Masada National Park – Visitors Guide


Masada National Park

Masada National Park tells the extraordinary story of Masada, an ancient fortress in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. Let’s begin!

What does Masada mean?

The literal translation from Hebrew means fortress. And due to the selected location, it was a stronghold.

Map

Masada National Park is located near the Dead Sea between Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek.

Map of the area:

Note: if you are looking for a map of the national park, then see the site plan section below.

Directions

If you are reaching by car, enter “Masada National Park” into Waze or Google Maps, and it will take you one of the free parking lots. But keep in mind there are two entrances to this national park. So make sure you are arriving in the required one. See the site plan section below.

And if you are using public transport, then you can take bus #486 from Jerusalem to Neve Zohar and exit at Masada bus stop. Here is the updated link to Moovit. Enter your starting point, and you will get the updated directions.

Weather

Masada National Park is located in the desert. Thus it is boiling in this area. Moreover, after the rain, there is a danger of floods. Hence, do not visit the Dead Sea area within several days after the last rain.

When to Visit Masada?

Due to the weather, the best season for a visit is Spring or Autumn (and not after rains). Moreover, visit early in the morning as it will get hot by noon. Also, if you plan to hike, then you have to come early. Furthermore, keep in mind the following restrictions:

On very hot days the Snake Path ascent closes at 09:00 and the descent closes at 10:00. When heat is extreme, the Snake Path ascent closes at 08:00 and the decent closes at 09:00. The descent via the Roman Ramp is open as usual.

Note: unless stated otherwise, all quotes were taken from the official site.

And always take hats, sunscreen and plenty of water.

Opening Hours

Sunday – Thursday And Saturday: 8 – 17 (16 during winter).
Fridays: 8 – 16 (15 during winter).
On holidays usually 8 – 13.

The Snake Path opens for ascent every day one hour before Sunrise and closes for descent one hour before closing time.

The Roman Ramp Path opens for ascent every day half hour before Sunrise and closes for descent 15 minutes before closing time.

Entrance Fee

The entrance to Masada National Park costs 31 NIS per adult, 17 NIS per child, and 26 NIS per student. And free for National Parks annual subscribers.

Beyond the entrance fee, you might decide to visit the museum. And it will cost an extra 20 NIS per person.

Moreover, if you want to take the cable car, you have to pay extra. One way cable car costs 28 NIS per adult and 14 NIS per child. And a round trip on the cable car costs 46 NIS per adult and 28 NIS per child.

And we will go over the prices of the night show in the next section.

If you are going to visit several National Parks, then consider purchasing a combo ticket. You can find additional info at National Parks And Nature Reserves post.

Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated in April 2020. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.

Night Show – Masada from Dusk to Dawn

The new night show is projected on the mountain’s western slope, between the ramp and the northern palace. It features video mapping technology in one of the largest such shows ever created in Israel and special lighting effects. The moving soundtrack was composed especially by Shlomo Gronich, with many soloists, including Harel Sakat and Liraz Charhi, a stirring orchestra and a choir – all breathing new life into the saga of Masada and its heroes.

Source: official website

Night Show – Basic Information

The show takes place on Tuesday and Thursday after sunset. Which is 19:30 during the winter and 20:30 or 21:00 in the summertime.

The entrance fee is 50 NIS per adult, and 40 NIS per child (ages 5-18).

Discounts are available for groups, Matmon Club members and overnight guests at the Masada West Campground.

The length of the show is 45 minutes and it is recommended for children over ten years old.

To get to the show enter “Masada West Campsite” to Waze. And it will take you through Ara.

Site Plan

Let’s start with the site plan from the brochure that you receive on the entrance.

Masada National Park - Site Plan
Masada National Park – Site Plan

Note: you can click on the map to enlarge it.

Keep in mind that this site plan can be a little confusing since the north is pointing down.

As you can see from the site plan, the Masada national park has two entrances. Moreover, there is no close road that connects them. If you want to drive from one entrance to another, it is approximately seventy km road that takes around an hour. Thus you have to choose the entrance in advance, and make sure that the navigation app is set correctly.

And here is the map that shows what you can find on the top of the plateau.

Map of Masada National Park
Map of Masada National Park

Note: you can click on the map to enlarge it.

And here is a closeup of the site plan.

