Cable Car to Masada, Israel’s Old fortress
While at a conference at En Bokek (Dead Sea hotels area) in Israel, we took a side trip to Masada, about a 20-minute drive north. All the international conference attendees were determined not to miss this sight, so we took a taxi-van for 7 people. Thank goodness we made the effort, as this really is a not-to-be-missed place, one that is on many people’s “bucket list”.
It’s huge, it’s impressive, it’s symbolic, and it’s quite difficult to access. The old Roman fort was approached by three, narrow, winding paths leading up to fortified gates. Today, visitors can still walk up two of those paths—the Ramp Trail on the west side, or the Snake Path on the east/Dead Sea side—or they can take the cable car, which leaves from the Visitors Center. The cable car, built in 1998, whisks you along, for almost a kilometer (0.55 mile), with an altitude increase of 950 feet (290 m). If you are young, or fit, or have a lot of time, it’s possible to walk up, but many people rely on the cable car (or aerial ropeway). We all went up in it, but three of our party (young and fit) walked down the Snake Path. They said it took about 45 minutes but that it was a bit slippery in places, especially at the top, and that it was very crowded, especially with large groups of high school students on a field trip. It must be much worse at peak season, as we were there in February.
At the top of the cable car lift, you arrive at the Snake Path Gate and ahead of you is a sloping plateau, roughly oval in shape and more than half a kilometer long. Much of what you see is ruins, but enough still exists to give a really good idea of what a magnificent place this must have been, a remote gem in the desert. Besides getting an idea of what was up here on the plateau and trying to visualize the story of the rebels, you get absolutely stunning views out to the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea.
The cliffs of the hills and mountains right next to the Dead Sea are spectacular in a brown-gold desert way. The bright blue of the Dead Sea on one side and the sculpted brown and cream crags, peaks and hills on the other, make for a dramatic place to have a palace and then to stage a major rebellion. Add to that, the day we were there, huge inky-black rain clouds over the north side of the Dead Sea, and the picture becomes almost dream-like with the haze in the air. The wind picked up and we even had some light rain—imagine that in the desert!
Besides this setting, the site is full of symbolism, which is why it attracts so many tourists annually. We are told it’s Israel’s #2 tourist sight (after the Western Wall), and it’s easy to see why.
People come to see where Jewish rebels stood up to the Roman Legion in a bid to free Israel from the Romans, and almost succeeded.
A Bit of Background:
King Herod the Great built this ancient fortress on top of an isolated natural rocky plateau with cliffs more than 800 feet high (like a huge mesa), on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod built grand palaces for himself up there between 37-31 BC, partly because he thought it was impregnable and partly so he could enjoy the health benefits of the Dead Sea (see my earlier post on the Dead Sea here: https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/dead-sea-salts-and-suchlike-the-dead-sea-is-dying/ ). In addition to the natural defensive cliffs, Herod added fortifications with a casemate wall and towers.
What is the Story of the Rebellion?
The 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that in 66 AD a group of Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison at Masada (so-called because they carried small knives called sicaris). After the Jewish Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 AD, more of the Sicarii escaped Jerusalem and settled on Masada after massacring the Roman garrison. A Roman legion surrounded Masada in 73 AD and the Romans built an enormous siege system around Masada that we can still see clearly today. The Romans built a ramp up to the plateau and eventually breached the walls with a siege tower and battering ram in 73 or 74 AD. Rather than surrender or be killed by the Romans, the 960 rebel inhabitants on Masada supposedly set all the buildings on fire and committed mass suicide, their last stand against the Romans.
This dramatic event has become a symbol of the fight for freedom from oppression. Thousands of Israeli soldiers now swear their oath of allegiance here. However, there are discrepancies between archeological findings and the writings of Josephus, plus the remains of only 28 bodies have been found.
But, for us and for most other visitors, the truth or otherwise of this mass suicide doesn’t detract from the power of this place. The siege did take place, after the Jewish rebels captured Masada. The Romans did slowly wear down the rebels and breached the fortress and some people died. Whether 28 or 960 died, it’s still a story of bravery, tenacity, and strong belief—on both sides, both determined to win.
Some people come on a day trip from Jerusalem, or from En Bokek, or you can stay in a guesthouse up there. You definitely need a minimum of 4-5 hours, so you can visit the Museum too, and more if you decide to either walk up or down the Snake Path rather than use the cable car. It’s very hot in summer, so take lots of water, and wear comfortable walking shoes.
Entrance into Masada (including the museum at the bottom), plus return cable car was 96 NIS per person (roughly $24).
We are very glad we went—it would have been a great pity to be so close and to miss it. And I, for one, am very grateful that there’s a cable car to whisk us up to the top of Masada painlessly!