Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Masada and the Dead Sea

I actually went to Masada and the Dead sea last Friday but I haven't had the energy or time to post. I have now finished my course in Elementary Biblical Hebrew and I will be waiting for my grade to show up over the next week or so.

Our tour group wanted to see the sun rise over Masada so we got up early and left the student village at 3am. The bus ride there is almost two hours and the rode twists and turns so if you are prone to motion sickness take some medicine before you go. A hat, sunscreen and a lot of water are necessities on this trip. During the afternoon the temperature at Masada was around 110 degrees.

Now for some background history of Masada. Masada was built by King Herod who ruled Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. He was a genius when it came to architecture but he was a paranoid ruler. There was good reason for him to be paranoid none of his subjects liked him. Masada was his winter palace or a place he could retreat to if things got bad in Jerusalem. There is a saying about Herod that it was better to be Herod's pig than Herod's son. Herod had around 40 wives and 70 sons and he had most of them killed because he was afraid of being betrayed. This area of the desert only gets around 2 inches of rainfall a year. Herod's engineers built 17 huge cisterns at the base of the plateau to collect water several more cisterns are at the top.
Here we have a picture of the sunrise over the Dead Sea.

This was taken just a few minutes later and it's not zoomed in as much so you see the edge of the plateau of Masada.

Masada is very complicated historically because so much has happened here. I'm not quite sure how to order this post because I'm going to be talking about several different periods of history. Hopefully you won't get confused but if you do just post questions and I'll try to explain it better.

Here is Masada the winding pathway you see is called the rampart path. It was not there in King Herod's time. Several years after King Herod died the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman rule of their land. Most of what we know about this rebellion comes from the account of Josephus Flavius who was a Jewish rebel commander in the sea of Galilee area but later surrendered to the Romans. The revolt began in 66 A.D. by the Sicarii a group named after the curved daggers they used called sica. Their leader Menahem was killed in Jerusalem in 66 A.D. Then a man named Eleazar ben Yair took over and fled to Masada. The group that followed him contained Essenes and Samaritans. The last of the rebels joined him after Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed by the Roman general Titus in 70 A.D. The rebels lived in rooms in the case mate wall. They constructed a synagogue from what used to be Herod's stables. The synagogue contained a special room that was used to bury old worn out copies of the Torah. Old manuscripts of the Torah are supposed to be buried like a human. Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea. In 73 A.D. the 10th Roman legion led by Flavius Silva surrounded the mountain to prevent the rebels from descending to get more supplies or go for help. The Romans built a ramp so they could use their siege equipment to gain entrance into Masada. That ramp is what you see in this picture. I think the angle of the ramp must have changed over the centuries because climbing it I felt like it was straight vertical. I took about 30 minutes to climb this by the time I reached the top I was gasping for air. The record for running up the ramp belongs to a man from Kenya who ran up in 18 minutes.

This is a reconstruction of what some of the Romans siege equipment might have looked like. Now try to imagine pushing this up the ramp to try to break the walls of Masada.

The Jewish rebels had constructed a wooden inner support wall to try to brace the stone against the battering rams of the Romans. The Romans tried to set fire to the wall but the wind changed and the rebels hoped they were delivered as the siege tower caught fire. The winds in this area are temperamental and the wind changed again setting their wooden wall on fire. Night was falling and the Roman confident of their victory in the morning went back to their camps.

This view is looking down the rampart path from the top of Masada. Those black dots near the center of the picture on the pathway are people to give you some perspective of how high up Masada is. This is the view the rebels would have had watching the Romans bring up the siege equipment.

Back to the time of King Herod. This is one of many dovecots on the plateau. The pigeons were kept for meat and for fertilizer. Even though this is in the middle of the desert Herod had lavish gardens here.

One of the spectacular views of the surrounding desert.

Another beautiful view. King Herod and later the Jewish rebels would have woken up to these views everyday.

Here is one of the cisterns on the top of Masada. Notice the smaller hole in the upper left corner this was added by the Jewish rebels. The smaller hole is called a mikveh it is a ritual bath.

This is the entrance to King Herod's Roman style bath. A Roman style bath has three chambers the first chamber which is what you are looking at would have cold water in it. The black lines on the stone mark the level of the reconstruction below the black line is original above it is modern reconstruction.

This is the second chamber of Herod's bath this would have been filled with luke warm water. The stucco on the wall is original and give you a hint of the grand scale of this bath.

This is the third chamber of King Herod's bath this would have been filled with hot water and would have been similar to a sauna. The cylinders would have had wood piled around them to heat the water above. The tile in the right corner of the picture shows how high the floor would have been in Herod's time. Now remember this is in the middle of the desert so Herod had to have all the wood for the bath brought in.

This is a Byzantine era monastery. I think it was built in the sixth century A.D. it was abandoned sometime around the Rise of Islam. This would definitely have been a quiet retreat for the monks that lived here.

