The Sunrise On The Top of Masada & Dead Sea
I love a historical destination with a great story, and that’s exactly what Masada provides. Masada’s legacy is shared primarily through details provided by Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the commander of the Jewish forces during the First Jewish-Roman War from 66-73 AD who made it his mission to share Masada’s tragic ending.
Visiting Masada, the ancient fortress built atop a mountain plateau in modern day Israel, is a life-changing experience. No caveats necessary.
There’s simply nothing like visiting an ancient mountaintop fortress that overlooks the Dead Sea. It doesn’t feel real. But because of its isolation and the arid desert climate, the fortress once occupied by King Herod is a remarkably well-preserved relic of humanity’s ancient past, one you can climb to on the same paths used by visiting dignitaries and invading Roman troops.
Masada was most likely built between 37 and 31 BC by Herod the Great. While Josephus’ writings claim Hasmonean king Alexander Janeus built the site decades earlier, there is no architectural evidence that any type of construction was built earlier than Herod’s fortress. Herod ordered the development of the fortress because its geographical position made it a terrific strategic location for him. Masada sits on a plateau that is part of a cliff jetting more than 1,300 feet into the air. Around Masada are smaller but difficult to navigate cliffs with only three narrow paths leading to its gates. From the fortress Herod would be able to see enemies approaching from long distances, and the limited access served as an additional level of protection.
Two events defined Masada between 66 and 74 AD: the Great Revolt and the Siege of Masada. Prior to 66 AD Masada was controlled by the Romans, as it had been since Herod the Great ruled there. The Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans was led by Eleazar Ben Yair and the Sicarii. The Sicarii were a group of Jewish extremists who fled from Jerusalem and ultimately settled at Masada after taking possession of it following the Great Revolt. More and more of the Sicarii relocated to Masada in the years after the revolt as they were run out of Jerusalem due to ongoing conflicts with other Jewish groups.
By 72 AD, Masada had become the last Sicarii stronghold in the region and home to almost 1,000 people. With plans to take the fortress back, the Romans constructed a wall and built camps around Masada; they also built a ramp and a tower with a battering ram to breach the walls. As it became clear that the Romans siege would succeed and the Sicarii would be either enslaved or killed, Eleazar Ben Yair delivered speeches to his people and convinced them it would be better to die in honor than it would be to surrender and live in shame and humiliation. Judaism prohibits suicide, and so a small number of people were selected to murder almost the entire community, ensuring only one final volunteer would have to commit suicide. When the Romans arrived, they found the Sicarii destroyed everything except for food, which presumably they intentionally saved to prove they died not of starvation but because they chose to sacrifice themselves. According to Josephus in The War of the Jews, VII:
“[The Romans] were at a loss to conjecture what had happened here, encountering the mass of slain. Instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death display by so many carrying it, unwavering, into execution.”
Not all stories have a happy ending.
Masada’s history since the Siege has been far quieter with significantly less bloodshed. The Romans stayed there only through the 2nd century AD, after which time a Byzantine monastery was founded in the 5th century and abandoned just two centuries later. Masada was rediscovered in the 19th century, with explorations and excavations marking much of the last 100 years. Today, Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
THE DEAD SEA
The Dead Sea, known in Hebrew as Yam Ha-Melakh (the Sea of Salt) is the lowest point on earth, surrounded by the stunning landscape of the Negev Desert. The shores of the Dead Sea are the lowest point on the surface of the earth, and the saline water of the lake give lead to the name because no fish can survive in the salty waters. The other result of the salty water is their renowned health and healing properties and the unique feature that one can float naturally in them.
The Dead Sea represents the lowest elevation on Earth; it stands more than 1,400 feet below sea level. Herod the Great once used it as a health destination, as the salt and minerals from the water carry some solid health benefits. To this day many people flock to its shores to float, cover themselves in mud, or simply admire it. Those shores are a little harder to reach each year; they have been receding for decades, which is causing an environmental impact on the surrounding region. This is in part due to large sinkholes that have formed in its vicinity, which impacts the rate at which groundwater is replaced by freshwater—freshwater is a primary factor in the receding shorelines. While plans are in place to restore the balance, success is not guaranteed. Not far from the Dead Sea are the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; although you likely won’t stop and won’t have the chance to visit them, most tours will point them out as you drive past them.
Experiencing the Dead Sea is pretty straightforward. In some ways it’s a lot like visiting a beach; you can pick a spot with a chair or two, unload your belongings, and head into the water. From there, it’s a swim unlike any other you may have taken before. As soon as I waded into the water I could feel the salt water pushing my body up, and it took some effort to keep my feet on the sea floor. Once Adam and I were waist-deep, we submerged a bit and really felt the water’s efforts to force us into a floating position. I love to swim; I have dived into the warm waters off the coast of Bermuda and Florida’s Tarpon Springs, and I have cannonballed into the icy Southern Ocean in Antarctica. Floating in the Dead Sea was nothing like those experiences. The water was exceptionally hot—almost uncomfortable as we stood ankle-deep and started our walk out to deeper sections—and it’s not really designed for swimming. Given how it pushes you up to the surface, it’s best to just let the water do what it does best and force you into a relaxing floating position. We were happy to enjoy the sensation for a little while, smiling as we heard similar exclamations and observations from fellow travelers around us. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is a great way to end a day trip in Israel!
