokes that serenely depicted the Jordanian mountains in the background.

We drove along the Dead Sea’s western shore, from the north to the south. I had never before seen a view more spectacular.

As we drove along the coast, more and more trees sprouted broadly from the ground like flowers blossoming in the sun. Paul and I wondered what type of palm trees were grown along the banks and we were quickly advised that the trees produced dates. Dates, we were told, produce honey. Who knew?! I decided to research these honey-producing dates.

Interesting fact #1: A single date tree produces approximately 350 pounds of dates

Interesting fact #2: A U.S. botanist was able to sprout a date tree from a 2,000-year-old date seed discovered in Masada

Interesting fact #3: That date seed grew into a tree that was nicknamed Methuselah

Interesting fact #4: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Israeli dairy farms are more productive than farms in any other country, meaning the individual cows produce more milk on average than cows in every other nation – obviously, this has almost nothing to do with dates, except…

Interesting fact #5: Israel really is the land flowing with milk and honey!

After a three-hour journey, we arrived in Masada, a city that was constructed in the first century B.C.; Herod the Great erected palaces along the cliffs. Yes, cliffs.

A model of the palace

The city was built on a plateau 400 meters above the ground, requiring either a steep snake path climb or a cable car ride that we were required to take to the city’s entrance. Yet even at that height, we remained below sea level.

The entrance to Masada's gate

Learning about Masada was both fascinating and confusing as we heard stories that seemed to overlap as we confused names of key individuals. Names changed, names were shared and stories repeated. See if you can follow.

We begin with the story of a man named Joe…O.K. Yosef, who later becomes Josephus (see how this can get confusing?).

Yosef ben Matityahu was born in Jerusalem and grew up to first become the head of the Jewish forces in Galilee during the First Jewish-Roman War in the 60s. Just to clarify, that’s not the ‘60s, that’s the actual 60s. Approximately 70 years after Herod built his palaces in Masada’s rock, a revolt began in Caesarea, located between what is now Tel Aviv and Haifa. The uprising reportedly initiated due to tensions associated with amalgamating Greek culture into clashing Roman laws and Jewish rights during Caligula’s reign and exploded years later when Nero ruled the empire.

According to my research, in the year 66 the Great Revolt (or FJRW) began when Roman citizens were attacked; the Roman Empire retorted, destroying the Second Jewish Temple (on the Temple Mount; Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Jewish Temple) and executing 6,000 Jewish people within Jerusalem. Commence war. Enter the Romans, striving to dominate the world.

Yosef learned that the evil Romans were coming after Galilee and, after all of the neighboring districts were destroyed, he knew his district could not hold out hope much longer. The Jewish people, with Yosef as their leader, knew that they were outnumbered, outmanned and out-equipped so they were likely shaking in their sandals, but they fought the good fight.

After reportedly fighting for more than a month, Yosef and a few dozen soldiers took to hiding in a cistern, a water storage cave, where they made a suicide pact. The Jewish soldiers decided that it was better to be dead than to be a Roman slave, so they resolved to kill themselves. This wasn’t a drink the Kool-Aid day, however. This was war.

At the end of that day, only Yosef was left standing. Instead of committing to the original plan, he decided not to kill himself. He conversely decided to surrender to the Roman army.

Our protagonist proves his immodesty and valor by using his sweet talking skills and advising the Roman general, by the name of Titus Flavius Vespasianus (known as Vespasian) that Vespasian was soon to become emperor. Upon hearing his prophecy, in the year 67, Vespasian spared Yosef’s life and took him into custody. The following year, Nero died. That was the year of the Four Emperors.

In 69 Titus Flavius Vespasian did assume the emperor title and became Caesar Augustus. At Caesar’s rise to power, Yosef was released from captivity and became a Roman citizen under the Flavius family name. Yosef became Flavius Josephus and served as an adviser to the royal family.

Liat, giving us the history lesson

On to Part II.

The next year the Second Jewish Temple was destroyed and a group of Jewish extremist rebels known as the sicarii (dagger men, in Hebrew) attempted to rid the land of the Romans using concealed daggers (old school shivs). After attempts to force a war upon their fellow citizens, one leader, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, and some of his men fled to the abandoned Masada in order to escape the Romans.

Which brings us to Masada.

The Romans eventually found Eleazar and his men, along with their families, atop the plateau. They began to build siege works (giant tools required to break down Masada’s walls) and slowly progressed up a giant ramp. In the meantime, the Roman army set up camp all around the mountain.

The remnants of the ramp, center, leading up the cliff

The ramp from another angle
The Roman camps are identified by the square outlines

In 73 the Romans broke the wall and entered the city reportedly finding burned structures and the bodies of more than 960 men, women and children. The story as it’s recorded reveals a familiar saga.

