Column: A visit to Masada National Park


Today, in our continuing visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we come to Masada National Park in Israel, about 45 miles south of Jericho.

During his reign as king of Judea from about 36 to 4 B.C., Herod the Great was a prodigious builder. The artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem were architectural wonders. But none of Herod’s many building projects have had the lasting influence of Masada, rising 1,300 feet above the Judean desert. At the top of this rocky plateau, Herod built an elaborate city, complete with Roman baths, an underground reservoir holding 1 million gallons of water and a three-tier summer palace overlooking the Dead Sea. The only way up to the heavily fortified complex was along a narrow “snake path.”

In A.D. 66, Jewish revolutionaries captured Masada from the Romans. They and the families that joined them held out against a Roman siege until engineers built a ramp to the top and soldiers broke down the walls with a battering ram. Both the site of the Roman encampment and the remains of the ramp can still be seen from the snake path. According to Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, the entering Roman soldiers found all but seven of the 960 holdouts dead, killed by their own hands to avoid being taken alive.

Today, a metal plaque at Masada reads: “What of us? What is our Masada? How much of all this will we take with us, and how much of our own will we add?” For a time, members of the Israeli military walked up the snake path to be sworn in among the ruins, pledging that “Masada shall not fall again.”  Masada, now also reachable by cable car, is a powerful reminder of the indomitable Jewish spirit and the universal yearning of people to be free.