The fortress of Masada in Israel, a visit to the gates of the Judean desert

Today, I’m taking you on a tour of the Masada fortress in Israel. Built on a rocky plateau overlooking the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert, it was built by King Herod the Great and has had an eventful history. Besieged by the Romans, and the scene of a dramatic siege, Masada is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and welcomes many visitors each year.

In this article, I take you to Masada and offer practical information to reach it (cable car, hiking path, parking lots). It is indeed a must-see for any trip to Israel!

The history of the Masada fortress in Israel

The history of Masada (also spelled “Massada”) is well-known thanks to the works of the 1st century AD historian, Flavius Josephus. Thanks to him, we know that this fortress was mainly built by King Herod the Great, King of Judea placed on the throne of Jerusalem by the Romans.

At the time, the region was under some tension, and Egypt was threatening to invade, so Herod had thought of this place as a potential refuge if the peace was to be threatened. It was built between 37 and 15 BC.

View of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert
The Dead Sea and the Judean Desert

Historically, Masada is best known for a tragic episode. A few decades after Herod’s death, in 66 AD, a conflict began that was nicknamed “The Great Revolt” or the first Jewish-Roman war. Tensions arose between the Jewish population living in Judea (where Masada is located) and the Romans.

On one hand, the Jewish rebels, also known as the Sicarii or Zealots, drove the Romans out of Masada and established themselves there. On the other hand, the Romans, led by Titus, who would later become Emperor, set out to conquer Jerusalem. They succeeded in taking control of the city in 70 AD, after destroying Herod’s temple (the second Temple of Jerusalem).

Many Jews fled the city and sought refuge in Masada. The Romans eventually located them and in 72 AD, decided to lay siege to the citadel.

Remains of an ancient camp built by the attackers
Remains of an ancient camp built by the attackers

Approximately 8000 Romans faced off against 1000 Sicarii and refugees who were situated on top of the rock. At first, the Zealots were not concerned. They had abundant water reserves due to a highly advanced irrigation system (which visitors can discover during their tour of Masada) and as a result, they were able to cultivate a variety of edible crops such as pomegranates, grains, grapes, olives, dates, etc.

However, the Romans were determined and for several months, they constructed an access ramp that was over 328 feet high. Keep in mind that this was an ancient time, not our modern era where constructing skyscrapers is common!

According to the story, when the Romans finally broke through the wall, they discovered a field of ruins. The rebels had set fire to all the buildings and committed mass suicide, choosing death over surrender to the enemy.

Each head of a household is said to have killed their relatives, and the leaders reportedly drew lots to determine who would be the “last survivor”, the one who would kill all the others before taking their own life. The news of their fate came from the few survivors who hid in cisterns and whose testimony Flavius Josephus was able to collect.

Today, Masada holds a special place in Israel. It is a historical site, but for some, it also symbolizes the resistance of the Jewish people. As a result, it is one of the places where members of the Israeli army take their oaths.

However, it’s worth noting that historians are not certain about the story of collective suicide, and the Sicarii were not necessarily representative of all Jewish people at the time. Flavius Josephus (who himself was Jewish) presents them as fanatics with an extreme ideology.

Aerial view of the Masada complex
Aerial view of the Masada complex | Photo © Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia – Under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

What do you see when you visit Masada?

First of all, you should know that the Masada site is extremely large, occupying about 690 acres. There is not only the fortress itself but also all the surrounding area, with the remains of the various Roman camps discovered to date. The site was found in 1842 and the largest excavation campaign took place between 1963 and 1965.

Globally, we distinguish today 3 “zones”.

The eastern access of the site

This is the most popular. This is where you will find the Masada Museum, a local museum: the idea was to present both the objects found by archaeologists during the excavations (belonging to the two “camps”, Roman and Jewish) while telling the story of the site and its key figures, such as Herod, who was responsible for its construction.

This is also where you can take the cable car and the Snake Trail if you prefer to go up on foot (the path is not always accessible, I’ll tell you about it a bit further down in the “practical” part of the article).

The cable car

The western access of the site

If you visit Masada from the other side, from the city of Arad (and not from the Dead Sea), you will have the opportunity to examine the cisterns that allowed the fortress to be self-sufficient in water supply. This was what enabled the besieged to hold out for so long without assistance.

