There and Back Again – An Israelis Tale

A day trip to Masada, a history lesson, and Ein Bokek with Kate.

I posted really early yesterday and didn’t get to mention my evening plans!  Here’s my quick sum-up.  Kate came over to cook dinner with me.  We made spaghetti with red sauce, to which we added meat, garlic, onions, and mushrooms.  It didn’t matter that we only made spaghetti…we actually COOKED something.  Holy spimoley!  GREAT feeling.While we were cooking, Grace came over with falafel and we all sat around and watched Dirty Dancing.  I then Skyped with mom and Scott (who are in Greece!), Cara, and Aunt Rachel.  (Ahh!  Aunt Rachel!  Look what I made a point to learn in Hebrew on my last day: מגניב דודה רחל)

I awoke this morning to a text from Grace saying that she hadn’t slept because she’s come down with a vicious cough.  So, the touristyness was going to be limited to Kate and I.  Okay, I could handle that.

We caught the 68 to the Central Bus Station, stopped and got breakfast (Holy Bagel, Batman!!!) and hopped on the 486 to take us to Masada.

And here begins the history lesson.  For those of you who already know the story of Masada, feel free to just look at the pretty pictures.  😉  (Please note that I am getting all of my information from the tourist guide they give everyone who goes to the site.  I know the story, but these guys tell it better.)

We’ll start with the basics.  The story of Masada was recorded by Josephus Flavius (commander of the Galilee during the Great Revolt).  At the time of Masada’s conquest, he was in Rome where he devoted himself to chronicling the revolt.

The Hasmonean Period

According to Josephus, the first fortress at Masada was built by Jonathan the High Priest who was also known as Hasmonean king Alexander Janaeus (103-76 BCE).  Some scholars tend to believe that Jonathan was the brother of Judah the Macabbee who became high priest in 152 BCE.

The Herodian Period

Herod, who ruled from 37 BCE to 4 BCE, recognized the strategic advantage of Masada.  He adopted it as a refuge against his enemies and as a winter palace.  During his reign, many palaces, storerooms, and cisterns were built.When the storerooms were excavated, it lent great credit to the stories of Herod’s “great taste”.  Kept in these rooms were large amounts of wines, fish, apples, drink, and weapons.  Though it is quite barren in the storerooms now, I did manage to find one jug…first from afar:

And then up close:

He also was responsible for the casemate wall that surrounds the plateau.  (Not the impenetrable blockade in the middle there…but the two stone structures on the sides.)

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAdditionally, Herod accorded significant importance to the culture of bathing.  On the southern side of the plateau he constructed a 550 cubic meter swimming pool…in the middle of the desert…:

Among other things, Herod built a bathing house in the middle of the plateau.  One of the particular rooms in the bathing house was called a caldarium or hot room.SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAs shown here, this room had a double floor, known as a hypocaust.  The upper floor stood on brick and stone columns.  Hot air flowed under the floor and rose through clay pipes embedded in the walls.
SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThis particular bathtub was the most important part of the bathing house.  One was required to visit it before heading into any other portion of the building.  As shown, there are two sets of steps.  The pool was considered both a physical bath and a spiritual bath.  One side was for when you were dirty, and once you had been cleaned, you got out on the other side.  No one was allowed into the innards of the bathing house if dirty, both spiritually and physically.Herod also had a thing for frescos.  He brought many fresco masters with him when he decided to build a palace on the mountain.  Some are pictured here:

Of course, it wasn’t until after we went down the mountain and trekked into the Masada Museum that we discovered that the frescoes painted on the walls in the palace aren’t real.  The real ones are kept in the Museum because historians and preservers were worried that the painting wouldn’t last atop the mountain.  What I took a picture of is a perfect replica of the original artwork.

Another thing Herod was good at were mosaics.  There were mosaics everywhere!Or a better view from up top:Lastly, a tannery was discovered in later excavations.  Here are two shots and then an overhead view.

After the death of Herod in 4 BCE and the annexation of Judea to the Roman Empire in 6 CE, the Romans stationed a garrison at Masada.

The Great Revolt

One of the first events of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66 CE) was the conquest of Masada by the Sicarii who were led by Menahem.  A man by the name of Eleazar Ben Yair fled from Jerusalem to Masada during the Great Revolt and became the commander of a rebel community on top of the mountain.  The varied group contained Essenes and Samaritans.  The last of the rebels fled to Masada after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and joined those who were already at the fortress under the command of Ben Yair.

The rebels lived in rooms inside the casemate wall and in some of Herod’s spare palaces.SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

They constructed a synagogue (which, unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of) and a public immersion pool.

They also brought with them their culture and, as such, created mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths).  Outside of the mikveh had convenient cubby’s to hold each persons clothing.They would then enter the mikveh through a deep set doorway (to block out as much light as possible).SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAnd the inside had stucco walls, bathing tubs, and….stalls of a sort.There were also many holes into their walls (creating shelves).  I can only assume it was for storage of some sort.

The Siege

Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea.  In 73/74 CE the Roman Tenth Legion Frentis, led by Flavius Silva, laid siege to the mountain.  The legion built eight camps around the base, a siege wall, and a ramp made of earth and wooden supports.  After a few months, the Romans brought a tower with a battering ram up the ramp with which they began to batter the casemate wall.  As the rebels’ hopes dwindled, Eleazar Ben Yair gave two speeches in which he convinced the leaders of the 960 member community that it would be better to take their own lives and the lives of their families than to live in shame and humiliation as Roman slaves.

