Masada & Dead Sea

Enjoy an all-day excursion to the Dead Sea in Israel. Your adventure starts at Masada, the palace retreat of King Herod the Great over two millenniums ago. Then, float in the Dead Sea and cover yourself in mud. Finally, visit Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered.

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1 First Impressions of Masada in Israel

You are staring in wonderment at Masada. The name means fortress. At the summit of the 1,424 foot mesa is the former fortified palaces of Herod the Great, the king of Judea from 37 to 4 BC. This was also the last stand of Jewish rebels against the Romans in 73 AD. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel. Masada is also revered among Jews as a symbol of their struggle against persecution. This must-see destination is protected and maintained by the Masada National Park.

Masada National Park, Israel

2 Location of Masada in Israel

Masada is about 60 miles southeast of Jerusalem. That it is about a 90 minute trip. The historic site is located near the south end of the Judean Desert. The elevated platform overlooks the southern tip of the Dead Sea’s North Basin. On the east side of this incredible body of water is the Arab country of Jordan. This travel guide begins with a photo documentation of Masada. Then, you will have a unique mud bath in the Dead Sea followed by a visit to Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Masada National Park, Israel

3 How Reach the Top of Masada in Israel

There are three options to reach the summit of Masada. First, notice the zigzagging white line. Over 2,000 years ago, the Snake Path was the only way to access Masada. The narrow trail is strenuous. The ascent is about 1,100 feet over a half mile. By tradition, adventurous and physically fit visitors begin their climb an hour before dawn. One reason for the early start is to watch the sun rise over the desert. A more practical reason is the heat. Temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer. So, park management frequently closes the Snake Path as early as 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. Your second choice is to walk up the much easier Roman Ramp Path on the west side of the flat-topped hill. Most tourists, however, opt for the cable car.

Masada National Park, Israel

4 Cable Car Ascending Masada in Israel

Riding in the Masada Cableway is fun and scenic. Your enclosed cabin starts near the park’s eastern entrance at about 843 feet below sea level. This qualifies as the world’s lowest aerial tramway. The half mile journey takes about three minutes before you disembark at 108 feet above sea level. Along the way are panoramic views of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. You can purchase a two-way ticket along with your park entrance fee. Another option is to ride the cable car up and later walk down the Snake Path seen on the right.

Masada National Park, Israel

5 Early History of Masada in Israel

The Hasmonean dynasty ruled Judea (present-day Israel) from 140 to 37 BC. Some scholars believe their second ruler, Alexander Jannaeus, had a military outpost at Masada during his reign (103 to 76 BC). However, no conclusive evidence supports the claim. After the dynasty’s fall, Herod the Great was named the Roman client king of Judea. He is notoriously remembered for ordering the Massacre of the Innocents. This was the alleged slaughter of all male infants aged two and under around Bethlehem. Herod’s tyranny made him very unpopular. Fearing reprisal by the Jews, he commissioned several fortresses where he could seek refuge if attacked. One of them was Masada. The initial construction occurred from 37 until 31 BC. After King Herod died in 4 BC, Masada was abandoned and later occupied by a Roman garrison.

Masada National Park, Israel

6 Description of Masada in Israel

Masada is a shadow of its former glory two millenniums ago. Yet the ruins convey the fortified sanctuary was worthy of Herod the Great, the ruler of the Herodian Kingdom of Judea. An impenetrable wall encircled the 18 acre complex. It was about 5,000 feet long and 13 feet high. This outer defense was guarded by 30 watchtowers measuring 66 feet high. Inside were two magnificent palaces with swimming pools and bathhouses. Additional features included a synagogue, storerooms and cisterns plus barracks and an armory. Finally, sufficient crops and livestock were raised on the plateau for a sustained supply of food.

Masada National Park, Israel

7 Vista from Masada in Israel

The panoramic vistas from atop Masada are spectacular! The first thing you notice is the Judean Desert. The barren landscape is covered with rocks and scarred by deep ravines. Some of these wadis plunge more than 1,000 feet. The desert sprawls for 580 square miles from north to south. You assume nothing could or would want to live on this desolate terrain. Your assumption is wrong. The area has been inhabited for 11,000 years. Much of the white sediment seen here was left behind by the retreating Dead Sea (background). Rising above the waterline are the Moab Mountains along the western border of Jordan.