The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most intense places on Earth! At the heart of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions, this one-kilometer, walled-in area in the center of Jerusalem is beyond words and cannot be missed. The Old City is home to the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall and in Hebrew Kotel). This is the last remaining wall of what was once the Jewish Temple and is today the holiest site in the world for Jews.
Above the Western Wall lies the Dome of the Rock, which is important for Muslims as the site where the prophet Muhammad is said to have risen to heaven.
Just a few minutes’ walk away lies the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where some believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters; The Jewish Quarter, The Armenian Quarter, The Christian Quarter, and The Muslim Quarter. The walled city is entered by one of seven entry gates, although the busiest for tourists is the Jaffa Gate next to which is the Tower of David Museum, providing the history of Jerusalem within the Old City Walls. Each quarter has its own unique atmosphere and observations, sites and smells, and experiences.
In the Jewish Quarter, for instance, the narrow alleyways are lined by the homes of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish families and Yeshivas (schools for Torah study). Walking around, you can observe the residents of the Jewish quarter go about their daily lives. There are teenage students in the Yeshivas who are often here from around the world, children playing outside schools between lessons, men rushing around between places of worship – and of course, many people praying at the Western Wall. The houses of the Old City – and the Jewish quarter, in particular – are hotly contested real estate, and for good reason. They command spectacular prices on the rare occasion that they trade hands.
The Jewish Quarter’s narrow alleyways open up as you reach the Western Wall Plaza and the wall itself. At times of Jewish festivals, the wall can be crowded, and observing the tourists brushing alongside daily prayers here is an interesting site. Anybody can go up to the wall, although men and women have separate areas. Men should cover their heads (there are paper kippahs available), and women should wear modest clothing. It is customary to place a small prayer on a piece of paper within a crack on the wall. Amazingly, the vast Western Wall represents just a tiny percentage of this elevation of the Temple, and the Western Wall Tunnels, accessed via the plaza, allow visitors to see even more of the wall underground. Also interestingly, within the Muslim Quarter is whats known as the Little Western Wall where the wall is once again exposed and visible. This is argued to be holier than the iconic section of the wall because it is closer to the ‘Holy of Holies’ – the holiest part of the Temple.
The Muslim Quarter is a huge contrast to the Jewish Quarter. Its streets are busier and more crowded, with vendors – especially within the famous Shuk – selling all varieties of products. In contrast to the other quarters where shops are generally selling religious or tourist-appealing products, here the Shuk is literally an ancient shopping mall in the 21st century where one can practice their bartering skills and buy almost anything imaginable. As in the Jewish Quarter, and the rest of the Old City, tourists wandering the streets of the Muslim Quarter find it hard to imagine how the locals go about their everyday business so normally in what is such an intense place. Kids play in the street, and men sit out in cafes smoking nargila (hookah or shisha).
The Dome of the Rock sits above the Western Wall Plaza, and while non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the building itself, tourists are able to tour the compound and nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Moving into the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, there is yet another change. Home to about 40 holy sites to Christians, in the streets here you will see priests and pilgrims from around the world. This quarter was constructed around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried. Within this hot patch of real estate, even the Church is divided, with different parts controlled by different Christian sects, meaning that there are often disputes over maintenance and some parts are in poor condition.
The Armenian Quarter is one of the four sections within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The other Quarters are the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Quarters. The Armenians have the smallest section in the Old City and take up 14% of the total area of the Old City. The Quarter is home to approximately 2,000 people many of whom are connected to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Armenians have their own distinct language and culture and are ethnically neither Arab nor Jewish.
The Armenians originated from Turkey, the Caucasus Mountains and Iran. Soon after Jesus’ death the Armenians were converted to Christianity and ever since then have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Armenian monks arrived in Jerusalem in the 4th century AD. Jerusalem’s Armenian community is considered the oldest living Armenian Diaspora community in the world.
Armenians have had a strong presence in the city since at least the fourth century, when Armenia became Christian. Their quarter is said to be the oldest living Armenia diaspora community. Thousands of displaced survivors of the Armenian Genocide relocated to this part of Jerusalem in the 20th century.
Armenians displaced from the former Ottoman Empire because of the genocide brought with them a special type of Turkish-style ceramic, which has since become synonymous with Jerusalem and Armenians. It’s now used for all the street signs in the Old City and is also sold in many stores. Explore the walled Old City of Jerusalem, and you’ll soon spot beautifully crafted ceramic street signs spread through the area.
The Armenian compound is enclosed by an inner wall within the Armenian Quarter and includes St. James, a convent, school, churches and residences. Along the walk from the Jaffa Gate past the Zion Gate and to the Jewish Quarter are many small shops displaying the beautiful hand-painted Armenian pottery which is made locally. Armenian ceramics can be seen adorning many parts of the Old City including the Dome of the Rock and neighborhood street signs.