A place of historical importance for a mere hundred years, an impregnable place of refuge for Herod the Great and a stronghold in which Jewish Zealots were able to hold out against the Romans for three years after the fall of Jerusalem, until A.D. 73.There are two routes to Masada. The road from Arad (19km/12mi) ends at the foot of the Roman ramp, from which it is possible to climb to the West Gate, 100m/330ft higher up.
The site of Masada was identified by an American scholar, Edward Robinson, in 1838. Since then it has been investigated by American, British and German archeologists and above all, in recent years, by Yigael Yadin and Shemaria Gutmann.
From the East Gate (Snake Path Gate) of the site of Masada we turn right past a watch-tower and other buildings to the large store-houses, with walls (thrown down in an earthquake and partly re-erected) separating the long, narrow store-rooms, in which numerous jars and amphoras were found.
The most monumental building in Masada is at the northern tip of the rock: Herod's Northern Palace, a boldly conceived structure on three levels. The uppermost part, with Herod's residential apartments, ends in a semicircle, from which there is a view of the two lower terraces, now reached on a modern flight of steps on the west side. On the way down cisterns for water can be seen in the rock. On the middle terrace (20m/65ft lower down), which Yadin concluded was designed to serve the purposes of leisure and relaxation, are two concentric rings of walls. 14m/46ft lower down is the square bottom terrace, a peristyle (courtyard surrounded by columns) with fluted Corinthian columns standing on a wall faced with painted plaster.
South of Herod's Northern Palace in Masada is a bath-house on the Roman model. A courtyard surrounded on three sides by columns leads into a changing room (apodyterium) which was paved with black and white triangular tiles. Adjoining this were the tepidarium (warm room), also with a tiled floor, the frigidarium (cold bath) and the caldarium (hot bath). The caldarium, which has preserved its hypocaust (under-floor heating system), is particularly impressive. The small piers of the hypocaust, over 200 in number, originally supported a mosaic pavement. From the roof of the baths there is a good view of the whole fortress.
Southwest of the baths in Masada is a building which is believed to have housed Herod's work-rooms and offices. It contains a ritual bath (mikve) constructed by the Zealots between 66 and 73.
Against the fortress walls in Masada, the excavators found the remains of the oldest synagogue in the world and the only one dating from the period of the Temple. The roof was borne on columns, and in the time of Herod the building was divided into two parts by a wall. The Zealots altered the structure and installed stone benches. Here were found a number of scrolls, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Southeast of the synagogue in Masada are another large complex of buildings and a church built by Byzantine monks in the fifth century. The church is entered through a porch or vestibule. The apse, at the east end, has a cavity in the floor which may have housed relics. On the north side of the nave was a (partly preserved) mosaic pavement with representations of plants and fruits.
Along the walls in Masada, we see to the south one of the towers of the West Gate (opposite the Roman ramp) and the large Western Palace. It can be seen how the Zealots altered the building to provide living accommodation and constructed another mikve to the southeast.While the Northern Palace was Herod's private residence the Western Palace, which covers an area of some 4,000sq.m/4,800sq.yd, was his official residence. The north and west wings contained domestic and administrative offices and accommodation for officials and servants, and in the south wing were the king's residential and state apartments. In one room, apparently an audience chamber, the excavators found a well preserved mosaic pavement, the oldest ever discovered in Israel, with geometric designs and plant motifs (vine and fig leaves, olive- branches, etc.). At various points where the pavement has been destroyed can be seen the guide-lines used in laying the mosaic.
Southwest of the Western Palace in Masada is a columbarium, a circular structure dating from the time of Herod with numerous niches for ash-urns, presumably to house the remains of non-Jewish members of Herod's garrison.
Going south from the columbarium in Masada, we pass two large open cisterns and come to the South Bastion at the southern tip of the plateau. On the way back along the eastern walls we pass a third mikve (at the South Gate), another cistern and houses dating from the Byzantine period (on left) and from the Zealot occupation (on right) before returning to the East Gate. From the eastern walls there are magnificent views of the Dead Sea and the hills beyond with their ever-changing play of color.
Sound and light show
Twice weekly (on Tuesday and Thursday) from March to October there is a fascinating sound and light show (son et lumière) on the history of Masada, with light effects and background music, in the Masada amphitheater (which can be reached only on the road from Arad).
More Masada Pictures