Map of Masada National Park
Map of Masada National Park

And now let’s go over the entrances and understand what facilities each of them has. At this point, I will just mention that most visitors choose the eastern entrance.

Western Entrance

The Western entrance (on the right side of the map) can be reached via road #3199 from Arad.

There is a free parking lot at this entrance. There are also restrooms, and if you are going for the Night Show (also called sound and light show), then you should use this entrance.

If you are going to climb Masada (and do not plan using the cable car) and worried about the difficulty of hiking, then you should take this entrance. The western entrance is on higher grounds than the eastern one.

The western entrance is about 20 meters below sea level. The top of the plateau is around 40 meters above sea level. That means the whole climb is 60 meters up. To reach the Western gate and the Masada, take the Siege ramp path. Completing this path takes about fifteen minutes at a moderate pace.

Siege ramp path and western entrance to Masada
Siege ramp path and the western entrance to Masada

Also, at the Western Entrance, you can find the siege tower from the Masada 1981 mini-series. However, it has only the base level (at the mini-series, it had three levels).

Siege tower
Siege tower

Campsite Masada West

Near the western entrance, you can find the campsite. It offers lighting, drinking fountains, barbeque area, bonfire areas, fixed and movable tables, electrical outlets, and of course restrooms and showers. You can find additional details here.

If you are considering a sunrise hike to Masada or a nigh show, then the closeness of the campsite makes it comfortable.

Eastern Entrance

The eastern entrance is the main one, and it is closer to the Dead Sea. It can be reached using road #90.

At this entrance, the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority built a whole complex. And in this complex, you can find the museum, a movie theater screening a short movie about Masada, see different exhibits, a restaurant, a souvenir shop, and restrooms. To be clear, besides the restrooms, there is nothing at the western entrance.

And because this complex enriches your visit, most people choose it. But it has a downside. As I mentioned above, the eastern entrance is located below the western. The eastern entrance is situated at about 270 meters below sea level. And since the top of the plateau is around 40 meters above sea level, it means hiking 310 meters uphill. And the shortest and the most common trail is the snake path.

But you do not have to hike uphill. As you understood from the entrance fee section, there is a cable car option at an extra cost. See the next two sections for details about the cable car and the snake path.

Cable car

Since there are many questions regarding the cable car, I decided to add a dedicated section.

If you choose the eastern entrance, then there are two common ways to get to the top. Either use the snake path or take the cable car. The cable car is at an extra cost (see the entrance fee section), and it decreases significantly the time it takes to get from the entrance to the top of the plateau.

The cable car and the snake path at Masada
The cable car and the snake path at Masada

The ride takes 3 – 4 minutes and the cable car is very smooth.

The cable car – from the eastern entrance there is a cable car up to the Snake Path Gate at the top of the mountain. The modern cable car replaces the old cable car of the 1970s and fits in better and less intrusively with the surroundings. The old cable car was installed in 1971, carrying a limited number of visitors to the lowest point on the hilltop, from which they continued their ascent to the top by stairs. In 1998 the cable car system was replaced to meet the requirements of the increasing number of visitors to the site. The lower cable car station was built at the foot of the mountain, becoming part of the visitor center complex. The stairs at the upper station were removed, and entry to the fortress today is through a suspended bridge, making access possible also for people with disabilities.

And here is a picture that I took when we almost reached the top.

The cable car and the visitors center at Masada
The cable car and the visitors center at Masada

Masada Snake Path

As I mentioned above, the snake path is one of the common ways of reaching Masada from the eastern entrance (the other common way is the cable car).

Masada snake path is about two km long and it is climbing approximately 310 meters uphill. And it is a combination of going uphill and climbing some stairs.

Snake Path at Masada
Snake Path at Masada

Note: at the bottom of the photo above you can see small dots. These are people climbing.

As you can see, it is easy to navigate, and you do not need any maps or special hiking experience. But it would be best if you had comfortable shoes and plenty of water (at least two liters per person).

The snake path takes about an hour. If you are not in shape, then it may take more. However, it depends not only on your fitness level but on the weather as well. Moreover, on very hot days they will close the Snake Path ascent. See the weather section above.

And I want to end this section with a question that is often ignored.

Is it worth taking the Snake Path?