Eleazar spoke to his people, came up with a plan and successfully convinced all of his citizens to follow along. “The Romans are evil,” he told them (P.S. this part is not historical in text, just in case you try to research my banter). They all agreed. “We hate the Romans!” he yelled. They all agreed.

He professed: “If the Romans come against us, they will surely conquer us and take us as their slaves. And we are too good to be their slaves! We have too much pride to be their slaves! We would rather die proud Jewish people than to live and be slaves to the Romans!!”

And they agreed. Brace yourself; this is about to get ugly.

The men came together and agreed to kill their wives and children. And they did. Then Eleazar devised a system whereby men drew lots (names carved into pottery pieces like we throw names into a hat) to determine who lived and who died that day. Ten names were to be drawn; those 10 men would be responsible for killing all other men. Once only 10 men remained, they would again draw lots to determine which one man would be responsible for killing the remaining nine men, later ending his own life by his own hand. This is another example of the mass suicide pact.

So the husbands killed their wives and children before the men drew lots. Ten men were selected to kill the rest; one man was selected to kill the nine. This time the man killed himself. According to our guide, bones for a man, woman and child were found in a single room and archaeologist determined that the male bones could have been the last man to have killed himself in his home beside his family.

The story of Masada was recounted and recorded by one Flavius Josephus, who was paid by the Roman royal family to compose a complete history of the Jewish population. According to Josephus, two women and five children survived the “mass suicide” by hiding in one of Masada’s cisterns at the time of the massacre. Sound familiar?

When Masada was constructed, Herod ensured that the inhabitants would have water. He oversaw the development of 12 cisterns, dams and aqueducts that stored rainwater and pooled nearby resources to be utilized as drinking water and for hygiene purposes, even in social bath houses (pictures of the bath house are featured a little later).
A cistern

An aqueduct with a cave

Water jug

Aqueduct near the base of the city

No one in this lifetime can vouch for the history as written because Josephus is the only recorder. He was commissioned by the Romans to write a complete Jewish history. He subsequently wrote five books including a seven-volume History of the Jewish War where he recounts the tale of Masada. In addition to Josephus being the only source of Masada history (and, frankly, his own pre-Masada history), historians know that the Romans liked stories, anecdotes, entertainment. Josephus’ writings could have been a large work of fiction developed with the sole purpose of tugging at Roman guts and minds.

Archaeologists discovered the bodies of 28 people among Masada’s ruins, a number not close to the near 1,000 who according to Josephus perished. But archaeologists are split on how the evidence can be interpreted. According to one woman who discovered some of the ruins, if there was a mass suicide and the Roman soldiers broke through the wall, some soldiers would likely have been left behind to clean up the mess and secure the city. On the other hand, if the Romans broke through the wall and found the Jewish army waiting, there would have been a war with more bodies that would have later been moved.

I guess we will just have to wait until we hear it from the man upstairs.

Masada is one of the locations where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Parts of Deuteronomy and Ezekiel were found inside a synagogue that is now home to a present-day scribe who sits inside the building, copying the Torah text onto scroll paper, letter by letter, each page, like the desert in which Masada rests, a picture of perfection.

The rooms where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The black line seen on these structures depicts the original structure below the line and a reconstruction utilizing the wall remnants above the line so that the buildings' appearance could be displayed.

Seating area in the Masada Synagogue. This space continues to be used for celebrations such as a bar mitzvah. 

A room off the main seating area is now home to a local scribe who spends his days copying the Torah 

The scribe was on a break while we were in the area but he is said to spend more than seven hours a day, hand writing each letter behind a glass wall like a fish in an aquarium

Per Jewish law, each scroll must be without error. If a single mistake is made anywhere on the page, the scribe must scrap the page and start the page over. 


The pictures do not do Masada justice. The area was so vast and the ruins just oozed from the ground like a volcano's magma.

These are man-made lakes to the south of the Dead Sea utilized for their minerals

Masada, still below sea level, looking out upon the Dead Sea and the Jordanian montains

An old Byzantine church

Mosaic flooring, which was popular among several Masadan buildings

This bird, reportedly only found in Israel, has orange feathers on the underside of the wings

The remains of Herod's palace

Peering over the edge of the highest level, we could see the lower levels. If we were not with a tour group, we may have been able to explore the other levels. Next time!

We had an opportunity to tour Herod's bath house, the elite country club of its day

Original flooring

Ritual bath

Hallway made for short people; I did not duck, for the record - this tunnel was my height

Ancient steam room

Making our way into the former storehouses, which were reportedly burned at the time of Masada's mass suicide

The end.

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