One of the must visit places in Israel is, remarkably, an exaltation of suicide.

Masada is an ancient wonder, a Dead Sea beauty and a place of fanatical inspiration.

What happened here in 73AD was disturbing, bloody and now defines Israel as a symbol of freedom.

After staring down the Roman legion, almost one thousand people died here at their own hands. Children, mothers, virtually the entire community took their lives rather than become slaves.

Israeli historians describe the Zealots as emerging “victorious even in defeat.”.. but this version of history is being challenged.

I didn’t find any of this out by watching the lavishly produced instructional video prior to staging my own assault on the fortress of Masada.

Unfortunately it was in Hebrew with Russian subtitles. The doors had closed tight at both ends of the theatre so there was no choice but to soak up the dramatic, but unintelligible production.

Soon enough we were launched into the sky above the Negev Desert. You can spend 45 minutes trudging to the top, but my friend and I went up the cheater’s way, the Masada cable car.

The small little box takes just a few minutes to complete a journey that took the Romans many months.

It looks high, but is it? There is a strange Dead Sea calculation to Masada despite the plateau towering over the area.

Masada rises up 450 metres, but being next to the lowest place on earth, we only end up 58 metres above sea level.

Climbing Masada the old fashioned way, up the winding ”snake path”, is a rite of passage for new recruits of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The young men and women climb charge up the slopes with their packs and at the top swear allegiance to Israel declaring, “Masada shall not fall again.”

Originally built decades by the Judean king, Herod, as a palatial refuge, it was later used by the Romans before the Zealots took over in 70AD. They were running from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple and the Romans wanted to crush them.

The 73AD Roman siege was classic and effective. Around 8000 soldier constructed a giant dirt and wood ramp to the west and after many months began to batter Masada’s walls.

Isolated on top, the Zealots were not going to be taken alive. When all hope was believed lost they systematically took their own lives, made sure others did the same and set Masada on fire.

Here’s a male Tristam’s Grackle or starling.

The birds of Masada allow people to get extremely close. Almost near enough to touch.

Anyway, the version of Masada – that suicide something to celebrate – has been challenged by some Israelis, particularly educators. The main elements of the Masada story are also being questioned.

Were they all Zealots? Did they all willingly die? How long did the siege truly go for? .. and what if everyone chose the path taken in 73AD?

Here’s my fantastic travelling companion Peter Cave. He’d been to Masada before but he was easily convinced to go one more time. Between you and me I think he secretly likes driving in Israel.

We avoided the big tourist groups for a while by wandering south to what is known as the Roman area. There is less here associated with the Jewish rebels so work here is minimal.

We found this bent nail, perhaps a Roman nail, on the ground. It was left there of course, but there it is: a common item that could be thousands of years old.

There’s very little sign now of the mass suicide all those years ago. The drama was exhaustively recorded by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius, but few bodies were later found by archaeologists.

The Roman siege wall can still be seen and climbed off Masada’s west flank and it is gradually falling away back into the desert.

Tourist flood Masada. This group is following the white dove of peace.

Many of the ancient buildings have been restored. In this photo you may be able to see a faint line above the heads of the tourists.

That’s what it looked like when Masada was found again in 1842. Excavations and restoration have been underway since the 1960s and in 2001, UNESCO inscribed Masada as a World Heritage Site.

Here is a view of one of the largest Roman camps. Imagine the Zealots staring down every day watching the ramp rise towards them.

There were eight camps in total surrounding the plateau.

I’m not certain what this critter is, but it darn cute and has no tail. My Google skills have come up with the possibility that it is the Golden Spiny Mouse, but proper identification will be gratefully accepted.

The featured mouse, rat, gerbil or dwarf ferrety thing darted around the side of Masada with no fear of heights. It did, however, have an intense wariness of humans and Tristam’s Grackles.

Masada’s mosaics and stucco paintings have survived the past two thousand years in the Negev Desert.

This design in the bathing area of the Western Palace has been used a symbol for Masada.

Historians talk about the contrast between the luxury of the king who ordered the construction of Masada and the poverty of the Zealots who ended up destroying it.

.. and here is the big secret to surviving on top of an isolated desert plateau besieged by Romans intend on making  you a slave: giant, cavernous pools of fresh water.

This is deep inside the southern water cistern: the largest water collection place on the plateau.

The planning that went into Masada was so good that the fortress became an oasis in the desert. Roman style bathhouses were found among the ruins.

Speaking of baths I later had one in the Dead Sea. Touring Masada was hard work, but this may not have been the soothing soak I was after.

Floating around on the salty, warm, dirty water between Israel and Jordan is a rite of passage for tourists and I just had to do it.

The high salt content makes swimmers especially buoyant and it is a strange sensation bobbing around like you are hollow inside.

It was time for hookah on the beach for these guys.

The Dead Sea water was warm and remarkably slimy. You don’t want to get any of the iconic, but dirty water in your mouth or on any open cuts as that would be suicidal behaviour.

Who deliberately rubs salt into wounds?

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4 Comments

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  1. Peter #
    May 9, 2012

    Its an escapee, refugee Syrian Hamster :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Aharoni

  2. Bron #
    May 9, 2012

    Amazing photos, as always, K. Loving them. x

  3. sziasteph #
    May 9, 2012

    Love this, KB!
    I’d be taking my old togs to the Dead Sea, not my nice new ones!!

  4. May 15, 2012

    Thanks for sharing! I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Masada. Hopefully I’ll get to visit someday!

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