The fortress of Masada emerges like a mirage out of the Judaean Desert. A moment ago we were driving on Israel’s Route 31, which snakes around the shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest land on Earth. I was transfixed by the still, mirror-like surface of this gigantic salt lake, which appeared at every bend. And then, without any warning, a dramatic ruin from the first century B.C. filled the horizon. Naturally protected by its location atop a steep, flat-topped rocky outcrop, Masada is impressive. It is, after all, the most complete and well-preserved architectural blueprint of a Roman battlefield anywhere in the world.
Drawing up to it, I see the massive defences of a once-mighty fortress built by Judaean emperor Herod the Great as a refuge and winter palace. Besides the walls, which look like an organic extension of the earth’s stony spine, the remnants of the palace are visible from below, jutting over the lip of the cliff.
From the cable car that takes me to the top, I see the remnants of Roman camps surrounding the fortress. In A.D. 73, this area was the theatre for an important siege of the First Jewish-Roman war. It is believed that this was where 960 Jewish Sicarii rebels made a stand against a 10,000-strong Roman garrison. The most prominent of their siege works include a massive ramp, which is now the easiest way to approach the fortress on foot. Laid out in front of me are the plans of an ancient military operation. I can almost hear the sounds of a battle that took place here two millennia ago.
Masada National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the entire plateau, fortress, paths, and Roman encampments. However, it is more than an archaeological wonder for many Israeli Jews. It is a symbol of the country’s nation building enterprise. As a result, the account of the Masada siege written by Roman historian Josephus Flavius, has taken on mythical proportions in the modern Israeli narrative. According to him, it was here that the Sicarii fought their final battle. Armed with basic weaponry and fired by religious zeal, they held off the Roman legionnaires for nearly a year, even though the rest of Judea had fallen. When the Romans finally breached the fort by way of the great ramp, the Jews committed mass suicide, choosing death over slavery.
This act became an inspiration for succeeding generations of Israeli soldiers fighting for their homeland. A travel article in the Times of Israel once referred to Masada as “a tragic fortress in the sky,” a phrase that encapsulates the poetic view of the fortress as a national beacon of hope. Once a site for the swearing-in ceremony of the Israeli Defence Forces, it became synonymous with the oath, “Masada shall not fall again.”
As the glass-enclosed cable car trundles to the top, I spot tiny, hatted hikers making their way up a narrow trail that wraps around the steep mountainside. Two paths lead to the top: Snake Path is a steep trek up the eastern side, which takes about 60 to 90 minutes to complete; while the Roman Path is a much shorter route up the western side, via the historical siege ramp. My guide tells me that the trek is a rite of passage for Israeli Jews of all ages. On my way in, I had seen scores of school children at the entrance and many more busloads pulling in.
Once at the top, a flat expanse of land stretches as far as the eye can see. It is evident why Herod, a paranoid king tortured by rumours of plots against him, chose this fort on a tabletop mountain as the site for his impregnable citadel. A genius builder, he meant to endure the longest of sieges. Walking around the site, one can see the remains of 29 long rooms that once held stores of grain, wine, and weaponry. The numerous water cisterns, fed by wadis around the fort, ensured a steady supply of water. About 80-odd years after Herod’s reign, it was his foresight that helped the Sicarii hold out against Roman forces. Large parts of the fortress have been carefully reconstructed, and 3D models in different enclosures give visitors an idea of what the original structure looked like. There are also well-marked trails running across the site, leading from the stone quarry to Herod’s grand palace, or the Roman-style bathhouse complex.
My attention is diverted by the sound of drumbeats. Following the sound to an enclosure, I see a temporary stage set up amid the ruins. Performers are re-enacting the ancient siege accompanied by drums, songs, wooden swords, and a generous dose of slapstick humour, which seems to appeal to the audience of children and teenagers. I skulk near the back, watching with rapt attention. Although the performance is in Hebrew, it is dramatic enough for me to follow the gist. The re-enactment is in honour of a young boy’s bar mitzvah ceremony, and the family doesn’t seem to mind curious bystanders like me.
Watching the smiling faces, I imagine that about two millennia ago, this self-same spot would have seen a large gathering of the Sicarii and their families. Perhaps, in the early days of the siege when hope of a victory still prevailed, men, women, and children may have enjoyed such moments of gaiety.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Fortress of Myth and Memory”.
Masada is located in the eastern part of the Judaean Desert, about 160 km/2 hr southeast of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. No guides are available at the site so book a tour to Masada and the Dead Sea from either of these cities. Reservations can be made online at www.masada.org.il (+972-8-658-4207; open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Apr-Sep and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct-Mar).
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.