Masada: Chashmonaim Fortress for the Ages

Masada Tour is the most popular paying tourist site in Israel with close to 1 million annual visitors. It is most famous for the last stand of the Jewish rebels after the destruction of the Second Temple but that story is purely on the say so of Josephus Flavius who at that point was strictly a Roman lackey. 

So let’s start from the beginning;

Masada Topography & Location

Masada is located in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Its remote desert location is approximately sixty miles from Jerusalem. It is a nice flat plateau of 18 acres protected by steep slopes on all sides. Its deepest side is 1300 feet to the east which is its easiest access side. 

Masada History

King Alexander Yannai

The first name mentioned in conjunction with Masada is Alexander Yannai, the murderous third generation Chashmonaim King. Power hungry and greedy he turned his mighty gentile mercenary army on his Jewish subjects and caused a civil war. The Chashmonaim had a string of desert fortresses to keep themselves safe, and Masada was perfectly suitable for King Yannai when things got rough. Although no structural remains were found from Yannai’s time, a coin he minted was found on Masada.


Speaking of someone who needed to keep himself safe, Herod the Roman client King early in his reign was attacked by the Parthians. His brother died in battle and he managed to escape the troops of Chashmonaim King Antigonus and fight his way to the safety of Masada with his entourage before escaping the country and fleeing to Rome, before mounting his Roman back return.

Herod liked his short and dangerous stay in Masada so much that later in his reign he built two incredible palaces on Masada where he vacationed and felt secure in challenging times.

Sicarii Rebels

During the Jewish revolt against Rome in the year 66 CE, a civil war broke out in Jerusalem with way too many factions killing each other. Interestingly enough it was the most vicious and brutal faction of murderous Sicarii who quit the war and waited things out in the nice air atop Masada.

On their way to their summer vacation the,y like many tourists, stopped in Ein Gedi, only they didn’t frolic in the waterfalls, they murdered the entire town, women and children and looted the village to supply themselves for their stay at Masada. They were treated to an extra surprise when they saw that nearly 80 years earlier Herod had left incredibly well preserved stock of food and supplies.

Their ending was not so pleasant. Two years after the destruction of the Temple, the Romans in a mop up operation decided to rid themselves of rebels for once and for all. After laying siege to Masada they built a man made mountain/ramp to take Masada. According to Josephus the nearly 1,000 people living in Masada chose mass suicide the night before the Romans stormed the mountain top.

Masada Sites

When visiting Masada you can hike to the top via the snake path or take a cable car up. There is also a western entrance (although not accessible from the Dead Sea side) that is a relatively easy and quick hike to the top.

Casemate Wall

The first thing you will notice when arriving on Masada is the casemate wall. The wall has an exterior and interior wall which can be used for housing and filled during an attack to become harder to penetrate. Interestingly archaeologists found that the rebels of the second temple revolt lived mainly in the walls, and not in Herod’s vast palaces.

Security Walls

Herod the ever paranoid King had a protection even atop Masada. His northern palace compound was limited to about a quarter of the mountain. He had commandant’s premises and all sorts of security structures protecting his palace.

Northern Palace

Herod’s pride and joy was his northern palace with three stories chiseled into the Northern cliff of the mountain. He had bedrooms a ballroom and a throne room. This place rocked! He had over twenty huge storehouses where they found European wines and fish oils. Herod did not sweat Masada and loaded it with every luxury he had elsewhere.

Royal Bathhouse – Hot water, cold water steam room you name it. Herod put the fanciest Mikvas to shame. There was also a synagogue, quarry to build the place, water system that stretched for miles around Masada to bring water to its series of cisterns, a western palace and so much more.

Masada was truly a magnificent work and is definitely worth a visit with a guide to get the full experience. See full Masada tour here or contact us if you’d like us to take you.


1 Comment

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