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Inside the fort today

canonPart 1: Our Visit to Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry and what it stands for in American history is so important, with so much information available, that I decided to break it up into 4 parts—that makes for easier reading and understanding, I hope.

One of the most popular places to visit in Baltimore is Fort McHenry—to visit the actual fort and to learn about the American flag and anthem. As we discovered, it’s impossible to talk about the fort without also mentioning the flag and anthem as their history is so intertwined.

We caught the free Banner bus at the stop close to the Baltimore Visitors’ Center—about a 20-minute bus ride to the entrance to the park, but it’s also possible to go by water taxi.

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At the entrance to the park

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Visitor Center at the fort

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View through windows as curtains open

A short walk takes you to the impressive fort Visitor Center, which has a ticket counter, shop, restrooms, and a small museum that offers an audio-visual show at regular intervals. We bought a life-time pass to the US National Parks for only $10 each as seniors—what an amazing deal! The museum has information on the fort, the siege and defense of Baltimore, and the story of Francis Scott Key writing the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. (See my earlier background post here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/fort-mchenry-and-the-star-spangled-banner/ ). A ranger gives a short audio-visual presentation, at the end of which curtains open over huge picture windows, giving a dramatic view out to the fort.

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Entrance to the inner part of the fort

canon2You can take a ranger-guided tour, or just walk around by yourself, which we opted to do. The sight has many information boards along the paths and by all the buildings and other points of view, so it is very easy to picture what was going on here. Some of the structures from the original fort no longer exist (such as the Tavern, as alcohol was important to the soldiers), but the foundation outline is still there, so we can imagine the layout. What we see today are the modifications over 200 years.

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These Rodman canons were installed in 1866

It’s a large grassy area, with great views out to the river, and it’s fun to ramble around. The fort is in an excellent location for protecting Baltimore as it controlled the entrance to the Inner harbor. Almost all of this was new information for us, which we tried to absorb, but being there and walking around made it much more personal and meaningful

fortinsideThe actual fort inside is quite small (it was built for 150 soldiers), so trying to imagine 1,000 people crammed in there during the siege of Baltimore is hard. Many of the rooms in the inner fort buildings now serve as a museum depicting life in the fort. We learn details and snippets, such as the fact that officers were from rich families and often had their own servants and paid for their own (nice) food. Tobacco was important as an export to America and the British blockade badly affected imports and exports, with negative impact on the economy. One of the important ports was Baltimore, so it’s also symbolic that it played a pivotal role in fending off the British.

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Example of an information board —this one about the Magazine

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Magazine inside today

We saw the cross-traverse for the original flag. This kept the flagpole from falling over, because such a big flag on a pole would just blow over. We also saw the magazine used for stored gunpowder (it was used to store coal in WW1), and some of the canons used in 1814 and later, plus explanations about the fuses and how long fuses should be. The canon balls were solid and varied in size—all were deadly.

What are the main take-home lessons from visiting the fort?

First, how important the War of 1812 was in American history. It was the second war against Britain, and the success of the American defense got the British “off their backs”. It’s also very clear that the British could potentially have sacked Baltimore just as they did Washington DC, so holding them off here was enormously important.

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Canon balls (shots) of different sizes

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A 36-pound shot. Absolutely lethal 

Second, this was the naval battle that led to the development of the national anthem. And this was due to a huge American flag flying at the fort. See Part 2 on information about the flags at Fort McHenry.

For more information about Fort McHenry and the park, go to their website:

https://www.nps.gov/fomc/index.htm

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fortsign4Fort McHenry and the Star-Spangled Banner: Historical Context

With all the hou-haa going on right now about the US anthem, honoring it and what it means to be patriotic, this seemed like a good time for me to try and finish writing about Fort McHenry in Baltimore and the birth of the song that was inspired by a huge flag.

In July we were in Baltimore for a conference, our first time to visit this American city. Our knowledge of its history was a bit sketchy to say the least, so we had a great time exploring Fort McHenry, and the small house where Mary Pickersgill lived and helped stitch the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his victory poem that later became the American anthem.

It’s actually a tense and dramatic story, made more real by visiting the sites of the action, and trying to visualize what happened on those momentous days.

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The inside of Fort McHenry today

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Entrance to the inside of the fort today

battle_starsignEveryone speaks of the War of 1812, but in reality the major events took place in 1814.

Bit of background:

After the American Revolution and the exhausting fight to win independence from Great Britain, tensions between the two countries still smoldered. Britain was at war with France for supremacy in Europe, and also set policies that interfered with American trade, like confiscating merchant ships and cargoes. The British navy needed more men, so would board American vessels and seize men said to be British deserters. They also forcefully blocked American expansion along the Great Lakes and Northern Frontier.

