Masada: King Herod’s desert palace!

The rugged natural fortress of Masada, overlooking the Dead sea, is Israel’s first World Heritage Site recognized by UNESCO, and thus receives special treatment as an historical location. It is the second most popular tourist destinations in Israel after Jerusalem biblical Zoo with over 1.25 million visitors per annum. This fortress is a classical Roman style sumptuous palace complex built by the Judean King Herod the Great. He is credited for the construction of Temple mount, a portion of which today remains as western wall. Apart from the modern harbor, Caesarea, he also either built or fortified fortresses like Herodium, Alexandrium, Hyrcania, and Machaerus. It is also an archeological site of great importance. The remains of Herod’s palaces are outstanding and very intact examples of this type of architecture.

For many tourists the exploration of Masada begins before dawn, when they wake up very early to begin a long hike (snake path) up the side of the mountain. However, we took the cable car up to the top. Most of the information regarding the history, the legend and archeology at this historical site could be obtained at the Visitor center located at the entrance of cable car. Some of the finds that were discovered at Masada by its discoverer, the famous Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin are now on display in the halls of the visitor’s center. Personally, I would recommend visitors to use cable car as one need to conserve energy for walking around this huge complex, particularly for visiting the hanging terraces on the northern side.

The “hanging” palace with its three terraces in the Masada complex, is an outstanding example of opulent architectural design, elaborately engineered and constructed in extreme conditions. The palace on the northern face of the dramatic mountain site consists of an exceptional group of classical Roman Imperial buildings. This luxurious desert palace is the winter retreat of King Herod who used to enjoy with guests. It was told that King Herod used to dine on the most expensive foods shipped to him in the desert, such as wine and fish sauce from the Caesar’s own estates in Spain and apples from Italy. Here you can find remnants of elegant frescoes that decorated the walls of Herod’s buildings, which were painted by esteemed Roman painters themselves.

Another archeological wonder at this place is the bathhouse of King Herod. The water system at Masada was

particularly sophisticated, collecting run-off water from a single day’s rain to sustain life for a thousand people over a period of two to three years. This achievement allowed the transformation of a barren, isolated, arid hilltop into a lavish royal retreat.

Later, survivors of the Jewish Revolt against Roman rule occupied this natural defensive site. Many refugees flocked to this fortress especially after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. But a massive Roman army successfully besieged it after three years. We saw the site where the Roman siege ramp reached the top of the mountain, leading to their discovery of the mass suicide by the Jewish revolts. The military camps, siege works and an attack ramp that encircle the site, and a network of legionary fortresses of quadrilateral plan, are the most complete anywhere in the Roman world. Masada is a poignant symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

The siege of Masada is often revered in modern Israel as “a symbol of Jewish heroism”. “Masada became a symbol for a heroic ‘last stand’ for the State of Israel and played a major role for Israel in forging national identity”. To Israel, it symbolized the courage of the warriors of Masada, the strength they showed when they were able to keep hold of Masada for almost three years, and their choice of death over slavery in their struggle against an aggressive empire. Masada had become “the performance space of national heritage”, the site of military ceremonies.

If you have enjoyed this virtual tour of Masada, follow my blog for virtual tours of other great places, the holy land has to offer.