Situated on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert and towering some 450 meters above the azure beauty of the Dead Sea, the stunning fortress of Masada was the last stronghold of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans.
Dead Sea, Masada National Park, and Ein Gedi Reserve—Day 3
On our third day, we woke early, hopped in our trusty little rental car by 8a.m., and drove southeast, to historical Masada, the glittering jewel of the Dead Sea, and the palm-shaded oasis of Ein Gedi.
We headed first to the Dead Sea, to splurge on a “Fun-Day Pass” at the Daniel Hotel on the Ein Bokek beach. Said pass allowed us access to the hotel’s swimming pool and showers, beach-side showers and chairs, and included as many clean towels as we wanted, as well as an Israeli-style buffet luncheon.
The descent through the desert into the Dead Sea provided spectacular views.
We were so eager to get into the Dead Sea, we decided we’d stop for photos on the return journey—a mistake. On the uphill return at days’ end, during the 43 Celsius heat of summer, our poor little rental car could barely crawl out of the valley. After stopping once, the car begrudgingly started after much coaxing and refused to climb faster than 20 miles/hour, so we didn’t dare stop again for photos.
The Dead Sea held all the heat of a hot tub, which on a blistering day made the heart pound alarmingly. That didn’t deter us from bobbing about happily in the silky, salt-saturated waters.
The Daniel Hotel lunch buffet provided a hearty spread of dips, salads, soups, breaded chicken fillets, meatballs, and desserts so sweet that sampling a petite mousse was sufficient to put me in diabetic shock for years to come.
After showering in the hotel spa showers (not as pleasant as it sounds—only two cramped shower stalls per gender, each reeking of mold), we climbed in our little car and zipped north along road 90 to Masada, a mere fifteen minutes away, stopping frequently to photograph the incredible salt formations in the Dead Sea.
The story of Masada was first recorded by Josephus Flavius, commander of the Galilee during the Great Revolt of the last Jewish rebel stronghold against the Romans that took place in 73 CE. According to Josephus, the first fortress at Masada was built by “Jonathon the High Priest”, the Hasmonean king (103-76 BCE). Between 37 and 31 BCE, Herod, king of Judea, chose the site as a refuge against his enemies. Herod built luxurious winter palaces on site, replete with bathhouses, stables, columbarium towers, forts, a swimming pool with a capacity of 550 cubic meters of water, courtyards that afforded spectacular views of the Dead Sea and mountains of Moab, and a host of smaller palaces for guests.
Not one to deny himself the comforts of life, Herod had 29 impressively sized storerooms built, to hold such delicacies as garum (fish sauce from Southern Spain) and apple liqueur from Cumae, Italy.
At the base of this towering fortress, the most complete ancient Roman siege system in the world exists. Alas, on the day we visited, at said base a belligerent band hammered out noise that I fear some might consider music, in preparation for the open-air Sound and Light Show later that evening (held every Tuesday and Thursday from March until October). Eleazar Ben Yair was the commander of the Jewish rebel community at the fortress of Masada in 66 CE, and while living in some of Herod’s palaces, the rebels constructed a synagogue and mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths).
Around 73 CE, a Roman legion of 8,000 troops laid siege to Masada for several months, using siege ramps, a massive battering ram, and bonfires against the rebels. When the hope of the rebels dwindled, Eleazar Ben Yair convinced his leaders of the 960-strong rebel community that it would be better to take their own lives and the lives of their families than to live in shame and humiliation as Roman slaves.
According to Josephus, the Romans learned what had happened from two rebel women and five children who’d been hiding in the cisterns (sensibly, I can’t help but feel; but as I’ve never been a Roman slave, I’m willing to concede that I could be wrong ).
The Romans eventually abandoned Masada, and several centuries passed. Then in the fifth century, a monastery inhabited by hermits was founded on site. The Byzantine church is remarkably well preserved—the mosaic on the floor is original, which is an astonishing thought to an inhabitant of a technological age where a toaster lasts 3 years at most.
To get to the fortress itself, we rode the cable car up from the eastern entrance.
Due to the extreme heat, the Snake Path and Roman siege ramp access paths to Masada were closed.
The heat and steep ascent drove home how remarkable old king Herod’s water system truly was. To supply his palatial fortress with an abundance of drinking and swimming water in such an arid location, he’d built dams to divert floodwater to channels leading to 12 cisterns hewn on two levels in the steep slope. Pack animals and servants/slaves then bore the water up to the mountaintop.
By the time we’d had our fill of Masada’s extraordinary historical ruins, it was past three o’clock in the afternoon and the heat was taking its toll. We chose to retreat back to Tel Aviv for more romping on the beach rather than drive to the beautiful waterfalls, springs, caves, and canyons of the Ein Gedi oasis, 18 minutes north of Masada on road 90.
Although we thoroughly enjoyed the beach back at Tel Aviv, if I could do it all again, I would forego the “Fun-Day” extravagance with the Daniel Hotel, I wouldn’t linger quite so long at the Dead Sea, and after Masada, I’d zip on over to Ein Gedi. Perhaps, while I’m waving that magic wand, I’d also decrease my age by a decade or so and endow myself with Clark Kent capabilities, to enable me not to expire from said ambitious itinerary.
Tip #1–If you choose to do a Fun-Day pass at any of the hotels in Ein Bokek, book it at least one day prior and then arrive early on the day of your pass! Parking fills up by 10:30am, and we saw folks who arrived later wearily trudging some distance from their cars to reach the hotel in the 43 Celsius heat. Keep in mind, however: A Fun-Day pass, while an experience, proved unnecessary. If I could do it again, to save time I’d pack a lunch and towels, or buy foodstuffs at the little mall in Ein Bokek, and use the ample showers along the beach to rinse off the salt after bathing, and the changing rooms to disrobe in.
Tip#2–Carry an abundance of water in the car and on your person! Should your car break down (ours almost did, climbing out of the Dead Sea valley), getting stranded in the heat without water could be fatal.
Tip#3–At Masada, as it was the height of summer, there weren’t droves of tourists; thus, there was sufficient underground parking at the eastern entrance to the fortress. That said, the sprawling overflow parking lots, glaring white in the hot sunshine, bespeak the popularity of this historic site, and arriving early to beat the tour buses from Jerusalem might be wise.
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