In my opinion (if purchasing a cable car ticket is not an issue) the answer is no.

The pros are that taking the snake path will save you money, and you will fill self-fulfillment once you complete it. But the latter can be said about completing any challenging trail.

The cons are the extra time that you spend, nothing is interesting on the way, and the views from the top of the Masada plateau are better anyway. Or shortly put, the hike may be challenging, but boring. Moreover, by the time you reach the top, you might be tired, and as a result, you will skip parts of Masada.

Thus, if money (for the cable car) is not an issue, then I would suggest purchasing tickets for the cable car (or using the western entrance). And you can use the time that you save to hike at a place with POI, like Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.

Masada in the Bible

Masada is not mentioned in the Bible by its name. But if we remember that Masada means fortress or stronghold then maybe it is referred under that name.

it is possible that this was David’s place of refuge during his flight from Saul and where he wrote some of his psalms. If so, David was probably referring to Masada as the “stronghold” (1 Samuel 22:4-5, 23:14, 24:22), using it to depict God as his fortress and rock of refuge (Psalm 18:2, 31, 71:3, 144:2).

Source: land-of-the-bible.com

Masada Sunrise – Masada Tours

As you saw in the opening hours section, both the Snake Path and the Roman Ramp Path opens for ascent every day before sunrise. And that is because many people choose to meet the sunrise at Masada.

Moreover, many tour firms offer Masada Sunrise tours beyond the regular journeys. And a sunrise tour can be beneficial as you get to see many things in one day (since you start early). So keep this option in mind.

History

Here is the historical extract from the official brochure.

Sources

The story of Masada was recorded by Josephus Flavius, who was the commander of the Galilee during the Great Revolt and later surrendered to the Romans at Yodfat. At the time of Masada’s conquest, he was in Rome, where he devoted himself to chronicling the Revolt. Despite the debate surrounding the accuracy of his accounts, its main features seem to have been born out by excavation.

The Hasmonean Period

According to Josephus, the first fortress at Masada was built by “Jonathan the High Priest” – apparently, the Hasmonean King Alexander Janaeus (103-76 BCE). Their coins were discovered in excavations of the site.

Some scholars tend to identify Jonathan with the brother of Judah the Maccabee, who became a high priest in 152 BCE. So far, no architectural remains have been discovered at Masada that can be dated with certainty to the Hasmonean period.

The Herodian Period

Herod, who ruled from 37 BCE to 4 BCE, was well aware of the strategic advantages of Masada. He, therefore, chose the site as a refuge against his enemies, and as a winter palace. During his reign, luxurious palaces were built here in addition to well-stocked storerooms, cisterns, and a casemate wall. After the death of Herod in 4 BCE and the annexation of Judea to the Roman Empire in 6 CE, the Romans stationed a garrison at Masada.

The Great Revolt

Josephus relates that one of the first events of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, which broke out in 66 CE, was the conquest of Masada by the Sicarii, a group that got its name from a curved dagger, the sica, which they carried. The Sicarii were headed by Menahem, son of Judah the Galilean, who was murdered in Jerusalem in 66 CE. After the murder, Eleazar Ben Yair fled from Jerusalem to Masada and became commander of the rebel community on the mountain. It was a varied group, which apparently included Essenes and Samaritans. The last of the rebels fled to Masada after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and joined those already at the fortress under the command of Eleazar Ben Yair.

The rebels, who lived in rooms in the casemate wall and some of Herod’s palaces, constructed a synagogue and mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths). They left behind numerous material vestiges attesting to their community life.

The Siege

According to Josephus, Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea. In 73 or 74 CE, the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis, led by Flavius Silva, laid siege to the mountain. The legion, consisting of 8,000 troops among which were auxiliary forces, built eight camps around the base, a siege wall, and a ramp made of earth and wooden supports on a natural slope to the west. Captive Jews brought water to the troops, apparently from En Gedi, as well as food.