Many Americans, including President James Madison, wanted to strike back, and Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Over the next 2 years, American and British forces clashed in many places from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The British occupied the fertile Chesapeake Bay, and raided waterfront towns.

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One of the canons in Fort McHenry

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Fort McHenry

By summer 1814, President Madison realized the war could escalate, especially since Napoleon had fallen and the British then had more troops available. He worried in particular about the Washington-Maryland area and called for more militiamen and volunteers.

On August 19, 1814 British General Robert Ross brought more than 4,000 troops ashore in southern Maryland to start a land invasion, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn sailed up the Potomac River towards Washington DC. Both of them and their troops arrived at the edge of DC at dusk on August 24, and created havoc and panic. They torched much of the city, including the US Capitol and the President’s house. The rampage only ended because of a violent rainstorm. Bladensburg, a tobacco port just 5 miles northeast of the capital, was also attacked and badly affected, mostly because the American commanders and troops were very inexperienced compared to the British counterparts.

From August 28 the British plundered Alexandria for 5-6 days and then set their sights on Baltimore, on the Patapsco River with its many ‘arms’ and branches.

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The guns that won the battle

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armisteadplaqueBut, Baltimore was better prepared than Washington had been. Under Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, a US Senator and veteran of the Revolution, defences were erected, arms and equipment stockpiled, and troops trained. He had about 15,000 men, and Fort McHenry, the key to the harbor, had 1,000 men. Fort McHenry was commanded by Maj. George Armistead. The fort’s guns and two batteries along the river’s edge dominated the channels leading to the city. A line of gunboats and sunken hulks across the mouth of Northwest Branch also obstructed entry.

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Direct Hits to Fort McHenry–in which 2 officers were killed

On September 12, Ross’s troops marched towards Baltimore. Ross was killed but his replacement, Col Arthur Brooke, marched to within 2 miles of the city and was waiting for the naval attack to end before assaulting the city. British Admiral Cochrane knew that for the British campaign to succeed he had to capture or destroy Fort McHenry. He attacked the fort at dawn on September 13th and the bombardment from the water carried on for 25 hours. Armistead estimated later that between 1500 and 1800 shells and rockets were fired at the fort. However, only two officers were killed and several gun crew members injured.

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Dawn’s Early Light

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The soldiers on Fort McHenry hoist the huge flag

Around midnight Cochrane realized that shelling the fort was not enough and decided to send small boats as a diversion up the Ferry Branch of the river to distract the Americans and allow Brooke to storm the east side of the city where he was waiting. But in the dark, this plan went wrong—they rowed up the wrong branch, and other barges were detected and driven back by the Americans. The British carried on bombing the fort until 7am on September 14th, and then they withdrew.

The American soldiers fired the morning gun and hoisted the huge flag that Armistead had ordered especially, which later became known as the “Star-Spangled Banner”.

How did that happen? This takes us to Francis Scott Key.

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Plaque to Francis Scott Key on Fort McHenry

As the British sailed toward Baltimore in early September 1814, Georgetown attorney Francis Scott Key and John Skinner, the US agent for the exchange of prisoners, met the British to negotiate the release of Key’s friend, a physician abducted from Maryland. They were aboard a truce ship when the British began bombarding Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. They had to watch the fighting through the night, but then came the raising of that large flag measuring 30×42 feet, which Key could see even from a distance. He then knew that the Americans were victorious and was very proud. To record his thoughts at that moment, he wrote a poem about his feelings on seeing the flag. This poem later became the national anthem. Some of his words say “the stars of that banner”, which led to the actual flag being called The Star-Spangled Banner too.

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Viv M and a flag and statue of Key in the Fort McHenry Museum

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The flag on Fort McHenry today

President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent on February 17th, 1815, and the war was officially over. Neither America nor Britain had won a clear victory, but the war gave Americans a stronger sense of collective identity and confirmed its new position on the international stage.

Fort McHenry became a National Monument, which people can visit. We did and it was fascinating—I’ll write more on that later.

Two lasting symbols came from this war: The Star-Spangled Banner (now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC) and the national anthem that honors it. More details on those coming too.

 

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Detail of Chagall’s America Windows

Marc Zakharovich Chagall (born July 1887, Belarus; died March 1985, France), a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin, was an early modernist. We’ve come across his work before (in Paris and in Zurich), and love his bold use of colors in glass, and his “pictures within pictures.” For us, probably the most famous is his America Windows in Chicago at the Art Institute.

