Sites in the Judean Desert

Masada is a symbol of Israel, of defiance and hope against hope, of a victory in spite of defeat.

Nestled deep in the Judean Desert, it took us about an hour by bus to get there. Along the way, we got to see the interesting views of the desert. It’s not normally this green–they’ve had a lot more rain than usual this year. Which is good, because this region has been in a 20-year drought.


Masada means “fortress” in Hebrew, and that’s exactly what it was. Herod the Great (the evil Herod from the Christmas story) built two palaces inside a fortress way up on this mountain by the Dead Sea as a winter resort and safe haven from any enemies. After he died in 4 BC it wasn’t really used for anything. Fast forward to 66 AD, and all the Jews are revolting against Roman rule. It wasn’t going well. the Sicarii (really radical Jewish terrorists named after the knife they used) had to hide out in the desert and made it to Masada. Its storerooms were full of food and had a great cistern, so they hid out there for a couple of years. Other Jewish rebels and refugees came to them, including Essenes, Samaritans, and regular rebel Zealots.

By 73, the Romans were fed up with this last Jewish holdout and laid seige. For several months there was a stalemate, until the Roman built a seige ramp up the mountain, rolled a tower up, and began battering the walls. Finally it looked like Roman victory was inevitable. They finished up their work for the day and went back to camp, ready to storm Masada in the morning. But when they showed up the next morning, almost all 960 rebels and their families were dead, killed by their own hands.

According to two women and five children (the only survivors of the mass suicide pact), the leader of the rebels, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, delivered two stirring speeches that convinced the rebels that the death of their wives was better than the future assaults of Roman soldiers, and it was better that their children taste death over slavery. I guess it was convincing, because they drew lots and then killed their family and fell on their own swords. Josephus Flavius recorded all of this for posterity, and while he respected the final decision, he did not make the Sicarii out to be heroes. In fact, as a former Zealot-turned-defector to Rome, he disliked them. The heroism came later, primarily from secular Zionists in the early 20th century.

Masada was huge and we didn’t look at everything before our time ran out. We had taken the cable car up to give us more time for photos and reading at the top, but didn’t want to pay the extra money to take it back down. We chose to hike the 2.5 mile Snake Path. So we had the loooong hike down the mountain.


You can see I’m really pleased about this. I wasn’t feeling well, and we hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast (too early) or dinner the night before (everything was closed due to Shabbat). The rocks were slippery and there wasn’t a railing for at least half the time.

But we made it! I made it–in about 40 minutes. A real, experienced hiker can make it in 27. And then we journeyed about 15 minutes by bus to Ein Gedi.


Ein Gedi is an oasis in the desert, a few minutes from Masada and the Dead Sea. It is also where David hid from King Saul, making the area his home for a while. Unfortunately,  because of the rain, the park was concerned about flash flooding and only opened the trails up the first waterfall, which I’m standing in front of. It was peaceful and seemed like a good place for animal-watching and resting.

From there we went to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.IMG_0850


This is an overlook, before we got to the beach. It was a little chilly for swimming, we thought, so we didn’t bring our swimsuits. But we did roll up our jeans and step into the water and mud!

Man, that mud is slippery! It also has salt crystals in it, which can be very unpleasant if you scratch your foot on them. Or get water on your face. It’s much more salty than the ocean, and I’m told it hurts a lot.


It was a little warmer than expected, and we had a great time.

Categories: Israel | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Sites in the Judean Desert

  1. Nancy Redding

    Hmmm. As you give pros and cons and tips for travel, given the uncertainty of reliable meals, would it be a good idea for travelers to keep some kind of non-perishable food handy? And would that even be feasible?

    • Yes, if you want to bring food and make it a priority. Also, Jordan and I are staying in cheap hostels that provide a continental breakfast. Food in Jerusalem was more expensive than we expected. And we could have found dinner in the old city during Shabbat, it was just a long walk and kinda expensive.

  2. Tanya Karasek

    We usually had some granola bars, nuts or halva in our day packs. We paid more for food in the old city than anywhere else ($5.00 for coffee and 7.00 for ice cream) but it tasted so good!

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