Masada National Park, Israel

8 Formation of Masada, Israel

Masada was built on a rhomboid-shaped plateau. The top surface measures about 2,132 feet long by 984 feet wide. The isolated escarpment (technically a horst) was formed when a geologic fault plus erosion separated it from the neighboring ridges. The sibling mound in the west is Wadi Ben Yair. Shown here is the much larger Wadi Masada flanking the east and south.

Masada National Park, Israel

9 Jewish-Roman War Prior to Masada in Israel

Much of present-day Israel became a Roman province named Judea (also spelled Judaea) in 6 AD. Jews resented their loss of independence and religious freedom plus the heavy taxation. Their first riot against Rome’s oppression occurred at Caesarea in 66 AD. This event emboldened Jewish rebels to attack Romans across the province, resulting in the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 73). Rome quickly responded. Emperor Nero sent Vespasian and his son Titus (both future Roman emperors) to crush the uprising. Their armies methodically slaughtered Jewish people at Caesarea and won back control of the northern province. In 70 AD, the Romans attacked Jerusalem, destroyed the sacred Second Temple, burned the city, killed over one million citizens and enslaved nearly 100,000. Afterwards, the Romans continued finding and destroying pockets of resistance across Judea. By 73 AD, only one Jewish stronghold remained: Masada. Crushing them would mean the end of the Great Jewish Revolt.

Masada National Park, Israel

10 The Rebels at Masada in Israel

There were two groups of Jewish rebels during the First Jewish-Roman War. The largest faction were called Zealots. They led most of the uprisings against the Romans across Judea. Their fanatical and uncompromising crusade is blamed for the Roman annihilation of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Interestingly, one of the 12 Apostles was Simon the Zealot. A smaller group of rebels were the Sicarii (dagger men). This radical subset conducted assassinations of Romans with concealed daggers. They also slaughtered Jewish people who were not supportive of the war against the Romans. In 66 AD, the Sicarii overthrew the garrison of 700 Roman soldiers on Masada and then used the site as a rebel fortress. Eleazar ben Ya’ir was the commander of the Sicarii on Masada from 66 AD until their defeat in 73 AD.

Masada National Park, Israel

11 Roman Preparations to Attack Masada in Israel

By 73 AD, the Romans had successfully crushed the Jewish resistance except for the Sicarii on Masada. This last target would not fall easily. The Roman governor of Judea, Lucius Flavius Silva, was given the task. He commanded nearly 5,000 soldiers of the prestigious army Legio X Fretensis plus 5,000 to 10,00 additional soldiers and slaves. They vastly outnumbered the nearly one thousand rebels and their families. At first, the Romans tried traditional attacks of arrows, catapults and foot assaults. When these failed, they established eight camps around the base of the mount similar to this one on the east side. Then, the Romans built a two mile wall encircling the perimeter so no one could escape. The hardest part was constructing an enormous ramp on the west side of Masada. It measured 295 feet deep and 720 feet long! The engineering feat required two months. Toward the end, the workers were constantly bombarded from above by the rebels.

Masada National Park, Israel

12 Siege of Masada in Israel

After months of preparation, the Romans were ready to attack Masada. The siege began near this Roman camp (upper left). On April 16, 73, they pummeled the fort with torches while painstakingly rolling an 82 foot tall siege tower up their ramp. A hidden battering ram pounded the three-layer casement wall. When they breached the final defense, the soldiers stormed the fortress. They expected a fierce resistance. Instead, they were met with an eerie silence and a grim scene. The Sicarii rebels had decided they would rather die free than live as Roman slaves. Their leader, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, had developed a plan where ten men were selected by lots to kill the 950 others including wives and children. Then, in turn, they murdered each other until only one was left to commit suicide. The rebels also set the buildings ablaze. Only two women and five children were found alive. The Romans found them hiding in a cistern.