Ten members of the community were chosen to commit the “slaughter.”  They then drew lots to see which one person would be the one to kill first those nine members and then himself.The sign states:

then, having chosen by lot ten of their number to dispatch the rest…these, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom it fell should slay first the nine then himself last of all.” – Josephus Flavius

Several hundred inscribed pottery shards (ostraca) were found.  Outstanding among them was a group consisting of names and nicknames, including the name “Ben Ya’ir.”  Yigael Yadin, the most distinguished of Masada’s excavators, connected this group with Josephus Flavius’ story of the drawing of lots on the last night of the revolt.

According to Josephus, two women and five children who had been hiding in the cisterns on the mountaintop were the only ones who were left when the Romans got through the wall.

Byzantine Period

After the Romans left Masada at the beginning of the second century CE, the fortress remained uninhibited for a few centuries.  During the fifth century CE a monastery inhabited by hermits was founded.

There is very little to show for the Byzantine period.  Here are the two things that they specifically brought about:

Though, with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the monastery apparently ceased to exist.

History of Masada Research

After the Byzantine period, Masada sank into oblivion until the nineteenth century.  The first scholars to identify Masada with the plateau then known as es-Sebbeh in Arabic were Smith and Robinson in 1838.  The first to climb it were Wolcott and Tipping in 1842.  The water system was discovered in 1905 by Sandel.  It wasn’t until 1963 that major evacuations were carried out (led by Yigael Yadin of Hebrew University of Jerusalem).


Random Pictures That Had No Other Place To Call Home

I took many photos from the east casemate wall.  The view was overlooking the Dead Sea and Jordan on the other side of it.We also spotted this semi-questionable crop circle?  We’re still trying to figure out what it is.  Kate insists that the aliens did it.SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAnd here’s one more.  This is north-eastern looking down over the museum and Masada complex.

Here is the view from the south casemate wall.One of my strongest memories of Masada the last time I was here was walking to one of the observation points and throwing a penny into the nothingness.  Today, I found the exact spot where I stood six years ago.  Here is a shot from the observation point.SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThere were many water cisterns that I found on the plateau.  The southernmost one had exactly 63 steps down.  Down, down, down into the dark.  Lots of stairs.Here is a picture of the cistern from halfway down…about where Kate is standing in the previous picture.And then there are these careless beings who dare defile the beauty and originality of these ruins…you might know them as wasps?SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThey were also in the midst of an excavation of a water cistern (we think) on the eastern side of the mountain.  Kate and I hummed the Indiana Jones theme song and had an enlightening discussion about Harrison Ford while walking around this particular area.Heading further south we found a section of chairs overlooking a chanukkia (a menorah used during Hanukkah).Lastly, throughout the course of our self-lead tour, we kept noticing a thick black line painted around the entire complex.  It looked like this.It wasn’t until about halfway through that we realized this symbolized a different era of building.  (We felt stupid after that.)  So I don’t know when the line separates between, but it means one was built by one group and then everything on top was built by someone else.


Finally getting tired enough to head down, Kate and I boarded the cable car and decided to check out the Masada Museum.  It was only about 20 NIS and it was worth even less…but I did find a Ranger!And my first cheeseburger of the trip!  Soooo not kosher. 😉From there, we boarded the 486 (we had an AWESOME bus driver) and continued south to Ein Bokek (or Ein Boqeq according to the road signs).  We got off and Kate floated in the Dead Sea…while I waded in the Dead Sea…And then we turned around, got back on the 486 (with the same bus driver an hour later!!!) and headed back to Jerusalem.  This is the last picture I took (my God, isn’t it enough!?) from the bus window and…yeah!I got home at a little before 6:00 and started downloading Castle.  While my computer was doing its thing, I took the worlds speediest shower and immediately sat down to start writing this blog.  Since then I have Skyped with my mom (and Scott) AND my dad.  I have watched the episode of Castle from last night.  I have been “got” by a mosquito about eight times…I have made plans to go to Yad Vashem tomorrow.  I have eaten dinner (twice over).  I have fully charged my phone and dealt with crap from Chase Fraud Protection.

While I haven’t been nearly AS productive as yesterday…I still feel like this was a LOOOONG day.

So I can safely say that after devoting five hours to posting this blog…I deserve to be DONE!  So I’m not going to read over it…

If you find any typos…I don’t want to hear it.  >_>

Okay, maybe I do.  xD  Post em in a comment.

Until tomorrow,



Author: alisonlcohn

Graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Communications Advertising. Traveled a bit. Taught for two years. Administered aptitude tests for a while. Worked as a Training Associate for Guardian Mortgage and a Quiz Master for Geeks Who Drink. Obtained my Master's in Film, Television and Screen Media in London, England. Now working as a small-group travel coordinator. Nice to meet you!

5 thoughts on “There and Back Again – An Israelis Tale”

  1. HI Alison,
    That was a fabulous blog. It took me back to when I was there on a JCC staff tour and our amazing guide, a woman, was dressed in a costume depicting that time. Can’t wait for your next one. xoxo Gma

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s