Additionally, when the Romans finally breached the citadel, they found an abundance of food, indicating that the besieged were not suffering from starvation. This has led to the theory that they committed collective suicide rather than surrendering to enslavement.

Specifically, there were 12 cisterns that could hold a total of 8,819,894 gallons of water. To put that into perspective, if you consume 0.53 galleon per day, it would take you over 54795 years to exhaust all the reserves of the cisterns. The system was ingeniously designed, with dams at the river level at the foot of the mountains that directed the flow towards channels that fed the cisterns (dug into the rock).

Other cisterns, located on the mountain plateau, provided a “relay” closer to the fortress. It is likely that animals were used to transport the water between the two cistern systems.

At this western access to the national park, you can also see the siege equipment used by the Romans. There is an amphitheater that can host sound and light shows, the Masada campsite (which I will discuss further below) and, most importantly, the “Roman Way”.

It is the access ramp built by the Romans over several months to reach the fortress. They had exploited a natural landslide by building up the earth and using wooden beams to support it. It was thanks to this ramp that they were able to hoist siege engines to finally break through the citadel wall and enter.

Roman Way
Roman Way | Photo © Nis101 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The fortress itself, from above

The fortress of Masada, seen from above, is a maze of dry stone walls. It is best to visit with a guide or audio guide to fully appreciate the many vestiges on display.

The ruins of Masada

Herod’s palace was built on three levels, with a staircase carved into the rock connecting them. The top level held the private apartments of the king of Judea, with rooms decorated with mosaics and frescoes.

We can still see traces of this, such as this black and white mosaic floor:

Mosaics from Herod's palace

On the lower levels of the palace, there were reception areas, a large room surrounded by columns and decorated with frescoes.

Among the best-preserved parts are the baths, where archaeologists have found human remains, possibly those of some rebels. The traditional rooms of a Roman bath can be recognized, including a changing room (the apodyterium), a caldarium (for hot baths, see photo below), a tepidarium for warm steam baths, and a frigidarium (cold basin). There was also a courtyard for physical exercise.

The caldarium of the Roman bath
The caldarium of the Roman bath

The complex also included religious spaces, such as a stable converted into a synagogue by the Sicars (where many manuscripts were found) and a Byzantine church with another mosaic floor.

The Byzantine church of Masada
The Byzantine church of Masada | Photo © Zairon – Under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

There were also “warehouses”, including a room nicknamed “the room of the draw” because pottery fragments with names were found there. One of the names was that of Ben Yair, known to have been one of the leaders of the rebels.

Historians have speculated that these pottery fragments may have been used in the famous drawing of lots prior to the mass suicide, but this is not certain.

You will also see the old columbarium on site:

Ancient Masada columbarium
Ancient Masada columbarium

Or metal models explaining all the paths of water to supply the place at that time. It is visual enough to understand the logic of the system.

In some places, you will see black lines drawn on the walls and low walls. The professionals who worked on the site to restore it and open it to the public made the explicit choice to show what has been restored as opposed to the “original.” The part below the black line corresponds to the original decoration, the part above the black line has been reconstituted.

Black line symbolizing the reconstructed part
Black line symbolizing the reconstructed part

At each important point along the route, there are explanatory signs in English and Hebrew, and a number that allows you to listen to the corresponding story on your audio guide.

It is a tour that I found extremely rich. The view of the Dead Sea, the desert, the aridity of the area, are both fascinating and show what a feat it was to build this site. On the other hand, if you bring back pictures from your trip, it is better to caption them right after the visit. I took a lot of pictures of Masada, but I admit that I was sometimes confused when I saw them again to see where they corresponded to in the palace, as there were so many areas to see!


How to Visit Masada

How to get to the fortress

It is possible to go to Masada by bus, taking the 444 from the Jerusalem bus station. It takes a minimum of 1 hour and 20 minutes to get there and get off at Haifa Technion, where you will be close to the visitors’ center. The 486 bus is a good alternative, the trip is a little longer (1 hour and 35 minutes minimum).

By car, it will take you 1.5 hour to get there by taking route 1 and then route 90. This is the most common access, the road runs along the Dead Sea and you can park in the eastern parking lot of Masada.

