The mountain of Masada was used in Hasmonean and Roman times as both a fortress and a winter palace; its high position made it difficult to assault, while its very low elevation meant pleasant winter temperatures compared to the cold and rainy months in the Jerusalem mountains. Later, during the Byzantine era, it was used, like many sites in the desert along the Jordan Valley, as a monastery.
Its real claim to fame, however, is as the last holdout of the Jewish rebels who fought against Roman rule in the revolt of 66-74 CE. According to the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, a group of rebels were besieged in their mountaintop refuge by sophisticated Roman siegeworks. As the inevitability of a Roman victory became clear, the story goes, the rebels’ leader convinced his party of nearly a thousand that it would be better to commit suicide en masse than to bow to Roman domination, and the Roman troops who broke into the fortress found only a handful of women and children who had hidden in cisterns.
Whether Josephus’ dramatic story is true, or was embellished or even fabricated to enhance the image of his people among the Romans, the tale has become a powerful symbol both of Jewish nationalist resolve and of the refusal of the human spirit to submit to tyranny.
The extensive ruins at Masada include remnants from all the eras of its use. Among the most interesting are the Northern Palace, a once-elegant structure standing atop the cliff edges; a stable adapted into a synagogue and a Byzantine church; a large palace built for King Herod; an enormous cistern that helped sustain life on the arid mountaintop; and mosaics throughout the site.
Hikers along the Abraham Path will arrive at Masada from the west, and can choose to continue up to the mountaintop and down the east side to the parking lot, or to spend the night at the campsite (see Accommodations, and remember that reservations should be made 2 days in advance). On the eastern side is access to the highway including buses, and the Masada Youth Hostel.