Masada – the legend.

Karolina Fotyga

Unique, extraordinary, amazing, stunning. That’s what comes to mind when you think about it. A place that brings to mind a sci-fi moon-like scenery; mystical with breathtaking views. You’ll find it in the middle of the Judean Desert, right next to the Dead Sea. So close you can see its waters should you choose to get there from Jerusalem.

masada on the map

You can reach the top using the cable car or one of the paths. The paths are closed in Summer when the temperature is too high.

Masada – heroism or extremism?

When it comes to war and human behavior it cannot possibly be easy to be able to keep your head cool and decide in the right mind in the heat of the moment..

When it comes to war and human behavior it cannot possibly be easy to be able to keep your head cool and decide in the right mind in the heat of the moment.. Was the Warsaw uprising necessary? Should France have settle with Nazi Germany during the II World War? Should nearly thousand people have died in the Masada Fortress in order for them not to be defeated? Those are not questions with easy answers. It might be easier to see more clearly after time has passed. But when it was happening – people might have been too close and too invested to see what we might see now. It’s not our call too, to know what was best or what could be done. It’s history now and the only thing we can do is to honor those who lost their lives and maybe learn from our history.

The top.

Some history

The history of Masada is not easy, it’s rather controversial if you’re an outsider. Some call the events of the Masada Siege heroic and some would use the word extremism instead.

Whatever you decide one thing is certain. People died there, not only warriors but also their families.

Masada is one of the most often visited spots in Israel. In fact, it’s an important place of pilgrimages, as it is considered part of a founding narrative of Israel. It’s known in Israel for the Jewish defiance and heroism.

We know the history of the Siege of Masada thanks to Flavius Josephus. A Jewish scholar and a historian, the same one who after being a rebel, then supposedly defected to the Roman side and became a free Roman citizen – adviser of famous Titus. His works cover a lot of Judaism during the first century and also the first years of Christianity.

Masada itself was designed by King Herod the Great – the famous constructor of palaces and other structures.

What’s left of the mosaic.


Built on a flat top mountain – this winter retreat for the King – was, by all means, Roman in its design. Swimming pool, sophisticated water collection system,

Palace – bedrooms, bathrooms, frescos; luxurious desert palace with adequate decor – that’s what the historians tell us.  The area of the fortress covered some 550×270 m (1800x890ft), and the elevation was between 90 and 400 meters (300-1300ft).


The Siege

The Siege happened in the times of Herod, during the Jewish uprising against the Romans at the time of the first Jewish-Roman war. In 66CE a group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman garrison in Masada and settled there for the 6 following years. As the time passed the Roman army was methodically putting out the revolt against the empire and eventually made it to Masada as well. Since it was built a fortress, they had to come up with a smart way to breach it. Remember it is a mountain – with the cliffs surrounding it between 90-400 meters (300-1300ft) high.

view from the top of Masada
What’s left of the Roman camps.

So you know what the Romans did? They would build a ‘ramp’ – made of stones and timber – to elevate themselves to the level that would allow them to use the weapons to force the entry through the walls. And so it happened. The ramp as the scientists now say (and as usual – they do not agree here;) )  was being built for 3-4 weeks or even 6 months. They actually don’t agree on the amount of the material used and hence on the time needed. Some say it was basically erecting another slope to the mountain and some say it was just adding merely 10% of it to better structure the weapon – that was the siege tower. Anyway – when it was ready there was no more obstacles for the Romans to enter the fortress.

pretty impressive and still intact

But to their surprise, they only found bodies and burned belongings of the people who lived there. It’s called a mass suicide. But actually, it looks more like a murder/suicide.

Legend says all the men drew lots and 10 men were chosen this way to kill everyone else – including their wives and children. From those 10 one was chosen to kill the remaining 9 and then commit suicide. It’s said that only a couple of woman and children survived – just because they managed to hide really well.

wait, what? perfume?

In recent times it is believed that this battle of Masada was, in fact, over…. money. Surprise surprise.


Scientists believe that apart from obvious reasons – (there was war, the rebels must have been punished) there was another one – perhaps even more important. The balsam wood – being the important and the most expensive ingredient of perfume. The estimate is that that industry was then worth tens of millions of $$$ had we chosen to use the modern currency. And the main source of this balsam wood was the nearby Ein Gedi.

The Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance. As seen from the top.


Makes you wonder, right?

Was it all really worth it? Did they know the stakes? The underlying reasons?

I guess we’ll never know.

If you liked this material and you’d like to read some more about the Dead Sea – check out THIS POST. 

If you’re wondering what else there is to see in Israel – I wrote about it a while back HERE

Enjoy, and let me know if you’ve been there, and if you liked it;D

Below you’ll find two YouTube videos about the place. First one is quite thorough but the quality is not great, and the second one is pretty one-sided, but has awesome pictures in it;)

Do you want to receive info about new articles?

Sign up for the newsletter.

suggested read