A less common alternative is to drive to the other side of the fortress, via road 3199 and the town of Arad. There are also parking lots and a campsite.

3 ways to climb Masada

It should be noted that a visit to Masada at dawn is a must. The courageous choose to start the climb on foot to watch the sunrise.

Three Ways to Climb Masada

Once there, you have 3 options to access the fortress, which depend in part on where you arrive:

  • The cable car ride – The cable car leaves from the visitor center, easily accessible from Route 90.
  • The Snake Trail – This trail is accessible from Route 90 at the traffic circle next to the parking lot. It is marked in Hebrew and English (“Snake Path”). It takes about 1 hour uphill and 30 to 45 minutes downhill. The path is accessible one hour before sunrise.
  • The Roman Way – It starts on the other side of the site, for those arriving by road 3199 and the city of Arad. It takes about 20 minutes to get there. It opens half an hour before sunrise.

It should be noted that when it is hot (which is pretty much all the time in the summer, this is the Judean desert!), the Snake Trail closes to visitors to avoid discomfort and sunstroke. It often closes at the very beginning of the day, around 8 am (in case of extreme heat) or 9 am (in case of heavy heat), when temperatures are still bearable. The alternative is to take the cable car.

The Snake Path

Getting to Masada via an excursion

You can discover a part of the fortress via a guided tour!

With a guide in English, you can look at these excursions that have received very good reviews from travelers:

You also have the opportunity to experience the sunrise from Masada, by taking the Snake Trail up to the rocky plateau through the renowned Abraham Tours agency. You can visit the site and then discover the nearby Ein Gedi nature reserve, with freshwater pools where you can swim… before ending the tour with a swim in the Dead Sea.

The visitor center at Masada
The visitor center at Masada

Opening hours and tickets

As a general rule, the site is open from 8am to 4pm between October and March, and from 8am to 5pm between April and September. It closes one hour earlier on Shabbat and sometimes at 1pm during the Jewish holidays (you’ll find this out when you book).

If you choose to go without a guide, you can book your entrance in advance here. The price depends on the package you choose, with several options:

  • Walk up and down the Roman way or the Snake Trail ;
  • Take a “unique” trip by cable car (and the other one by foot);
  • To do everything by cable car.

Children benefit from a reduced rate.

You choose a date, a time (for the Snake Trail, it often starts around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. depending on the period) and a number of passengers. Normally, there is no need to pay online, you will have to present your reservation confirmation and pay on the spot.

Facilities on site

There’s everything you need on site: the visitor center has been home to the Masada Museum since 2017, a museum that tells you the history of the site. This is also where you take the cable car. There is everything you need to eat (cafeteria and restaurant), shop, go to the bathroom…

Once up there, there is also something to hydrate yourself, areas covered with shade sails to try to get out of the sun. Indeed, the historical site is largely open air, at 1476 ft of altitude… so by definition, in full sun. I can handle the heat very well and despite everything, I can tell you that the little breaks in the shade are good!

Masada in Israel

Lodging in Masada

As I mentioned in the article, there is a campsite at the western access of the site. It is equipped with toilets, showers, refrigerators, sinks, a barbecue area, drinking water, tables, and a place to recharge your electric devices. It is open all year round except for Yom Kippur.

Entrance is between 3pm and 9pm (10pm in the summer) and you must leave the campsite before 11am (10am on Saturdays and holidays). You can find the prices at the bottom of this page and consult the booking instructions by clicking on “General Information”.

There is a youth hostel at the foot of the fortress, the Massada Hostel, with an outdoor pool and air-conditioned rooms. It is best to book in advance as it is often full to capacity due to its proximity to the park entrance.

Another nice option is to stay in Ein Bokek, on the Dead Sea, a little further south. There is the Ganim Hotel (4 stars) and the Nevo Hotel (5 stars).

If you prefer to be in a “green” setting, you can also look at the Kibbutz Hotel in Ein Gedi, with a swimming pool and botanical gardens.

Masada is such a huge site that it honestly takes several visits (or several days) if you want to explore it all. However, in a few hours you can at least visit the fortress and learn about its fascinating history!

Hello! I am on maternity leave until summer 2023. I take this time to focus on my family so the comments are temporarily closed on the site :)

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