Masada National Park, Israel

13 Historian of Masada in Israel

The only historical account of the Roman siege of Masada was told by Josephus Flavius in his book “The Jewish War.” He learned the details from field commanders and the women who survived the event. Some archeologists have discredited his fortress details and questioned his claim of mass rebel suicide because their bodies have never been found. Otherwise, his description is now etched into legend. The story of Josephus Flavius is equally interesting. He was born and raised in Jerusalem. He was the governor of a rebel military faction in Galilee until captured by the Romans in 67 AD. When he correctly predicted Vespasian would become Roman emperor, he was granted his freedom. Flavius then became an advisor and interpreter while Vespasian and his son Titus proceeded to crush Jewish resistance in Jerusalem (70 AD) and the rest of Judaea until the fall of Masada 73 AD. Some consider Josephus Flavius to be the best Jewish historian of the 1st century. Others call him the Jewish Benedict Arnold.

Masada National Park, Israel

14 Importance of Masada in Israel

Masada has become the Jewish equivalent of The Alamo. The site symbolizes Israel’s determination to endure any adversity for the sake of freedom and independence. This resolve is capsulated in the slogan “Masada will not fall again.” The importance of Masada is reinforced by the Israeli Armoured Corps. They have a swearing-in ceremony for new soldiers at the top of the mesa.

Masada National Park, Israel

15 Storerooms at Masada, Israel

The archeological ruins at Masada are hollow shells. An onsite model helps you visualize the complex during its prime. A good tour guide and fertile imagination are also valuable to enhance your experience. Let’s visit some highlights. These are a few of the 29 storerooms. This storehouse network contained 2,200 square yards of food and wine plus other essentials. There were enough supplies to sustain thousands of people for years. An additional 70 pockets of storage were found between the casement walls.

Masada National Park, Israel

16 Large Bathhouse at Masada, Israel

Public bathhouses were a coveted component of ancient Roman life. They were a haven to relax and be pampered plus the epicenter of social life. A private bathhouse was a rarity only a few could afford. King Herod the Great was among the few. Even more surprising is to find such lavish amenities on top of a mountain in the middle of a desert. This four-room facility was equipped with an outer courtyard, a changing room (apodyterium) plus a warm (tepidarium), hot (caldarium) and cold (frigidarium) pools. You will admire remnants of a mosaic floor, frescos and support pillars. Also visible is the sophisticated way the room and water temperatures were controlled by a furnace. King Herod welcomed his guests to use this bathhouse. Of course, he had his own.

Masada National Park, Israel

17 Water Supply at Masada, Israel

How do you get almost endless water in the middle of a desert with only about two inches of annual rain? Ingenious is the best word to describe the answer. First, Herod’s engineers built two dams near the peak of the Judean Mountain. Aqueducts then captured the water flowing through wadis (dry valley ravines) and channeled it into cisterns. These large reservoirs pockmarked the western ridge of Masada. Collectively, they had a capacity of over ten million gallons! As needed, slaves and pack animals carried the water from the cliffside cisterns to ones at the plateau surface. Of course, the slaves had their own staircase so none of Herod’s guests would have to watch this menial task.

Masada National Park, Israel

18 Northern Palace at Masada, Israel

The Western Palace on Masada provided Herod the Great with protection and luxury. But why stop there when ostentatious is better? So, the Roman client king of Judea commissioned the Northern Palace in 25 BC. This magnificent, three-tier edifice was etched into the face of the northern cliff. The top structure housed his lavish living quarters with a private balcony. The middle level (foreground) consisted of two concentric walls. These created a roof-covered portico and central courtyard designed as an impressive reception hall. The lowest level (square section) was reserved for entertaining guests, banquets and special events. The terrace was embellished with ornate frescos, tile flooring, fluted columns and a bathhouse. Remnants of these decorations are still visible.

Masada National Park, Israel

19 Northern Palace Staircase at Masada, Israel

The lower two levels of the Northern Palace are only accessible by a vertigo-inducing staircase carved into the rockface. The middle tier is closed to tourists. However, visiting the lowest section of the Hanging Palace is worth navigating the 160 steps.

