Masada, one of Israel’s most famous sites, sits atop a mountain plateau on the edge of the Judean Desert, close to the Dead Sea and easily accessible from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It is home to ancient Roman palaces and fortifications. The structures found atop Masada were built by Herod the Great around 37 BCE as a desert fortress in which he could be protected in case of a mass rebellion.
Masada is probably best-known for its story of Jewish martyrdom after the First Jewish-Roman war and destruction of the Second Temple.
The last survivors of the Jewish Revolt occupied the former palace, creating a synagogue, a few Jewish ritual baths (mikvehs) and other buildings necessary for the survival of their way of life. The Roman Army besieged the mountaintop compound; the rebels remained in their desert refuge for a few months while the Roman Army built a ramp up the side of the mountain and used a battering ram to break the walls of Herod’s fortress. As the siege went on, the nearly one thousand Jewish rebels on Masada set the buildings on faire and committed mass suicide. They chose death rather than give in to slavery at the hands of their Roman oppressors.
Masada was excavated in 1963 by Israeli archaeologist Prof. Yigael Yadin. Tourists can choose to climb the steep, winding Snake Path on the mountain’s eastern side and walk down the Roman ramp on the western side, or enjoy a less exerting cable car ride in each direction from the bottom of the mountain up to the top. Visitors walk through Herod’s vast complex, viewing the identified bathhouses, water reservoirs, wall paintings and parts of his ancient buildings (bathhouses, mosaics, kitchens, storerooms ). The food warehouses, the synagogue and residential structures, as well as Roman army barracks, from the Jewish rebellion period have also been restored for viewing. The fortress also contains a sophisticated water system of aqueducts able to hold enough water from a single day’s rain to sustain one thousand people for two years. A new museum displaying the sites’ history and archeological findings has recently been opened.
Today, Masada is also used for many ceremonies. Many units of the Israel Defense Forces have been sworn in to service after a night-time climb up the Snake Path to represent the end of their basic training period. They traditionally end with the symbolic declaration that “Masada shall not fall again.” Many Jewish families celebrate their childrens' Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony on Masada's summit. In 2001, UNESCO declared Masada a World Heritage Site. The national park offers a light and sound show on the mountain’s Western side and opened a new museum displaying the sites’ history and archeological findings.
The light and sound show plays every Tuesday and Thursday evening from March through October. The site and museum are open year round. Opening hours from April through September are 8am until 5pm, and October through March from 8am until 4pm. The site closes one hour earlier on Fridays and holiday eves. The cable car runs Saturday through Thursday from 8am to 4pm, and Fridays/holiday eves until 2pm.