“Go see the Masada sunrise!” is a sentence you will hear all over the hostels in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. I saw the photos and was convinced. But I didn’t want to book a tour from Jerusalem (and get up at 3). I wanted to do it all by myself. So, stopped there on my way North from Eilat to the Dead Sea. Scroll all the way down for practical info to organize your visit to Masada.
I jump out of bed at 5:15 am, get dressed, munch a date bar, and head down to the checkpoint.
According to the reception at Massada Hostel, the Snake Path opens at 5:40, one hour before sunrise, giving just enough time to manage the one-hour climb onto the plateau.
What reception didn’t tell me about was the line at the checkpoint.
I get there at 5:30, walking sticks in hand, full water bottle and more date bars in my bag. Tiny light glimmers are already bobbing in the mountain. They and about a dozen people in front of me had the same idea as I had.
The line moves painfully slow. It takes 20 minutes until it’s my turn to fork over NIS28. In the meantime, three tour buses arrive and drop full loads of American students. At least, another guard is handling their entrance.
At 5:52 I am ‘All go!’
It’s still pitch black. First, the path goes straight and down. I pull out my torch twice to check the signs. Once I’m in the mountain, there is only one way and that way is up.
450m above the Dead Sea level (which itself is 428m below sea level), the 650x300m the Masada (aka Mezada) plateau was formed by the drifting apart of the Arabian and African tectonic plates that left behind the Dead Sea and in their wake this mountain block at the edge of the Judean Desert.
The Snake Path that’s winding up the steep hill, sometimes as foot-high steps, sometimes as gravel path, sometimes wide enough for five people, sometimes barely wide enough for two, is only one of three ways to get to the top.
“[…] the one of these ways is called the Serpent, as resembling that animal in its narrowness and its perpetual windings; for it is broken off at the prominent precipices of the rock, and returns frequently into itself, and lengthening again by little and little, hath much ado to proceed forward; and he that would walk along it must first go on one leg, and then on the other; there is also nothing but destruction, in case your feet slip; for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of every body by the terror it infuses into the mind.” — Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book V., Chapter 8.3
I try to move steadily fast. But I keep on running into groups of American students that tend to use the full widths of the path no matter how much that is. They stop abruptly for photos, breath, or some water. So I speed up and past them.
Half-way through I feel I’m going to pass out. I’m hot. I’m sweaty. My legs act like rubber.
I stop and see the American students pass me again.
For the remaining climb, I stay behind them and only catch up at the last bit, made of steep, narrow stairs to the gate.
I reach the top at 6:27 and turn left to find a spot for my Masada sunrise.
The sun will be coming from Jordan, on the other side of the Southern end of the Dead Sea. Around me, groups have assembled on the ruins of Herod’s fortress. There must be at least 200 people up here.
Up here, the sun rises at 7, 13 minutes after official sunrise because the sun has to pass the mountains over the border first.
I take my photos, walk around a bit to explore the ruins.
The story surrounding Masada is one of the most important ones in Israeli mythology, a symbol of Israel’s liberty.
In 66 AD, the Jews in the Roman province Judea rose against their rulers who had taken over Herod’s kingdom 60 years earlier. Six years later, the revolt was squashed, the Second Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people had died, tens of thousands were sold into slavery, and many of the remaining Jews had left the region.
The last Jewish resistance, a couple of hundred sicariis — let’s call them ancient Jewish ninjas –, led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir took refuge on Masada.
“[…]such a manner was this citadel fortified, both by nature and by the hands of men, in order to frustrate the attacks of enemies.” — Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book V, Chapter 8.3
The Hebrew name for the mountain is mezada or metsada — fortress.
The fortified buildings that stood up there in the year 72 were put in place by Herod, a textbook case of a paranoid narcissist ruler — he was to one that ordered all infants in Bethlehem killed after the Three Wisse men enquired about “the new king of the Jews” (aka Jesus Christ).
True to character, Herod had this fortress on a mountain that was in and of itself difficult to climb built with lots of extra protection.
I am walking along large cisterns hewn into the rock, several large storage buildings that were full of grain, oil, and other non-perishables when the sicariis arrived. Plus, there were fertile soil and pigeon towers for more food and fertilizer. Herod’s palace on the Northern tip, with the large rooms divided by makeshift walls, offered enough space for the men and their families. Eleazar was in it for the long run.
As I wander aimlessly around, guides are despairing at the knowledge of the American students.
“Where to do you get water from on a mountain tableau, 1200ft high?” — “Dig a well,” offers one. “An aqueduct!” another.
“We all know where Jesus was born, right.” — Silence. — “Nazareth?”
“Who were the three wise men looking for?” — More silence.
At 8, an hour after it has happened, I discover the best spot to watch the sunrise: The upper terrace of the Northern Palace offers an uninterrupted view of the Dead Sea, the sediments it left behind and the Jordanian mountains in the distance. To find it for your Masada sunrise turn right and head straight for the palace when you get to the top of the Snake Path.
In 66 AD, after a few months of siege, the Romans lost patience. They noticed the rock jutting out just a bit on the Western side of the mountain and got to work. Rock and sand got them almost all the way. But to get over the fortress walls, they needed a big tower.
The sicariis watched, waited, strengthened their wall with sand, rocks, and wood (to render rams useless), but didn’t stop the Romans until they reached the top. First, it looked like the walls would hold.
Until the Romans employed fire.
When Eleazar realized that they were about to be overrun, he put the only two options left in front of his men: die at their own hands or be sold into slavery.
Of almost a thousand people only two women and five children survived.
Thus was born the myth of Masada, making the site the most visited (paid for) sight in Israel.
I begin my descent at quarter past eight.
The cable car has made its first trip of the day. Some of my fellow sunrise gazers opt to spend another NIS28 on a ride down.
From below, new groups arrive along the Snake Path, almost passed out, legs like rubber.
Half an hour later, I sit down for breakfast.
(scroll down beyond the gallery for practical info incl. links to Masada NP, transport, and accommodation)