Masada National Park, Israel

20 Excavations of Masada in Israel

Masada lay fallow for centuries until rediscovered by two different teams in the early 19th century. Another hundred years would pass before Shmarya Gutman arrived in 1932. The Israeli archeologist had a passion for uncovering secrets of the First Jewish-Roman War. He also explored the rebel stronghold at Gamla from 1976 until 1988. Another famous archeologist was Yigael Yadin. After resigning as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Yadin led several excavations at Masada in the 1960s. This project entailed thousands of volunteers. During an excavation in 2017 by the Tel Aviv University, evidence was uncovered that war refugees lived alongside the rebels prior to the siege in 73 AD. Notice the black line in the wall. You will see these throughout your tour of Masada. Below the line signifies the condition of a structure when discovered by archeologists. Above the line is the result of partial restoration.

Masada National Park, Israel

21 Masada Museum at Masada in Israel

The excavations of Masada have uncovered a treasure-trove of artifacts. They provide a glimpse into the three significant chapters: Herod’s palace, the rebel stronghold and the occupation by Roman soldiers. Items include pottery, cooking utensils, coins, jewelry, swords, clothing, statues and scroll fragments. Also found were pottery shards with names including the rebel leader Eleazar ben Ya’ir. Speculation is these were used for drawing lots among the last rebels for deciding the order of being murdered. This fascinating collection is displayed at the Masada Museum named in honor of archeologist Yigael Yadin. Make sure to visit the museum before leaving Masada National Park and rushing off to the Dead Sea.

Masada National Park, Israel

22 The Incredible Dead Sea in Israel

The Dead Sea is characterized by extremes. This is the lowest place in the world at nearly 1,400 feet below sea level. The salinity ranges from 20% to about 35%, nearly ten times as salty as ocean water. It is also the deepest hypersaline lake on earth at 1,083 feet. Only a few microorganisms can live in this caustic environment. Any sea life arriving from the Jordan River quickly die. Annual rainfall is scarce: about four inches in the north and less than two inches in the south. In the summer, the average high temperature ranges from 90° to over 100° Fahrenheit. This hostile climate has made the bordering Judean Desert a barren wasteland. In short, the Dead Sea is a fascinating place to visit but you probably would not want to live there.

Ein Gedi Beach, Dead Sea, Israel

23 Dead Sea Beach Options in Israel

There are nine beaches on the 42 mile western shore of the Dead Sea along Highway 90. The three clustered in the north are the closest to Jerusalem. They are the Kalia, Biankini and Neve Midbar Beaches. Each one charges an admission fee in exchange for lots of amenities plus bars, shops and swimming pools. The choppy waves cause murky water but harbor lots of spa-like mud. In the middle of the North Basin are Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi Public Beach (pictured). Both have been closed indefinitely because of dangerous sinkholes. Nearby is Ein Gedi Hot Springs Beach. The resort offers a thermo-mineral spa and pools yet is a half mile from the sea. Although this spot boasts of being the lowest place on earth, the resort needs to ship in the Dead Sea mud. Finally, in the South Basin are Ein Bokek, Zohar and Segregated Beaches. They are all free. The water here is very calm and very salty. So, instead of mud or sand, you will walk on salt pellets. The area is encircled with resorts, a shopping center, stores and restaurants.

Ein Gedi Beach, Dead Sea, Israel

24 Floating in Dead Sea in Israel

Can you swim in the Dead Sea? No, not really. The water can hurt your eyes and be poisonous if swallowed. But you can float. The high salinity causes a natural buoyancy. Just enter the water and slowly lay back. Now raise your arms. Or read a book. Drift aimlessly. If you want to capture the moment with a selfie, be extra careful. The salt water can quickly render your cell phone or camera useless. Another word of caution is to avoid shaving for a day or two before visiting the Dead Sea. Otherwise, the salt water can surprise you with the equivalent of razor burn.

Ein Gedi Beach, Dead Sea, Israel

25 Mud Bath in Dead Sea in Israel

You probably haven’t played in the mud since you were a kid. Here is your chance to do it again without mom getting mad. Below the water surface of the Dead Sea (not in the south) is a thick layer of gooey black hot mud. The mineral-rich substance is used for numerous therapeutic treatments. But for most tourists, it is just plain fun. Scoop up a handful and smear it all over your skin. Let the mud dry in the hot sun for at least ten minutes. When you bathe, your skin will feel sensational.