After a siege that lasted a few months, the Romans brought a tower with a battering ram up the ramp with which they began to batter the wall. The rebels constructed an inner support wall out of wood and earth, which the Romans then set ablaze. Josephus described it when the hope of the rebels dwindled, Eleazar Ben Yair gave two speeches in which he convinced the leaders of the 960 members of the community that it would be better to take their own lives and the lives of their families than to live in shame and humiliation as Roman slaves. In Josephus’ own words:

“Then, having chosen by lot ten of their number to dispatch the rest, they laid themselves down each beside his prostrate wife and children, and, flinging their arms around them, offered their throats in readiness for the executants of the melancholy office. These, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom it fell should slay first the nine and then himself last of all;… They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; The Romans advanced to the assault… seeing none of the enemies but on all sides an awful solitude, and flames within and silence, they were at a loss to conjecture what had happened here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death display by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution.”

(Josephus Flavius, The Wars of the Jews, VII, 395-406):

According to Josephus, two women and five children who had been hiding in the cisterns on the mountaintop told the Romans what had happened that night, on the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Passover.

The fall of Masada was the final act in the Roman conquest of Judea. A Roman auxiliary unit remained at the site until the beginning of the second century CE.

The Byzantine Period

After the Romans left Masada, the fortress remained uninhabited for a few centuries. During the fifth century CE, in the Byzantine period, a monastery of the type known as a laura, inhabited by hermits, was founded. Some scholars identify the Masada monastery with a site called Marda, mentioned by the Church fathers. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the monastery apparently ceased to exist.

The History of Masada Research

After the Byzantine period, Masada sank into oblivion until the nineteenth century. The first scholars to identify Masada with the plateau known in Arabic as es-Sebbeh were Smith and Robinson in 1838, and the first to climb it were Wolcott and Tipping in 1842. Warren climbed Masada in 1867, Conder described and mapped it in 1875, Sandel discovered the water system in 1905, and Schulten studied mainly the Roman siege system in 1932.

From the 1920s and especially during the 1940s, Masada became a lodestone for pioneering Zionist youth groups. The Hebrew translation in 1923 of The Wars of the Jews by Josephus, as well as the poem “Masada,” written by Lamdan, published in 1927, brought Masada closer to the hearts of young people in the country’s Jewish community. Shmarya Gutmann, who led numerous trips to the mountain, was particularly instrumental in transforming Masada into a symbol. Together with Micha Livneh and Ze’ ev Meshel, Gutmann rediscovered the Northern Palace and the Snake Path in 1953. Survey excavations were carried out in 1955–1956, mainly in the northern part of the plateau and the water system. This led to the major excavations carried out by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, headed by Yigael Yadin from 1963 to 1965. These excavations uncovered most of Masada’s structures, along with thousands of well-preserved artifacts that present a rare picture of the material culture at the end of the Second Temple period.

During the excavations, many buildings were conserved and reconstructed, and after preparation of the site for visitors, Masada National Park was opened in 1966. The construction of the first cable car in 1971 increased the stream of visitors.

After a short excavation in 1989 conducted by Ehud Netzer, excavations were renewed by the Hebrew University in 1995 in the framework of a large-scale development project funded by the Tourism Ministry through the Israel Government Tourist Corporation. Several excavation seasons were carried out led by Ehud Netzer and Guy Stiebel on the plateau, in addition to a season directed by Gideon Foerster at Roman Camp F and the siege ramp.

Conservation and restoration activities were carried out by Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Visitors Center

And now, after covering all basics, let’s visit Masada. And we will start with the Visitors Center at the eastern entrance.

At the entrance to the Visitors Center at Masada
At the entrance to the Visitors Center at Masada

After purchasing the tickets, we headed to see a short movie about Masada.

Masada Movie
Masada Movie

Then we checked the exhibits in this building. For example, here is a geographical and historical context.

At the Visitors Center in Masada National Park
At the Visitors Center in Masada National Park

There is also a lot of painting. Here is one that shows Roman camps surrounding Masada.

At the Visitors Center in Masada National Park
At the Visitors Center in Masada National Park

Masada Museum

Since we purchased tickets to the museum, we headed there.

Masada Museum – the Yigal Yadin Masada Museum has been open since 2007. A visit to the museum can also include a theatrical experience and radio narrative, giving visitors the background and setting the scene before visiting the site itself.

Masada Museum
Masada Museum

Photography inside the museum is prohibited. Thus I do not have any photos to show. But I can tell you what to expect.

At the entrance, each of us got an audio guide. And there are audio guides in a variety of languages. Then we started touring along with the rooms of the museum. Each room is either dedicated to a period or an event. And along with the exhibits, the audio guide tells their story.