Marc Chagall’s America Windows is one of the most loved treasures in the Art Institute’s collection—they are one of our favorites too, although it’s hard to pick favorites in this museum so chock-a-block with masterpieces! They made their debut at the Art Institute in May 1977 and were made more famous less than ten years later when they appeared in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Bit of Background:

Chagall’s Windows were not on show for quite a while as they were undergoing

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Detail of America Windows

conservation treatment and archival research. But, they returned in 2010 to a new location as the stunning centerpiece of a new presentation on Chicago’s other modern public art at the east end of the museum’s Arthur Rubloff building (as you go down to the café). Here we can see models and maquettes of some of the important large pieces in the story of Chicago’s modern public art.

It’s interesting that the history of America Windows is interwoven with the history of Chicago and its rich tradition of public art, which continues strongly today.

The roots of this can be traced to 1967, the year Pablo Picasso’s monumental sculpture was unveiled. It was Chicago’s first major installation of the new styles of 20th century modern art (see my post on this here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/chicago-creativity-on-the-streets/ ). It initially inspired controversy, but soon started a cultural resurgence fueled by public and private investment in the arts. One of these included Mark Chagall’s mosaic The Four Seasons installed outside Chase Tower in 1974, which in turn inspired America Windows.

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Another detail from America Windows

Because the city was so enthusiastic about his work and the Art Institute gave him great support, Chagall offered to create a set of stained-glass windows for the museum. During the next three years plans were clarified, and Chagall decided that the windows would commemorate America’s bicentennial.

The resulting six-panel work, with three main themes, celebrates the country as a place of cultural and religious freedom, giving details of the arts of music, painting, literature, theater, and dance. They paint a romantic picture of the American Dream, the idea that we can achieve anything we want in this country. Because Chagall admired Chicago and its strong commitment to public art during the 1960s and 1970s, he chose to dedicate the work to the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, a great supporter of public art projects (he died December 1976). The windows were presented with great fanfare at a formal unveiling, hosted by the Auxiliary Board of the Art Institute, on May 15, 1977.

The Windows Today:

The Windows are in a superb location now, as they glow softly from the natural light coming in behind them. The colors and the details are beautiful, a story of different religions, arts and parts of American life all intertwined.

The first panel shows the city’s rich history as a hub for rhythm and blues. Note people playing instruments, plus floating guitars and fiddles, all in glowing blue panes. The windows are done cathedral-style, a perfect way to show the spirituality of Blues music.

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First panel

The second panel depicts the unity and peace within the city’s many neighborhoods. Note the giant dove, a symbol of peace. This panel is also a prayer for the city. When Mayor Richard J. Daley died in December1976, many people were in mourning. The figure on the left of the pane lights a candle in remembrance of the late, great mayor.

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Second panel

Panel three shows the importance of religious freedom in the USA. Note the immigrants of different backgrounds, an angel-like figure, a menorah, and rose window. Chagall was Jewish but worked extensively with cathedral windows and was comfortable referring to Christianity and Judaism. It’s also important, as most American citizens have come from a family of immigrants. Something the current Administration needs to take heed of!!

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Panel 3

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Opera Garnier is a gorgeous setting for Chagall’s ceiling

Another Chagall masterpiece we’ve seen and photographed is in Paris at the neo-Baroque Opera Garnier; the magnificent ceiling in the main auditorium. It was unveiled in 1964. It looks beautiful there, even though his design is way more modern that the setting it is in. Somehow, we think the older (and very sumptuous and ornate) and the new meld very well and apparently the public love it today. Chagall divided the ceiling into color zones that he filled with landscapes and figures commemorating the composers, actors and dancers of opera and ballet.

 

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Angels on pillars, angels on the ceiling

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Chagall ceiling at Opera Garnier

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Chagall at Fraumunster Church Zurich–first 4 window-panels of 5

We also saw some of Chagall’s work in the heart of old Zurich at the Fraumunster Church, built on the remains of an abbey built in 853. The choir of the abbey has 5 large stained-glass windows designed by Chagall and installed in 1970. They all depict a Christian story. Stunning.

The first panel in red/orange depicts Elijah’s

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Last 4 window-panels

ascent to heaven. The second panel in blue shows Jacob’s combat and dreams of heaven. The middle (third) panel in green depicts various scenes from Christ’s life. The fourth panel in yellow shows Zion with an angel trumpeting the end of the world. The last (fifth) panel in blue depicts Law, with Moses looking down on the suffering of the people.

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Middle 3 window-panels

We look forward to tracking down more of Chagall’s work in the future. But, in the meantime, we are happy that Chicago and its history of public art can boast one of his major works.