Now back to the story of the Jewish rebels. That night they knew that they would be defeated by the Romans in the morning. Their leader Eleazar ben Yair gave a couple of speeches to the 960 rebels under his command. He told them it would be better to take their own lives than to live and became slaves and see their women defiled. Each man killed their wife and children. Finally only 10 men were left they wrote their names on pieces of pottery and drew lots. One man killed the other nine then himself so there was only one suicide at Masada. So when the Romans climbed up the next morning they were met with silence. Legend says the reason Josephus Flavius knew about what happen is two women and five children who hid themselves in one of the cisterns to escape death. That day was the 15th day of Nissan which is the first day of Passover. Passover celebrates the deliverance from slavery in Egypt that must have been weighing on their minds when they decided it would be better to die than become a slave. The pottery sherds from the lottery have been found by modern archaeologists and they have the names on them that Josephus Flavius gives in his account which leads some creditability to the account.

The Jewish rebels did not destroy their provisions or contaminate their water supply. They wanted the Romans to know that they did not decide to kill themselves because they were starving. Pictured here is one of seventeen food storage rooms on Masada. After Masada fell Judea ceased to exist as an independent nation until the modern day. Today the new members of the IDF (Israeli Defense force) as soon as they finish their basic training make the hike up Masada. When they reach the top the all shout "Masada will not fall again!" its symbolic of their willingness to fight and die for this country. The continuation of the nation is more important than a single individual. Masada is a powerful symbol to the Jewish people.

This view is from the other side of the plateau. The square structure below is the remains of one of the camps of the tenth roman legion that surround the plateau.

Another dazzling view off of Masada. These pictures don't really capture the beauty of this place.

Another view of the Dead Sea from Masada. The sun was so bright I could hardly see what I was taking a picture of on the camera I think these shots turned out well however.

This gives you an idea of how isolated this fortress was in ancient times there was nothing for miles.
We hiked down Masada using the Snake path which as the name suggests is a winding pathway down. The snake path existed in King Herod's time and anyone who wanted to see Herod would have to climb it. It was a horrible experience climbing down especially if you are slightly scared of heights. The stairs are ancient and uneven and some are missing chunks. Sometimes there are no stairs just a pathway with rocks sticking up and some loose rocks just waiting to trip you.

Here is a picture halfway down the path shot looking back up at the top. There is a cable car that runs up and down but it costs extra money. The guardrails were not consistent and would disappear at sections that looked very dangerous. I think it took about 40 minutes to climb down. Imagine going down stairs for 40 minutes straight. I could hardly move the next day and my legs are still sore today but it hasn't been a week yet.

After Masada we went for a dip in the Dead sea which is 1,373 feet below sea level. The salt content is nine times saltier than the ocean. You have to wear flip-flops when you go in because the bottom is very rocky and covered in salt crystals that will slice up your feet. Of course it is called the Dead sea because nothing lives in it. The water has a slimy feel to it almost like oil. When you first get in the water will burn in any scrap or scratch you have on your body and it is quite painful. The Dead sea also makes you more buoyant, you float easier and you try to over compensate because you are used to having to work to keep yourself afloat.

If you look closely you can see the salt crystals that have formed on the metal. The rocks close to the shore are also covered in salt crystals. After we got back to the student village I spent the rest of the day in bed sleeping. All the time in the sun gave me a bad migraine headache. It was worth it though to see Masada and the Dead Sea

I wanted to mention a Jewish holiday that occurred on July 26th which was the 15th of Av. It is almost the equivalent of Valentine's day in the United States. It comes from the last chapter of Judges. All of Israel is fighting the tribe of Benjamin and they swear they will never given their daughters as wives to the tribe of Benjamin. After they make peace they cannot go back on their word but if they don't then the tribe of Benjamin will cease to exist. So they tell the men to hide in a vineyard outside the city of Shiloh during a festival. The women of Shiloh come out to dance in the vineyard and they take one to become their wife. That way the men of Israel are not breaking their oath and the tribe of Benjamin will not vanish. This is not a commercialized holiday like Valentine's Day is in the United States. I don't think it is widely celebrated either or if it is it's not celebrated in the same way we celebrate Valentine's day.

Questions from the last post:
Uncle Joe- I haven't seen any billboard like signs inside the old city they do have them outside the old city along the highway. I'm glad you like my tour guiding style. Its hard trying to present the the sites I've seen and explain the pictures. It's a lot of information to remember.


  1. Beautiful sunrise! What a great experience!

    Great stories, thanks so much for sharing them. It's amazing how much history surrounds you! Your pictures are really amazing.

    Swimming in the Dead Sea sounds really interesting.

    I'll send good thoughts your way for your grade in your Hebrew class!

  2. Another good one AC!. Think I asked Ma & Pa already but what did the Dead Sea smell like? the ocean? asphalt? or just dead?

  3. Your pictures are beautiful. The way you share the history of Masada and the Dead Sea was a pleasure to read. You made me feel like I was there walking beside you. The Jewish holy days have so much significence with the story of Passover, their Valentines day and how they buried the Torah like a human.

    Questions - Where did they find the wood to bring in for the bath chambers? Do the 17 cisterns still catch and hold the annual rain fall? Would you recommend the sunrise walk up to Masada for all age groups if physically fit?