The museum is not big and visiting all exhibits takes about half an hour.

When we finished at the museum, we headed to the cable car.

Snake Path Gate

POI #1 is the snake path gate.

Snake Path - Masada
Snake Path – Masada

You can see this gate at the top right corner of the photo above.

If you follow the numbers the route on the top of the plateau is roughly circular, in an anti-clockwise direction (see site plan section above for additional information).

Remains of a quarry in Masada National Park
Remains of a quarry in Masada National Park

In this guide, we will not go over all POI, and instead, we will see the most significant ones.

The Commandant’s Residence

The Commandant’s Residence (POI #3) and The Commandant’s Headquarters (POI #4) are situated near the snake path gate.

The Commandant's Residence at Masada
The Commandant’s Residence at Masada

The commandant’s office – the commandant’s office, by the Snake Path Gate, is built as a series of rooms decorated with frescoes (wall paintings made on damp plaster). Most of the decorations are geometric patterns and imitation marble, while others have floral designs.

All signs are in Hebrew and English

The Commandant’s Headquarters has a strategical location. On one side, it is close to the entrance. It is useful both for trade control and defense. And on the other side, it is close to important buildings inside Masada, like the north palace and the storeroom complex.

The Commandant's Headquarters at Masada
The Commandant’s Headquarters at Masada
The Commandant's Headquarters at Masada
The Commandant’s Headquarters at Masada

Storeroom Complex

To survive at a remote site in the desert you have to store a lot of goods (POI #5 on the site plan).

“But the stores laid up within would have excited still more amazement. For here had been stored a mass of corn, amply sufficient to last for years, an abundance of wine and oil, besides every variety of pulse and piles of dates.”

Josephus Flavius

To this day the secret of survival in an emergency in this isolated and remote desert location remains an intriguing question. One of the answers is the huge complex of storerooms, built during the construction Masada. Here was stored the food necessary for existence on the mountain in the days of Herod and the Roman siege. Of all the desert fortresses, Masada was the best prepared for a lengthy siege of a large number of inhabitants. That is clear from the many storerooms on the mountain, organized according to their contents, with liquids and foods stored separately. According to Josephus Flavius, the storerooms included a special wing for the storage of large quantities of weapons and the raw materials for their manufacture. The weapons were taken to Jerusalem during the Revolt.

Source: sign on site

One of the storage rooms in the Storeroom Complex
One of the storage rooms in the Storeroom Complex

The Northern Palace

Whenever you see a photo of Masada, it is most likely of the Northern Palace (POI #6 on the site plan). And it is not by chance. Many call the northern palace as one of the most daring structures built by King Herod and an architectural pearl.

Model of The Northern Palace in Masada
Model of The Northern Palace in Masada

The Northern Palace was daringly constructed on the hilltop, over the chasm. The palace is built on three rock terraces, with a total height difference of some 30 m, and required strong retaining walls.

The palace shows Hellenistic and Roman architectural influence. On the upper terrace were Herod’s private rooms, a residential wing with four rooms and a central hall. The rooms were paved with geometric mosaic designs, and frescoes were painted on the walls. The mosaic floor of the south-western room has been preserved, patterned with black and white hexagons. This is a common design in Rome and its environs, and its existence here may be evidence of the origins of the artists who created it.

The Northern Palace has three levels. You start at the top one. And you can get to the bottom one by stairs.

View down from The Northern Palace
View down from The Northern Palace

Outside is a semicircular patio, formerly surrounded by columns, which looks out over the He’ etekim Cliff in the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea, and the Roman siege array. In the center of the middle terrace was a circular hall surrounded by columns, of which only the foundations remain. This was the reception and banqueting hall.

The palace also had a small bathhouse, in which were found the skeletal remains of what is presumed to have been three of the rebels, as well as a woman’s braided hair, remarkably well preserved.

Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace

So we will skip several POI (return to them back late) and visit the lower terrace of The Northern Palace.

The trail leading to The Northern Palace
The trail leading to The Northern Palace
Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada
Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada

The lower terrace also held a hall, surrounded by colonnades. The exterior walls of the hall were decorated with stucco designs, and the interior walls – with frescoes (wall paintings painted on damp plaster) depicting colored imitation marble panels and geometric designs.

Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada
Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada

And the Northern Palace offers stunning views, so this is a must place for a selfie 😉

Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada
Lower Terrace of the Northern Palace in Masada

And here is a wide view to the west. You can see the western entrance with the Roman ramp trail at the left and remains of a Roman camp to the right.

View from the Lower Terrace
View from the Lower Terrace

And now let’s return to the top level to the large bathhouse.

The Large Bathhouse

The Large Bathhouse (POI #7 on the site plan) is a Roman-style bathhouse.

The Large Bathhouse at Masada
The Large Bathhouse at Masada

The bathhouse is built in Roman style, and all its rooms are well preserved.

At the entrance is a courtyard surrounded by columns, intended for gymnastic exercise. The dressing room (apodyterium) is decorated with frescoes and special stone tiles.

The Large Bathhouse at Masada
The Large Bathhouse at Masada

During the Revolt, an immersion pool was built here. In the tepid room (tepidarium), the frescoes have been wonderfully well preserved. An opening in the wall of this room leads to the stepped pool of the cold room (frigidarium), in which the floor rests on small columns. Hot air flowed through ceramic pipes incorporated in the walls, heating the room.

The Large Bathhouse at Masada
The Large Bathhouse at Masada

The “Lots”

The discovery location of the “Lots” is POI #8 on the site plan. At this place, several hundred inscribed shards were found. And Yigael Yadin connected this them with Josephus Flavius’ story of the lots drawing on the last night of the Revolt.

The discovery location of the "Lots"
The discovery location of the “Lots”

The Lots room – many inscribed pottery shards (ostraca) were found in this room, mainly bearing people’s names, including ‘Ben Yair’, the name of the leader of the Sicarii, the dominant group among the Masada rebels. These could perhaps have been the lots cast by the rebels on the night they decided to put an end to their lives, or they may have had to do with the administration of life in the rebel community.

You might ask why they drew lots to kill each other. And the reason why this way was chosen because suicide is against Jewish belief.

Wildlife

While we were at the Lots room I got a good shot of Tristram’s Starling. Thus, let’s talk about wildlife for a minute.

Tristram's Starling at Masada
Tristram’s Starling at Masada

Tristram’s Starling is a vocal bird whose call resembles a whistle, coal-black with orange stripes on its wings, which are mainly noticeable in flight. The main difference between males and females is the color of their heads – the females have grey plumage, and the males, black. Tristram’s starlings living around Masada are not afraid to come close to humans and can be found among the visitors in male-female pairs and groups.

Another common bird is the Blackstart, which is about the size of a sparrow. It can be identified by its grey body and black tail, which it frequently fans out. The fan-tailed raven can be seen hovering in the skies over Masada, carrying out aerial acrobatics for its pleasure, as can the Brown-necked raven.

In the foothills of Masada, you may well meet ibexes, which have also become accustomed to the presence of people, and wander around as if they own the place.

The Tower

The tower (POI #25 on the site plan), is one of the highest points at Masada. And from there you can overview parts of the site. Here are several photos from there.

View of the Officer's Quarters at Masada
View of the Officer’s Quarters (#26) at Masada
Part of storeroom complex and commandant's headquarters
Part of storeroom complex and commandant’s headquarters

Water At Masada

You can not survive in the desert without water. Plus since there is no constant flow of water, you have to store it. Thus, several cistern complexes were built.

A cistern at Masada National Park
A cistern at Masada National Park

“At each spot used for habitation, both on the summit and about the palace, as also before the wall, he had cut out in the rock numerous large tanks, as reservoirs for water, thus procuring a supply as ample as where springs are available.”

Josephus Flavius

Beyond cisterns, there is a special water collection system. There is a model on-site that demonstrates how it worked.

Model of water collection system At Masada
Model of water collection system At Masada

As you can see, when rainwater flowed, a series of damns and aqueducts directed it to cisterns. Then convoys of animals brought the water to the top of the plateau via the water gate (POI #9 on the site plan) and the snake path. Here is the full explanation according to a sign on site:

The solution to the water problem in the desert fortress is undoubtedly one of the wonders of Masada. To survive on the mountain, Herod quarried numerous cisterns on the summit, and the northwestern slope.

