A Different Way to Masada

Note: This hike around Masada is for intermediate and experienced mountain hikers who do not fear heights. A precondition for this tour is moderately warm weather (no rain), good hiking shoes and enough water (min. 3 liters per person).

Masada
Masada after sunrise – it’s easy to discern the Snake Path and the cable car

In April my colleague Ofer Moghadam and I went on a hike around Masada along the Roman camps, as well as up to Masada via the Roman ramp. We had perfect weather – low 70F (~20-22C) and sunny with a few clouds here and there.

The first destination was Mt. Eleazar to the South of Masada. It’s name comes from the Jewish rebel leader Eleasar ben Ya’ir who fought the Romans on Masada. The Eleazar trail (sometimes spelled “Elazar”) starts at the last bend to the Masada visitor center and cable car station. We began our climb at 7:30 a.m., enjoying the cool air in the early morning. The path is steep, rocky and does not provide any shade at all. But the effort was well worth it – the view is simply breathtaking (also the climb).

Roman camp on Mt. Eleazar
Colleague Ofer Moghadam inside the Roman camp on Mt. Eleazar

The Roman camp at the peak of Mt. Eleazar is relatively well preserved, considering that it was built nearly 2,000 years ago in the year 73 or 74 CE. According to Flavius Josephus – a Jewish rebel leader who changed his carreer to become a Roman historian – 15,000 Roman units, among them 8,000 soldiers and fighting men, stood against 967 defenders – men, women and children. But despite being numerically superior, the siege and conquest of Masada was a great challenge to the Romans.

Towering 300m/1000ft above its surrounding, Masada meaning “fortress” in Hebrew was indeed almost invincible. The access paths to the fortress, itself surrounded by a casemate wall, were well protected by massive gates. Any attackers would have had to walk in a line on the steep and narrow paths, making easy targets for the defenders.

Storerooms at Masada
Herod had established large storerooms on Masada

Eleazar and his Zealots had plenty of food and water, enough for several years. In order to feed their troops, the Romans had to transport the water and provisions from Ein Gedi, around 8 miles (20 km) north of Masada.

Masada mountain fortress seen from the South
View from Mt. Eleazar to Masada: on the left is the path connecting the Roman camps and leading to the ramp

We now followed the red markings heading North to the Roman ramp. First we had to overcome a steep descent with lots of treacherous loose rocks. The path then lead us to another Roman camp and finally to the ramp. We climbed the Roman ramp and entered Masada from the West.

Note: Entry tickets to Masada must be obtained in advance, or at the ticket office to the West of the ramp. If you want to shorten the trail and skip the rather difficult descent, you can purchase cable car tickets and use the cable car.

Being tour guides, we’ve seen Masada perhaps a hundred times and more. This is why we focused on the less visited area to the South. One highlight was the large swimming pool, nicely featured in the 4-part mini series “Masada” with Peter O’Toole playing the Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva. In that movie we can see the rebels splashing in the cool water as the Romans on the opposite mountain (where we’ve just been) almost died of thirst. As we were still sweating with exertion, we could just imagine how it would be in the summer heat of 100F/40C and more.

Swimming pool at Masada
Herodian swimming pool – the rebels had plenty of water

We continued to the large cistern. The steps are steep and one wonders how tall people were in ancient times? The cistern is huge – you could easily build a house inside the cavity. The acoustics is also nice.

The big cistern at Masada
The large cistern at the South side of Masada

After we visited the casemate wall at the southern end, we walked to the Northern palace which was the palace of Herod. We descended to the lower terrace, probably a reception area. One can still see the original frescoes. Herod may be remembered as a cruel ruler who was hated by the people like no other ruler. But he also left a legacy of unprecedented construction activity throughout the country. Two millenia later, no period of Israels long history left more buildings and archaeological remains than the relatively short rule of Herod: Masada, the Western Wall and some of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, Caesarea, Sebastia, Cave of the Patriarchs, Herodion and more.

Lower terrace of the royal palace
Frescoes decorate the walls at the lower terrace in the Northern Palace (Herods palace)

There is no historic evidence that Herod ever set foot in his palace at Masada. Josephus writes that Herod, fleeing from Antigonous the Hasmonean and the Parthians, brought his family (his mother, his fiance Miriam, as well as 500 concubines) to Masada for safety before sailing to Rome to beg Marc Anthony for help. Surprisingly the Roman senate elected Herod to become the king of Judea and sent him off with an army to conquer his country. After Herod had established himself (with the help of Roman soldiers), he had Masada rebuilt according to his ideas, adding all the amenities of a royal abode.

Once again we had to climb stairs, then we started with the descent. Instead of taking the popular Snake Path or the cable car, we decided to accept the challenge and use the Runners Path. So called for the Roman runners who had to carry messages between the camps down near the Dead Sea and the commander’s camp up on the mountain plateau near the ramp. We had a last glance at the Northern palace before we commenced the difficult part.

Masada and Northern palace (Herod's palace)
View from the Runners Path to Masada and the Northern Palace

From afar the terraces of the northern palace look like steps. The upper level included Herod’s living quarters and a semicircular portico. The middle level held what we believe was a circular reception hall. The bottom level was for larger receptions and banquets and even included a Roman bath. Life was good when you were king.

Runners path
View to the North and the Runners path – that’s where we descended (can you make out the 3 men standing near the cliff?)

In front of us was the descend with railings and metal handles to help the climbers. That was the easier part, because what followed was a rather steep path with loose stones. I much prefer ascends.

Ofer Moghadam descending the Runners path
The Runners Path: You can see the Roman siege wall behind my colleague Ofer Moghadam

After the difficult section of the Runners path we had to walk another mile or so to get back to where we started, at the lower parking lot. This part of the trail follows the Roman camps and circumvallation wall that prevented the Masada defenders from escaping.

Roman camp and siege wall
Roman camp along the siege wall, the Dead Sea at a distance

Usually I would be safely hidden behind the camera, but Ofer managed to take some photos of me. Here, as so often, I’m right in front of the abyss playing with my camera.

Tour guide Heiko Sieger takes a photo
In the photo: Your tour guide Heiko taking a picture (photo(c) by Ofer Moghadam)

Both Ofer and I were exhausted at the end of the tour. Yet, we saw Masada in a way we never saw before – the view a Roman soldier or slave must have had 2000 years ago as he walked the Runners Path. Our way home was a lot more conventional – by car.

See you soon,

Heiko