When you glance at it from the highway, Masada looks much like any other mountain in the Judean desert. Yet it was on these heights, and in the middle of this dreary landscape, that King Herod the Great erected a luxurious desert fortress. And it was here, as well, that a group of besieged and desperate Jews fought the Romans with inhuman valor, then placed their belongings in a corner, set each pile afire, and committed a well-publicized mass suicide.

Declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in 2001, Masada National Park features a sand-colored Visitors’ Center which hugs the slopes, a fascinating, interactive museum, and a  thrilling audio-visual production. But the most exciting portion of a visit to Masada is a tour of the mountaintop — which is accessible by foot, for stalwart hikers, or by way of special, wheelchair-accessible cable cars.

According to Roman-era historian Josephus Flavius, Jews first fortified Masada during those often exhilarating decades after the Maccabees vanquished the Greeks and tossed them out of Israel. Indeed, coins discovered on the mountain date back to the days of Alexander Janneus (103-76 B.C.E.), one of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) kings.

King Herod, who ruled Israel on behalf of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century B.C.E., was the next to build up the mountain. A brutal ruler, justifiably paranoid, the king enlarged and beautified the Jerusalem Temple and built splendid cities, fortresses, and villas during his regime. As a result, he has gone down in history as Herod the Great.

He first put Masada to use soon after being appointed King of Judea by the Romans. Jerusalem was attacked by the Parthians and Herod fled to Petra, after first sending his family to hide out at Masada. It was only some years later that he began his massive construction on the mountain: two luxurious palaces, a swimming pool, several lavish bathhouses, and a giant water system that seemed to raise Masada out of the desert.

The largest building on Masada is the western palace, where Herod apparently conducted business. Remains of the elaborate bedrooms include some gorgeous mosaic floors with geometric shapes and fig and pomegranate decorations.

Near two of Herod’s bathtubs is an enclosure whose inside walls are dotted with square holes. Believe it or not, this was a large desert swimming pool and the holes were lockers for bathers’ clothes! To provide water for his pools, bathtubs, cisterns, and bathhouses Herod built an intricate system of aqueducts and reservoirs that utilized winter floodwaters sucked from the riverbeds and retained in mountainside reservoirs.

Herod’s sumptuous northern palace is located on the highest part of the mountain. Built on three levels along the northern edge of the cliff, it commanded magnificent views of the Dead Sea, the adjoining mountains, and the desert. A steep descent leads down the slopes while other stairs ascend to a tower.

An earthen ramp was erected by thousands of Jewish slaves whom the Romans brought to Masada especially for this purpose. They were sure that the Zealots would hesitate to shoot at their brethren and, in fact, they were right

The palace’s elaborate bathhouse is decorated with splendid frescoes, and its entrance included a covered, plastered pool with colored walls where people cleansed themselves before going into the sauna. They then entered — first the tepid room, then the hotter rooms.

Gazing down from a bridge on the mountaintop, you can clearly make out a donkey trail that leads to and from one of Herod’s huge reservoirs. Apparently people high on the mountain loaded donkeys with jugs, smacked the beasts on the behind, and sent them down to the reservoir. There, the jugs would be filled, the behinds whacked again, and up they would come with water.

Well below the mountain are remains of eight Roman military camps. Following Herod’s death, a garrison remained to guard Masada. At the beginning of the Great Revolt (67-73 C.E.), in which the Jews of Israel rose up against the Romans, a band of daring rebels overcame the mountain’s guards and took over Masada. They were known as the Sicarii because of the dagger, called a sica, which they carried on their bodies.

After the fall of Jerusalem, and destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 C.E., hundreds of Jews joined the Sicarii on the mountaintop. These brave men, women, and children, dedicated to the eradication of pagan rule in the Land of Israel, are known as Zealots. Their harrowing tale has become an eternal symbol of the Jewish fight for freedom.

Rolling stones, ammunition of the Zealots (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Rolling stones, ammunition of the Zealots (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

During those electrifying years, the Zealots lived inside the double walls, known as casement walls, with which Herod surrounded Masada. Among the findings in their simple lodgings were nutshells, eggshells, and other homely residue.

The synagogue on Masada is one of the oldest in Israel, and was probably used for worship by Herod’s family. During the Great Revolt, Masada’s defenders made a number of structural changes: using stones taken from the palaces, they added several columns, combined the entrance with the prayer hall, and added stone benches. Fortunately, for these extremely observant Jews, the house of worship already faced Jerusalem.

In 73 C.E., after the Great Revolt had been savagely subdued, the Romans decided to put an end to the last pocket of resistance: the freedom fighters of Masada. For three years, the Zealots had managed to keep the Romans off the mountain. Now, however, nearly 10,000 troops tried starving the Jewish rebels — and when that didn’t work they utilized every conceivable kind of contemporary siege weapon in an effort to break through the seemingly impregnable fortress. Finally, they breached the wall.

Visitors can look down from the peak to view the embankment that the Romans built in order to wheel a battering ram up to the wall. And – yes – you are looking at a battering ram! This one, however, was used in a 20th-century cinematic epic called Masada starring Peter O’Toole as Silva.

The embankment, an earthen ramp, was apparently erected by thousands of Jewish slaves whom the Romans brought to Masada especially for this purpose. They were sure that the Zealots would hesitate to shoot at their brethren and, in fact, they were right.

When it became clear that the end was near, Zealot leader Elazar Ben-Yair called his people – 967 men, women, and children – together. He reminded them that they had long ago resolved to serve God only, and not the Romans nor any other master. He called upon them to die as free men and women, rather than face capture and slavery by the pagan conquerors.

His heartrending and moving speech persuaded the Zealots to commit suicide before the expected dawn attack by the Romans. They burned their belongings and their weapons, leaving food so that the Romans would know that they had died of their own free will and had not perished of hunger.

Lots were drawn and 10 men were chosen as executioners:  the rest lay side by side and bared their necks. At the end, one Zealot killed the other nine and then took his own life. It was the first day of Passover, the holiday in which the Jews celebrate their freedom from bondage.

Masada rainbow (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Masada rainbow (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In an historic find during excavations on the mountain, 11 pottery shards were discovered in a room nearby. Each fragment bore a name, including that of “Ben-Yair,” the Zealots’ leader.

Note: Masada is a National Park that opens at 8:00 and closes at 17:00; last entrance at 16:00. There is an entrance fee. Much of the site is wheelchair accessible and there are wheelchairs available in the Visitors’ Center.

Second note: a fabulous exhibit on Herod just opened up at the Israel Museum.

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This article is adapted from a chapter in Aviva Bar-Am’s book: Israel Travels from Metulla to Eilat.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private, customized tours of Israel – see http://www.israeltravels.com.