Rainwater that flowed in the floods in the nearby streams was stored here. The water was collected by a system of dams and two aqueducts, parts of which can be seen to this day. Two rows of cisterns were dug in the slope, eight in the upper row and four in the lower, which contained 40,000 cubic meters of water. From the cisterns, two paths led up to the mountain, one from the upper row to the Water Gate in the northwest of the mountain and the other from the lower row to the Snake Path Gate in the east.

Convoys of animals brought the water up to Masada along these paths. When they reached the summit, the water was poured into a system of channels leading into the cisterns throughout the mountain. But a lover of life like Herod would not be content merely with drinking water. The water planning of Masada also included attention to hygiene and recreation, as we can see from the bathhouses and the swimming pool located in the southern part of the mountain.

The Synagogue

On the site plan, POI #12 is the Synagogue.

The Synagogue at Masada
The Synagogue at Masada

The synagogue – a building used in Herod’s time as a stable was turned into a synagogue by the rebels. Two pits dug into the floor of the room in which fragments of biblical scrolls were found to have served as a genizah, a storage archive for religious texts. Benches were built along the walls. This is one of the few ancient synagogues that were in use at the end of Second Temple times. To the south of the synagogue, in the “casement of the scrolls”, a collection of articles from the time of the Revolt was found, including sections of scrolls and papyrus.

Columbarium Tower

A columbarium (POI #13 on the map) is an installation to raise doves. The doves were used for food and their droppings as fertilizers. Columbariums were widespread in the Judean lowlands. And today you can see them at Horvat Midras and Beit Guvrin National Park (you can also find additional information about columbariums at that post).

Columbarium Tower at Masada
Columbarium Tower at Masada

Siege of Masada

Near the columbarium, you will find the breaching point (POI #14 on the site plan). Here the siege of Masada ended. Thus let’s elaborate on this topic.

The Last Rebel Stronghold

According to Josephus, Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea. In 73 or 74 CE, the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis, led by Flavius Silva, laid siege to the mountain. The legion, consisting of 8,000 troops among which were auxiliary forces, built eight camps around the base, a siege wall, and a ramp made of earth and wooden supports on a natural slope to the west. Captive Jews brought water to the troops, apparently from En Gedi, as well as food.

Note: you can find the full description in the history section.

The Ramp

The ramp – to the west of Masada is a ridge that is just 60 m lower than the top of the mountain. In the year 73 CE, when the Romans besieged the Zealots who had made their stronghold on the mountain, they took advantage of a natural rock-fall at this site and built an earthen ramp over it, supported by wooden beams.

Siege ramp path and western entrance to Masada
Siege ramp path and the western entrance to Masada

Siege Tower

After several months, the Romans finished building the ramp.

At the top of the ramp rose the siege tower, and in it was the battering ram with which the Romans assaulted the casemate wall. However, the rebels had built a wall of earth and wood, against which the battering ram was ineffective:

“Observing this, Silva, thinking it easier to destroy this wall by fire, ordered his soldiers to hurl at it showers of burning torches… At the first outbreak of the fire, a north wind which blew in the faces of the Romans caused them alarm for diverting the flame from above, it drove it against them… Then suddenly, the wind veering, as if by divine providence, to the south and blowing with full force in the opposite direction, wafted and flung the flames against the wall, which now through and through was all ablaze.”

Josephus Flavius

Sketch of the Siege Tower
Sketch of the Siege Tower

The Last Night

When night fell, and it was clear that the situation was hopeless and that the Romans would break-in at dawn, Eleazar Ben Yair assembled his followers and called for mass suicide:

“The Romans, expecting further opposition… were at a loss to conjecture what had happened… Here encountering the mass of the slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death displayed by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution.”

Josephus Flavius

Who survived the siege of Masada?

According to Josephus, two women and five children who had been hiding in the cisterns on the mountaintop told the Romans what had happened that night, on the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Passover.

Also, according to Josephus and based on the testimony of the survivors, Eleazar Ben Yair told the remaining rebels to destroy everything in Masada except the food supplies. By doing so, he wanted to show the Romans that they chose death over slavery.

The Western Palace

And now let’s enter the biggest building in Masada, the Western Palace (POI #17 on the map).

