My visit to Israel caused me some uncomfortable despair about the human race’s capacity to endure. This is perhaps the opposite response many visitors have. They see Israel (and Masada) as a shining symbol of the triumph of the Jewish people’s will to survive despite thousands of years of persecution and banishment. My trip to Israel had me obsessively studying the history of the region. What I see are successive layers of construction and destruction as various groups, one after the other, have claimed the right to live in and rule the “Holy Land”.
Mr. Excitement let it be known that he is
sick and tired of my pessimism and would much rather discuss sunnier topics. At some juncture, I will indulge myself in a full on “we’re doomed” pity party blog post, but today, I will share our visit to one of Israel’s most revered sites, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, the ancient fortress of:
Despite some of his major failings as a human being (i.e. being paranoid and murderous), King Herod of Judea (73 – 4 B.C.) had great vision as a builder. Of course, back in the tumultuous times of King Herod’s reign in what is now the nation of Israel, being paranoid did not mean they were not out to get you. Aware of his not insignificant list of enemies, King Herod ordered the construction of a refuge of palaces, storerooms and water cisterns within siege worthy battlements on a high mesa in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, near the Dead Sea. Construction was completed in about 30 B.C.
King Herod was a vassal king of the Romans, and after his death, Rome’s rule became increasingly onerous and persecutory for the Jews in and around Jerusalem, their holy city. In 66 A.D., the Jews began a violent rebellion against the Romans and in 72 A.D., a group of about 960, including wives and children, sought refuge at Masada, Herod’s desert stronghold.
The rebellion was brutal and violent on both sides and the Romans were intent on wiping out the rebels. Hence, they besieged the Jews on Masada with an estimated force of 10,000 troops. With access to King Herod’s long ago abandoned food stores and water system, it became clear that the Jewish rebels would not be starved into submission, so the Romans constructed a ramp up the mesa and managed to breach the walls of the citadel. To this day, one can stand atop the Masada mesa and see the outlines of the Roman camps, their ramp and the breach in the defensive wall.
Based on a roughly contemporaneous account by Flavius Josephus (a Jewish rebel who eventually sided with the Romans), when it became obvious that defeat was certain, the leader of the rebels on Masada, Elazar Ben-Yair, and his followers decided to take their own lives and those of their families rather than submit to the Romans. It is said the men drew lots to choose ten to kill the others and then again to choose the one who would kill the other nine before committing suicide.
There has been recent conjecture by even Israeli historians as to the veracity of this heroic version of the events at Masada; however, there is no doubt that people lived and died there during a tumultuous and disastrous time for the Jewish people. Masada is an imposing natural and historic monument that deserves to be a part of any visit to Israel.
Consistent with the history of the Jewish diaspora, we were taken to visit Masada by Mr. Excitement’s first cousins who we met for the first time during our trip to Israel. Mr. E’s father escaped Europe to the United States in 1939, while his father’s sisters and parents sought refuge in Israel after the Second World War.
Depending on traffic, it is about an hour and a half to two hour drive from inside Jerusalem southeast to Masada. If you don’t have nice relatives who volunteer to pick you up at your Jerusalem hotel and drive you to Masada, it is well worth arranging to be taken there by one of the many day tours that leave from Jerusalem. A rented car and a public bus from Jerusalem are other options. There is a hostel at the site and many Dead Sea resort hotels a short distance away.
Everything I read about visiting Masada admonishes visitors to wear breathable clothing, sun block and good walking shoes, and to bring a sun hat and plenty of water. This is especially true if you plan to hike up the switchbacks and stairs of the Snake Trail to the ruins atop the mesa during the heat of the day. (Many choose to hike up before dawn to avoid the heat and to be able to watch the sunrise). We arrived at the site at around 11:15 a.m., We
wimped out wisely opted to take the cable car to the top of the mesa. Our relatives recommended the audio guide and we were glad to have that narrative even though there are explanatory signs in English throughout the ruins. We spent only an hour and a half traipsing around the site, but I am a lightweight when it comes to dealing with heat and that was pretty much my limit. Although some paths through the ruins are ostensibly paved, be prepared for rocky, uneven terrain and some climbing up and down steps. The site is only partially accessible for those in wheelchairs.
The Visitors’ Center complex next to the start of the Snake Trail and the cable car on the east side of the mountain contains a food court, gift shop and a museum. I was sorry not to have had time to visit the museum. Most people recommend it, but there is a split of opinion as to whether to do so before or after your visit to the ruins. (Note: The cable car is only accessible from the east side of Masada.) As always, it is important to check for the latest opening schedule and costs.)
The Dead Sea
Like Venice, the Dead Sea is one of those places you should move up on your bucket list so you can see it before it’s gone. While Venice is being drowned by a rising sea level, the Dead Sea is evaporating at an alarming rate. Even if you are just doing a day trip from Jerusalem, you can combine a visit to Masada with the chance to float effortlessly in the nearby Dead Sea — doing everything in your earthly power to not get water in your eyes. Our relatives purchased vouchers that let us use the facilities at the Crowne Plaza Hotel which has direct access to the Dead Sea.
Or, you can follow the lead of Mr. and Mrs. Excitement and merely touch and taste the Dead Sea, agree that it’s
yucky extremely salty and feels oily, and then sit on a beach chair and watch other people cover themselves with Dead Sea mud because someone brilliantly told them it is good for their skin.
[* If you need a refresher about (or introduction to) Texas history and the symbolism of the Alamo, read about it here.}