A symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, Masada (Hebrew for "fortress") towers majestically over the western shore of the Dead Sea. Its unusual natural form—a plateau set off on all sides by towering cliffs—attracted Herod the Great, who built an opulent desert palace here. In recognition of its historical significance, this was the first site in Israel to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001.
To reach the top, most visitors make use of the speedy
cable car (NIS 76 round-trip). More intrepid visitors climb the eastern Snake Path (at least 45 minutes of steep walking), some even starting before dawn to watch the sunrise. Others take the less arduous western Roman Ramp path, accessible only from the road that descends from Arad. In either case, it is imperative to drink lots of water and wear a hat. Water fountains (but no other refreshments) are available on Masada itself, so save bottles for refilling. Allow no less than 1½ hours to explore the site. The most popular route heads counterclockwise, along the eastern side to the north, and comes back along the western side. If time allows, be sure to visit the southern area as well (especially the huge cistern and echo wall). Maps, a detailed brochure, and a very useful audio guide are available at the top entrance.
The entire mountaintop—less than 20 acres—is surrounded by a 4,250-foot-long casemate, a double wall that included living quarters and guardrooms. Most of the important buildings are concentrated in the high northern area. Walk through long storerooms where broken jars, seeds of grain, and dried fruit pits were found, bearing out Josephus's report that the Jews burned their possessions but spared their food supply to show the Romans that they did not die of want.
The Northern Palace, Masada's most impressive structure, is an extraordinary three-tiered structure that seems to hang off the highest and most northerly point of the mountain. The panoramic effect is awesome: baked brown precipices and bleached valleys shimmer in the midday glare. Each terrace contained grand colonnaded rooms, and the lowest was adorned with colorful wall frescoes and a private bathhouse.
Clearly visible from the upper terrace are the Roman camps—the remains of the most complete Roman siege system in the world—and "runner's path" (used for communication between the camps). Looking to the north, you can see the Ein Gedi oasis, 16 km (10 mi) away, from which the Roman soldiers hauled their water. The Jewish defenders used Herod's old system of channeling winter floodwaters from usually dry streams west of the mountain into a dozen huge cisterns hewn into the slope of the mountain, and then hauled the water to the top by hand. By the time the Romans came, they had their supply "on tap."
The bathhouse (upon return from the upper terrace) was a state-of-the-art facility in Herod's time, with its apodyterium (changing room), frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium (cold, lukewarm, and hot rooms, respectively). Frescoes and mosaic floors are evidence of the Herodian opulence; intrusive benches and a pool represent alterations by the later occupants. The caldarium was once a closed room, heated, sauna-style, from below, and through wall pipes by hot air pumped in from an outside furnace.
Two mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths) from the time of the revolt were found on Masada during the excavations in the early 1960s, creating a sensation after rabbis confirmed that the ritual purification pools had been built in accordance with Jewish law. They were astounded that even when under siege, the Jewish rebels had maintained their ritual purity.
The synagogue, one of only four that have been uncovered from the Second Temple period, can be seen in the western casemate. The building's orientation toward Jerusalem suggested its function, but the stone benches (synagogue means "place of assembly") and the man-made pit for damaged scrolls (a genizah) confirmed it. It was likely here, in the community's spiritual center, that the leaders of the revolt against Rome made their fateful decision. In the summer of 2005, the rear genizah was renovated to house a permanent Torah scroll, which is used for bar and bat mitzvah (coming-of-age) ceremonies. Such pilgrimages are becoming an increasingly popular part of the American Jewish scene.
At an opening in the walls on the western edge, you can stand where the Roman legionnaires breached Masada's defenses. The original wedge-shape ramp is below, though its upper part has since collapsed. The Western Gate leads to a modern trail down this side of the mountain (access via Arad only).
The small 5th-century chapel, with mosaic floor and wall designs, is all that remains of a community of monks who sought solitude in the Judean Desert during the Byzantine period. South of the chapel is the Western Palace, the largest structure on Masada and originally its residential and administrative center. Its most interesting features are two colorful Herodian mosaics, featuring geometric and fruit motifs.
Adjoining the lower cable-car station is the Masada Museum, with hundreds of artifacts from the site. Especially moving is a set of 12 pottery shards, each bearing a single name. Archeologists believe these might have been lots drawn to decide the order in which the last remaining rebels would die. All the artifacts are placed within scenes of daily life.
A fine summer-night diversion is the sound-and-light show at Masada's western base. The show runs every Tuesday and Thursday from March to October.