The Western Palace at Masada
The Western Palace at Masada

The Western Palace – this palace is the largest building on Masada, 3700 m² in size, built by Herod. The entrance lobby has inbuilt benches, and the walls are decorated with stucco designs. On the first story is a hall. Because of four depressions in the floor in which the legs of the King’s throne could have been set, it has been assumed that this was the “Throne Room”. A flight of stairs leads to the second story, which looks out over the bathing complex below, with its magnificent mosaic floor.

The Western Palace at Masada
The Western Palace at Masada
Public immersion pool (#18) and the Western Palace in the background
Public immersion pool (#18) and the Western Palace in the background

There are additional POI at Masada, but as I mentioned in the beginning, we are going to visit only the main ones.

Rebels' dwellings (#31) at Masada
Rebels’ dwellings (#31) at Masada
Byzantine dwelling cave (#31)
Byzantine dwelling cave (#31)

How much time a visit to Masada takes?

A typical visit to Masada takes two to three hours. And out of this time, about one hour is spent on climbing the snake path. Thus I would say that two hours is probably the minimum suggested time.

Our latest visit took almost four hours. We used the cable car to go both up and down (so we did not spend time on the snake path). And despite that, we did not cover everything. Therefore, you can easily spend five or more hours at Masada.

The Significance of Masada

First of all, Masada is a historical site. In 1968, Masada was declared a national park on an area of ​​3,400 hectares, and in 2001, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

“Masada shall not fall again”

But beyond that, Masada became a symbol. About a century ago, the story of Masada was embraced by the Zionist movement. It represented the myth of ambition to freedom, national renewal, and sovereignty.

In the 1930s, Masada became a pilgrimage site for travelers and youth movements. And after the establishment of Israel, the chief of staff of the IDF, Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of IDF armored corps recruiters taking their military oath at the top of Masada (after completing basic training).

The ceremony ended with the declaration: “Masada shall not fall again.” The soldiers climbed the Snake Path at night and were sworn in with torches lighting the background. These ceremonies are now also held at various other locations, including the Armoured Corps Memorial at Latrun, the Western Wall and Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, Akko prison, and training bases.

Source: Wikipedia

Common Questions

What happened at Masada?

Masada was the last Jewish rebel stronghold in Judea during Jewish – Roman war. And when the group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii understood they are about to lose, they preferred to die as free men instead of living as slaves. Thus they performed a mass suicide.

What is Masada known for?

Masada is known for the siege is Masada. During which, the rebels preferred to die as free men instead of living as slaves. Therefore they performed a mass suicide.

What is the significance of Masada?

About a century ago, the story of Masada was embraced by the Zionist movement. It represented the myth of ambition to freedom, national renewal, and sovereignty. See The Significance of Masada section in this guide.

How many died at Masada?

According to Josephus, 960 Jewish Zealots died at Masada.

How long does it take to climb Masada?

If you are taking the western entrance, then completing the siege ramp path takes fifteen minutes. And if you take the eastern entrance, then you will likely take the snake path, which takes about an hour to complete.

How difficult is it to climb Masada?

Climbing from the western entrance is rather easy. And the snake path at the eastern entrance is more strenuous. But if you are in good shape it should not be a problem. Moreover, remember that you will be hiking in the desert. Thus, weather plays a significant role. See the relevant sections above for additional details.

What does Masada mean in English?

Masada means fortress or a stronghold.

Is Masada worth visiting?

Masada is for sure worth a visit. It is one of the most popular national parks in Israel. And it offers not only stunning views and archeological remains, but it has a great story as well.

Is it safe to drive from Jerusalem to Masada?

Yes. I personally driven there many times and never had any problems.

How long do you need at Masada?

A typical visit to Masada takes two to three hours. And if you take the snake path, then the climbing will take one hour. Thus I would say that two hours is probably the minimum suggested time. And a more in-depth visit will take four to five hours.

Summary

Masada National Park is one of the most significant sites in Israel. That is why I included it in my best National Parks And Nature Reserves list. And if you are visiting Jerusalem or the Dead Sea, definitely consider making a detour to Masada.

Have you ever been to Masada National Park? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!

Stay Tuned!

   

Additional Resources

Here are several resources that I created to help travelers: And if you have any questions then check out Useful Information For Tourists To Israel.  
Did not find what you were looking for? Email me at [email protected], and I will do my best to answer your questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Content