Masada National Park has made armchair generals the world over question their limits and ask soul-searching questions. No matter how hard I try to shut him up, I can’t stop the armchair general in me from asking the same questions.
How far would I be willing to go to avoid defeat? What would I be willing to do in the name of freedom? How would I perform if charged with the daunting task of holding back thousands of seasoned Roman soldiers during the Siege of Masada? Would I have the intestinal fortitude to kill my own family and commit suicide rather than see my children enslaved? Silly questions, I know as I’m pretty sure I will never have to face a Roman army but as I said, Masada has a way of making you reflect.
Located on the edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea Valley 100 kilometres from Be’er Sheva, Masada National Park is a dry rock in the middle of a beige, dusty wasteland sitting on a flat mountain top 440 feet above the Dead Sea. Masada may not look like much from the ground but its significance to Israel and the Jewish people is immensely important.
A Historic Battle For The Ages
King Herod saw the strategic advantage of Masada as a natural fortress when he built his luxurious mountain palace. The structure included storehouses, large cisterns that caught rainwater, barracks, palaces and an armory. Seventy five years after Herod’s death, at the beginning of the Revolt of the Jews against the Romans in 66 CE, a group of rebels led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. The Romans laid siege to the mountain, using thousands of slaves to construct a giant ramp on the side of the mountain for a battering ram – the remains of this ramp are visible today. The battle is illustrated in this famous scene from the movie “Masada” starring Peter O’Toole as General Cornelius Flavius Silva and Peter Strauss as Eleazar ben Yair, filmed on location.
Once it became apparent that defeat was inevitable, the rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than see their families enslaved. Eleazar ben Ya’ir made a final speech to his followers before falling on his sword:
“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”
This is why Masada is one of the most cherished landmarks in Israel today.
Visiting Masada is an inspiring experience. Before ascending, take time and visit the Yigal Yadin Masada Museum, featuring several original mosaics and archaeological discoveries from Masada. For those who may not be familiar with the story, the museum gives details about political climate that lead to the siege.
After 200 centuries, much of the palace is in ruins but a lot of it has been carefully rebuilt. A thin black line is visible along reconstructed walls and buildings that shows visitors what was there before restoration and what has been rebuilt.The cable car is a stunning ride that not only gives great views of the surrounding region, but also puts into perspective the sheer size of Masada National Park. Many people, including many members of the Israeli military, consider it a badge of honor to forego the cable car and climb to the top of Masada on foot via the Masada Snake Path, a trek that takes between an hour to ninety minutes to climb, and thirty to forty minutes to descend.
For me, one of the most powerful areas on Masada was at the top of the ramp. Looking down I tried to imagine what the defenders must have felt 2000 years ago, standing on the very spot where I was standing, watching with grim determination as the Roman army hauled that battering ramp with thousands of troops up to meet them. To answer my earlier armchair general question: what if I were charged with the daunting task of holding back thousands of Roman soldiers during the siege of Masada? It’s my good fortune that I will never know.
Jerry Adler, Director for Canada Israel Ministry of Tourism called Masada a symbol of courage and faith that parallels the modern history of Israel and the many unsuccessful attempts by its neighbors to conquer this land.
“Masada is a symbol of the ability of a small group of people to attempt to fend off the Roman battalions that laid siege and eventually conquered the escarpment top stronghold of the Jewish zealots who tried to evade capture and being put into slavery by the Romans,” says Adler, adding that Masada remains in the top five visitor destinations in Israel.
Masada might be one of Israel’s most revered places and a popular site for Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and light shows (March to October every Tuesday and Thursday) but it’s the story that makes it more than just another tourist stop. Masada is a place that will pull you back into time, the site of a last desperate stand where 900 Jews chose death over slavery and became an inspiration for a nation.
MORE ABOUT MASADA NATIONAL PARK
Price: 1 Canadian Dollar equals 2.75 Israeli New Shekel (subject to change)
Eastern (Dead Sea) side (entrance plus cable-car two ways): Adult: NIS 76; child: NIS 44; Israeli senior citizen: NIS 44.
Eastern side (entrance and climb Snake Path): Adult: NIS 29; child: NIS 15; Israeli senior citizen: NIS 15.
Editors Note: Picture of Masada National Park from cable car launch at beginning of story / Credit: Rod Charles Vacay Network.