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Model of Zimmerman House at museum

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Front view

The Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House, 1950

People who know and love the architecture and designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, in Illinois or elsewhere, will be delighted to find another of his amazing houses in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The Zimmerman House is an example of his modest Usonian homes and the only Frank Lloyd Wright house open to the public in New England. Usonian is a term Wright coined to classify small, one-story homes intended for modest living. Today, Usonian homes are considered a precursor to the American ranch house.

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Entrance—even that big rock was part of the design

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Back view

We’d previously seen a Usonian house south of St Louis in Missouri; have been to Oak Park, Illinois, which has the largest concentration of Wright buildings in the world; and have toured the gorgeous Dana Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois. When we discovered there was a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Manchester, where we would be for half a day, we knew we had to try and see it. And we did.

Fortuitous, as this is a special year for Frank Lloyd Wright fans.

Frank Lloyd Wright was born 150 years ago and there will be many parties, exhibits and events at some of his buildings, and a major show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive.” It will run until October 1, 2017. Many consider Frank Lloyd Wright to be America’s best-known architect and both his innovative designs and his larger-than-life personality (and controversial personal life) continue to fascinate the public.

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backcloseralongbackOne of the reasons that this architect was so popular with the general public was that he did what he wanted in his own style, which was often more in line with popular taste than academic taste. For example, he loved to use color, pattern and ornamentation, similar to 19th century architects, and unlike the minimalism associated with modernism in architecture.

He did create fantastic buildings, with technical details way ahead of his time, even if he also offended some people by his insistence on the fact that he was always right—-down to the last detail about furniture, decorations in the houses, what could and could not be hung on his walls, how the gardens should be planted etc. When in one of his houses you get an intangible feeling of being in something special, of being in a space that feels exactly right, partly because all the dimensions and all the fittings were carefully calculated to fit into that space.

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Looking through one of the huge windows

His buildings remain must-see sights for his fans. About 380 Wright structures still stand and those that are open to the public often sell out tours well in advance. So, we were very lucky in May to easily get on a tour to the Zimmerman House in Manchester, NH. You have to take a tour from the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. A driver takes visitors in a small bus to the house and a knowledgeable guide takes you on the bus and through the house.

The Zimmerman House is an example of his Usonian style, so it’s smaller but the layout is still carefully planned and the attention to details is amazing as always.

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Steps from car port towards front entrance

The 1,600-square-foot brick home was created for Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman, a doctor and a nurse who requested a “small, spacious and simple house” from Wright, as they were dissatisfied with the “ultra-conservative” residential architecture of New England. Wright’s solution was “a classic Usonian” for which he designed the house, the gardens, the furniture, and all the interior details, such as cabinets and shelves, down to the dinnerware and even the mailbox. Wright once said, “a Usonian house is always hungry for ground, lives by it, becoming an integral feature of it.” Appropriately, the Zimmerman House appears to blend with the landscape, as it is specially angled on the plot, and uses floor-to-ceiling windows and natural materials to bring the outdoors in. The green of the garden and the brown of all the wood give a feeling of peace, harmony, and serenity. We are so happy that we were able to see another example of this very special kind of architecture.

Though not large, the built-in furniture, continuous concrete floor mat, large windows,

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Even the postbox was specially designed

and dramatic changes in ceiling height impart a sense of great spaciousness. The Zimmermans lived in the house for the next 36 years.

In 1979 the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Dr. and Mrs. Zimmerman left the property to the Currier Museum of Art in 1988. In 1990, the house and grounds were opened so that visitors could enjoy glimpses of a private world from the 1950s and 1960s, including the Zimmermans’ personal collection of modern art, pottery and sculpture.

Tours are Thursday through Monday at 11:15am, 1:15pm and 3:15pm. Tours are 90 minutes long.

No photos inside

Visitors must wear slip-ons over shoes inside the house.

No restrooms on the tour.

$25 for adults
$24 for seniors (65+)
$16 for students
$10 for children ages 7-17 (Children under age 7 are not permitted to tour the Zimmerman House).

$10 for Museum members

All Zimmerman House tours include general Museum admission.

Book online http://currier.org/education-programs/zimmerman-house-tours/

 

 

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Looking up to Masada

Looking up to Masada

From the cable car we look down to the Visitors Center, and the Dead Sea in the distance

From the cable car we look down to the Visitors Center, and the Dead Sea in the distance

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.

From the cable car we look across the mountain desert

From the cable car we look across the mountain desert

The cable car arrives at the top

The cable car arrives at the top

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!

What an amazing view!

What an amazing view!

Exit to the cable car down through that doorway on the left

Exit to the cable car down through that doorway on the left

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.

Viv M, Dead Sea in the distance

Viv M, Dead Sea in the distance

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.

From this vantage point you can see the 3 levels of Herod's Palace

From this vantage point you can see the 3 levels of Herod’s Palace

Today:

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!

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