Sunday, July 19, 2015


On our final day in Israel, we made our way south to the eastern Israel-Egypt border crossing. The further south we went, the drier it got. The terrain was not so different from the southern Nevada desert, a stretch of highway I've driven through many, many times:
On the west side of the road there were barren mesas and sand dunes:
. . . and on the east side was the Dead Sea:

Earlier in our trip we had seen Herod the Great's palace-fortress in Caesarea, overlooking the jewel-like Mediterranean and cooled by ocean breezes. Our last stop was going to be another of Herod's palace-fortresses, the famous site Masada.

Masada was built by the Hasmoneans on the top of a mesa in the driest, most inhospitable of climates, the eastern Judaean desert. About 100 years later, in 37-31 BC, Herod had it fortified so he could use it as a refuge in case he had to escape from a Jewish revolt. Herod died in 4 BC, and in 66 AD the revolt he had feared did happen, and Jewish extremists called the Sicarii captured Masada and established their own fortress there. When the Romans seized Jerusalem and destroyed the temple four years later, many Jews fled to Masada.

Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist sites in Israel.

We started our tour of Masada by getting a good feel for its unique geography:
. . . and then we boarded a tram that took us to the mesa:
It is possible to take a trail to the top, but it was a hot day, the elevation gain is 980 feet, and we had limited time, so a cable car was our only real option. It makes it to the top in about three minutes.
The view from our car was spectacular:
I can understand why this was a good place for a military fortress.
Who wants to scramble up these menacing piles of rock, unprotected by even the vestige of greenery?

We caught glimpses of steps that hung onto one narrow switchback after another:
We didn't see any intrepid hikers, nor any timid ones for that matter:

Even at the top of the tram we were still 400 feet below sea level. By comparison, Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in the United States, is only 282 feet below sea level. Our new elevation gave us a great view of the Dead Sea and its surroundings (elevation -1,401 feet).
We admired the lush greenery on the lofty plateau (not):
Between the wind, the merciless heat, the bone-dry climate, and the low altitude, It's amazing to me that anything can grow here at all. I wonder if they have to hand-water these few sparse plants.
This utterly barren stick of a tree seems to be a more appropriate symbol for Masada than those delicate purple blossoms:
Masada is best known for the devastating attack by the Roman Empire's army that occurred here in 73-74 AD. Although the fortress seemed impregnable . . .
. . . in 72 AD the Roman governor Flavius sent 15,000 troops to lay siege to the 960 people living in Masada. For a year the Romans worked on building a ramp and a tower, and in 73 AD they used a battering ram to break through the thick walls and into the fortress.
Illustration from an information sign at Masada. Words added by me.
What they found was a mass murder-suicide that surpasses the Jonestown Massacre of 1978 when 909 people took their own lives. The Romans found every building but the food storerooms on fire and 953 dead bodies. 
Judaism forbids suicide, so ten men killed all the residents, one of those ten killed the other nine, and the last man fell on his own sword. Two women and five children survived by hiding in the cistern.
As recorded by Josephus, the two women repeated what their leader said to his followers prior to the mass executions: "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."


Substantial reconstruction has been done by archaeologists, and lines like the one painted on the rock wall below divide what is original (lower half) from that reconstruction:
If ever there was a "Kodak Moment," this was it:

There was a group of what looked like college kids there listening to this fellow who had (somewhat) dressed the part:
Another group of younger kids:
We appreciated our own Jewish guide, Ilon, who narrated and interpreted the important events for us:

Masada as it would have looked in the first century:

. . . and Masada as it looks now:

The last time we saw a columbarium was in the caves of Beit Lehi:
Masada has three:
Rather than providing doves for Temple sacrifices, however, the doves were probably raised for food and to provide fertilizer for crops. A sign shows what the columbarium would have looked like:
The view over the stone walls was breathtaking:

From the top, the base of the mountain seemed far, far away:
We thought about taking the steps down, but (darn) there just wasn't enough time.
Back to the tram:
We were headed for the border next, and I still had a few Israeli shekels, so I made a quick stop in the gift shop on the way out to procure some nourishment for the journey:
There's nothing like a bar of dark chocolate to soothe one's anxiety after visiting a mass murder-suicide site and while traveling towards a relatively recent war zone.

Four Jewish women tell their stories, and in doing so they tell the story of the Jewish escape from Roman armies in and near Jerusalem around 70 AD and the subsequent Jewish colonization of Masada. I confess that I was a bit taken aback by the immorality and the class distinctions of the Masada group. I had thought they were a humble, religious, communal people. Hoffman describes a passionate, flawed people facing an impossible situation as she weaves together the lives of the four women narrators, each a "dovekeeper," as the community approaches its horrific end.

The Dovekeepers did a lot to put a personal face on this piece of history for me. Alice Hoffman created four very strong, independent women to be her narrators. When these characters and others that I had grown to know and care about faced the decision of sacrificing their lives through mass murder-suicide, I was really hoping the author had found a way to rewrite the past.


The 1981 TV mini-series Masada, starring Peter O'Toole and Peter Strauss is a wonderful follow-up to visiting the site. The script is based on the 1972 novel The Antagonists by Ernest Gann. The series begins with some great shots of modern-day Masada, and it was filmed on location in the Judaean desert. It all looks familiar, making it especially fun to watch.

While most of the characters and a lot of the plot line are fictional, the basic facts are all included, and the ending, now having a very human context, is especially poignant.


  1. That is quite the story. Beautiful views but sad story.

  2. I love the observation that the top of Masada is still below sea level. That gives it a whole different perspective for me.

  3. I didn't get to Masada in 1972 but hope to see it someday. I enjoyed your pics and comments. I remember reading The Antagonists and just ordered the DVD you mentioned (I cannot remember seeing the mini series when it originally came out but that does not mean that I never saw it.)

  4. What? I totally missed the sea level part. That's amazing! Great place, tragic story. I'm looking forward to your commentary on the mini-series.

  5. That's quite the story and quite the place! I love reading your blog.