Masada, Last Stand of the Jewish Zealots

Updated: Oct 31


Situated atop a plateau about 1,000 ft. above the western bank of the Dead Sea in eastern Israel, Masada is both a tribute to King Herod's massive building projects and the poignant story of the mass suicide of 960 Sicarii zealots in 73 CE.


Herod built several palaces on the mountain between 35 - 15 BCE and fortified them in the event of a revolt. This is a rendering of what the structures may have looked like. The more we visit ancient sites, the more in awe I am of construction projects such as this.

Public Domain

This is what we looked down upon from the uppermost platform.

It's thought that Cleopatra was among the many people Herod entertained at this site.

Wikimedia Commons

A path, now known as the Snake Path, was the only means of reaching the summit. It's still possible for tourists to make the climb up the Snake Path when the heat isn't too intense. You can see it clearly in the photo below. They had just closed the path as temperatures were rising the day we arrived around mid-morning.

Courtesy of the Israeli Government Press Office

This is the modern-day way of ascending to the summit.

This is the view from the top looking to the west.


Herod died just before the birth of Christ. Josephus, the first-century historian tells us that about 70 years after Herod's death, at the beginning of the first Jewish-Roman war, a splinter group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii entered Jerusalem where they starved the population and committed atrocities. After numerous skirmishes, the Romans gained control of Jerusalem in 70 CE and drove the Sicarii out. They eventually made their way to Masada where they settled, opposing the Roman occupation of Judea and initially killing 700 Roman soldiers.


By 72 CE Josephus writes that there were 960 Sacarii inhabitants of Masada. The Romans, vowing revenge on the Sacarii, began to build a wall to surround Masada and a ramp to reach the summit of the plateau. In the photo below you can see the square outline indicating where one of the Roman camps was located. You can also see the Dead Sea in the background.

The Sacariis watched the ramp being built and knew that the Romans would eventually make their way to the top of the plateau. On Passover, April 16, 73CE, the Romans breached the walls of Masada only to find all 960 Sacarii dead and most of the buildings burned. As Judaism prohibits suicide, the Sacarii drew lots to kill each other rather than to submit to slavery under the Romans, leaving only the last person to commit suicide.


The dry climate has preserved what was left of Masada. These are partially-restored murals.


These are steps leading to what is believed was the Mikveh, or ritual Jewish bath during the time the Sicarii inhabited Masada.


This is what is left of a caldarium, a Roman style hot bath.


The model below shows how water was made available during Herod's time. Rainwater, collected by a system of dams and aqueducts, was stored in numerous cisterns which had been carved into the rock. From the cisterns, two paths led up to the mountain which allowed animals to cart the water to the top. Once at the summit, the water was poured into a system of channels emptying into the cisterns. This is one of the many wonders of Masada.


When the Zealots took over Masada they converted one of Herod's buildings, probably a stable, into a synagogue. Archeologists have found fragments of Biblical scrolls under the floor of the structure. We came upon this Rabbi at the site of the synagogue copying the Torah. Our guide said that he is there most days.

He asked Paul and me how long we have been married. We told him we've been married 46 years at which point he drew this lovely message for us with our names.


Masada is an amazing story. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited attractions in Israel.


The Dead Sea and the Nubian Ibex

Much of the drive from Jerusalem to Masada paralleled the Dead Sea. Unlike many tourists, we opted not to float in it, in favor of admiring it from afar. The morning we drove to Masada it was a bit hazy, but that just added to the beauty.


Its elevation of 1,412 ft. below sea level makes it the lowest land-based elevation on earth. Because it's almost ten times saltier than the ocean, it can't support living organisms, hence its name. It's 31 miles long and nine miles wide at its widest point. You can easily see Jordan on its eastern bank.


Imagine our surprise and delight when we suddenly came upon these Nubian Ibexes near Ein Gedi just north of Masada!





Top Tips

  • Masada is a little over 60 miles southeast of Jerusalem. It took us about an hour and a half to reach it, so it can be visited easily in a day.

  • Plan to spend a minimum of an hour at the top.

  • The cost with the cable car when we visited was about $22.00 per person.

  • You can hike up which takes 60 - 90 minutes, but start early to avoid the heat of the day and the closing of the path. We visited in late September and the heat was intense.




9 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All