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5 Places to Visit in Israel (When It’s Safe to Go Back): Part Two

From the heights of Masada to the depths of the Dead Sea, with a detour to southernmost resort town Eilat on the Red Sea.

by
Kathy Shaidle

Bio

November 30, 2012 - 7:00 am
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In Part One, I told you a bit about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. My mini-travelogue continues with an absolute must-see on any trip to Israel:

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3. Masada

Each time I’ve visited Israel, we’ve combined a morning visit to Masada with an afternoon at a Dead Sea hotel spa, like the Lot or the Hod, which have private beaches and buffet luncheons.

First, some background on Masada:

Masada is a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora. The palace of Herod the Great at Masada is an outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the early Roman Empire, while the camps and other fortifications that encircle the hill constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day. (…)

With the end of the Herodian dynasty in 6 BCE Judaea came under direct Roman rule, and a small garrison was installed at Masada. At the beginning of the Jewish Revolt in 66 a group of Zealots led by Menahem, one of the Jewish leaders, surprised and slaughtered the garrison. The Zealots held Masada throughout the revolt, and many Jews settled there, particularly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70. They occupied some of the Herodian palace buildings, and added more modest structures of their own, such as a synagogue, a ritual bath, and small houses.

Two years later Flavius Silva, the Roman Governor, decided to eliminate this last remaining centre of Jewish resistance. He sent the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units there, with many prisoners of war for manual duties. The Jews, led by Eleazar Ben Yair, prepared for a long siege as the Romans and their prisoners built camps and a long siege wall (circumvallation) at the base of the hill. On a rocky site near the western approach to Masada they constructed a massive ramp of stones and rammed earth. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. It succeeded in breaching the wall of the fortress in 73, allowing the Roman soldiers to enter.

The Zealots defended stoutly, but there was no hope of resisting the Roman attack for long. Josephus reports that Ben Yair talked to the 960 men, women, and children who survived, telling them that “a glorious death is preferable to a life of infamy.” All but two took their own lives on 2 May 73.

Masada is now a potent symbol of Jewish resistance to tyranny, but that wasn’t always the case.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that a poem about the siege reintroduced the story to the world. (That poem is said to have inspired the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.)

Today, Masada is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel.

One of our group bravely walked up the side of the mountain — in flipflops! — but most visitors elect to take the cable car to the top.

You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views and a stirring history lesson.

Bonus: the gift shop is amazing and they’ve just added a shiny new “food court.” (However, do NOT buy the AHAVA Dead Sea beauty products at Masada — there’s an AHAVA discount store in Eilat.)

Wear a hat and sunscreen, and carry lots of water. (I bought a lumbar pack with two water bottle holders for this trip.)

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