The day after Christmas, we hopped in our rental car and drove south to Masada, a mountaintop fortress overlooking the Dead Sea.
Well, we didn’t exactly hop in the car. We had a brief mishap, which included an expired driver’s license, a credit card company doing its job but making our travel more difficult, and awful coffee. I don’t want to point any fingers, but it may or may not have been my fault. An hour and a half behind schedule, we were on our way.
The Judean Desert is quite beautiful. It looks very similar to Sinai, just taller mountains and more gradient colors. We edged around mountains, passed date farms, and flipped through radio stations, looking for anything in English. Ears popping the entire time, we finally reached the Lowest Point on Earth. And then we kept going, because floating in the salty body of water is for the Jordan side.
Because of our late start, we had to take the aerial lift of death to the top of the mountain (though it was much faster and less terrifying than Montseratt’s) rather than hike up the Snake Path, which is obviously what we would have preferred. It doesn’t really matter how we got there, because the views from the top were bound to be breathtaking no matter what. And they were.
Masada is a 2000-year-old fortress. Herod the Great — the same one who called for the death of Baby Jesus — captured the fortress and turned it into a palace on the mountaintop. His additional construction started in 35 BCE. Somehow he got water into cisterns and bathhouses and pools, on the top of an isolated mountain (1300 feet high on the eastern edge!), in the middle of the Judean Desert. Unreal.
Masada has almost a mythical history. Story goes something like this: between 66 CE and 70 CE, Jewish rebels called the Sicarii fled Roman persecution in Jerusalem and settled on Masada. The Roman legion surrounded the mountain, and eventually built a ramp all the way up to the top. The rebels, knowing they would be captured and tortured, committed mass suicide and/or killed each other in 73 CE. Josephus Flavius, the ancient historian, writes that as many as 960 Jews committed suicide and burned buildings.
Josephus apparently based his story on interviews with Roman soldiers, but the archeological findings only partially support his story. Archaeologists discovered evidence of a Roman base camp surrounding the mountain, and you can still climb the ramp the built on the western side of Masada. There is also evidence of burning buildings, and lots with the names of 10 different people, including the name of the rebel leader. Many presume these lots show the names of the rebels selected to kill the rebels before the Romans reached the top. However, remains of only about 30 bodies have ever been found on Masada, and the location of buildings and amount that burned do not match the descriptions from Josephus, who was writing based on the information he was told. So, inconsistencies abound and the truth is not entirely clear. But isn’t that all of history? Of life?
Regardless of the full story, Masada has come to symbolize strength in the face of oppression. A magical sensation permeated the entire complex as I walked through the ruins. Partly because of the history, partly because of the views (SO gorgeous), and partly because of the other people we crossed paths with.
We stumbled upon Rabbi Shlomo, the impeccably dressed man we met on the aerial lift of death who happened to know every person at Masada, officiating a wedding in the remains of one of the old homes. An intimate wedding, with the enormity of the world as its witness. A few ruins away, we spotted a father and son praying together, the father holding his Siddur and the son his iPad. Then there was the father and daughter pair, holding hands, reading the placards. The daughter rapidly firing questions, and the father patiently answering them. All of it beautiful.
Just like the history of Masada itself, the following photos can only provide glimpses of the full immensity.
Because of our late start, we ended up stuck in Jerusalem traffic en route to Rina and Buky’s house in the north. But the majesty of this mountaintop fortress was well worth the frustration and white knuckles. (I can say that because I wasn’t the one driving.)