Ein Gedi Beach, Dead Sea, Israel

26 Salt-Encrusted Shoreline of Dead Sea in Israel

If you live in a climate where the temperature drops below freezing, you have seen splashing waves form layers of ice along shorelines. The visual effect at the Dead Sea is similar. Everything is covered with salt resembling white frosting. They are called halite deposits and are equivalent to rock salt. If the salt coats something metal, it will soon convert to rust.

Ein Gedi Beach, Dead Sea, Israel

27 Nubian Ibexes at Ein Gedi Reserve along Dead Sea in Israel

An unexpected oasis in the Judean Desert along the western edge of the Dead Sea is the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. The national park covers 3,500 acres (about 5.5 square miles) and is crisscrossed with hiking trails. Thanks to numerous springs and waterfalls, there is reliable water for arid-tropical vegetation. Among the wildlife are wolves, foxes, jackals, bats and vultures. This is a herd of Nubian ibexes (Capra nubiana). In front are a pair of adult males. These desert goats can grow to 2.6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh over 100 pounds. The slender curled horns of a buck ibex can measure an impressive four feet.

Ein Gedi Reserve, Dead Sea, Israel

28 Dead Sea Scrolls Found at Qumran near Dead Sea in Israel

An accidental discovery at the northwest edge of the Dead Sea generated an incredible treasure for religious scholars: the Dead Sea Scrolls. These 2,200 year old Hebrew parchments are the earliest version of the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments. 70 years of excavations have uncovered more scrolls. They are predominately written in Hebrew. Other languages include Aramaic and Greek. Archeological teams also unearthed an adjacent settlement with plenty of artifacts. The community originated in about 150 BC and was destroyed by the Romans in 68 AD. This exciting site is Qumran. Shown here is the footbridge from the visitors’ center overlooking the archeological ruins at this National Heritage Site.

Qumran National Park, Dead Sea, Israel

29 History of Qumran near Dead Sea in Israel

The history of Qumran began in the Iron Age. An Israelite fortress was located here sometime between the 8th and 6th century BC. It was named Sekakah. The majority of the ruins you will visit are from a community founded in the 2nd century BC. But who the residents were has long been debated. Most believe they were the Essenes. This small tribe consisted of about 50 men at the main site and perhaps 100 – 200 more living in surrounding caves and the desert. The Essenes operated like a monastery. They renounced women, sex, marriage and money. They devoted themselves to writing sacred texts in the scriptorium shown here. Other scholars contend the Yahad sect occupied Qumran. A few experts believe the people who lived at Qymran had nothing to do with originating the scrolls. Instead, the sacred documents were hidden in nearby caves by people from Jerusalem to protect them from the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 73). One fact is agreed upon: Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68 AD. Afterwards, a Roman garrison was stationed here during the Bar-Kochba revolt (132-135 AD). When they left, the secrets of Qumran remained buried for over 1,800 years.

Qumran National Park, Dead Sea, Israel

30 Discoveries at Qumran near Dead Sea in Israel

In 1947, a 14 year old Bedouin (desert nomad) threw a rock into a cave in order to coax out one of his goats. When he went inside, he found parchments. The surprising find generated enormous excitement. Archeologists have focused on two areas: the Qumran community and the surrounding caves. Here are their key findings. The Essenes settlement was compact. Among the ruins are storerooms, a kitchen, a dining room, potters’ workshop, a tower, baths, an aqueduct and ten cisterns like this one. Evidence suggests some of these were built by the Romans. A large cemetery with over one thousand graves was also discovered. To date, over 200 caves have been excavated. The furthest one was five miles away. 40 caves generated some artifacts. A dozen have produced nearly 1,000 manuscripts. Most of these precious parchments were sealed inside of pottery. The oldest documents were written around 200 BC.

Qumran National Park, Dead Sea, Israel

31 Scrolls Found in Cave 4 at Qumran near Dead Sea in Israel

Cave Number 4 revealed the greatest cache of discoveries. A total of 16,000 document fragments were unearthed. Piecing this large, ancient jigsaw puzzle together required 45 years of painstaking work. The delicate remnants eventually formed 530 scrolls. Collectively, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest version of the Hebrew Bible. They predate a previous one by more than a millennium. Included are all of the books of the Old Testament except for Esther. The scrolls are maintained by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem along with artifacts from Masada.

Qumran National Park, Dead Sea, Israel
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