Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

For the previous entry, click here.

Today’s missive will likely be relatively short on account of exhaustion. We started the morning at 5:00 a.m. to be on the bus early so that we might beat both other visitors and the heat to Masada.

If you’re not familiar, Masada (“the fortress”) is another palace-fortress built by Herod the Great, this one on a mountaintop overlooking the western edge of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, at least, the point on the Dead Sea that Masada guarded allowed passage to the eastern side and to the (formerly Moabite) city of Bab edh-Dhra. As a side note, some scholars believe that Bab Edh-Dhra is a candidate for the ancient city of Sodom, but the historical details of the city (size, period active, time and nature of demise) do not seem to fit very well.

Masada, even in ruins, is impressive. In addition to the fortifications, Herod built not one, but two palaces atop the plateau. The first, the Western Palace, was nice enough, but Herod wanted to build a “hanging” palace that occupies the very edge of the habitable space on the mountain. He did this and, like the Herodium, then had a personal palace and one for guests. The fortress also boasted a swimming pool (because why not?), a tannery, a Roman-style bathhouse, several dovecotes and cisterns for over one million gallons of water. Herod’s goal was to build a palace-fortress that would be siege-proof. Only a winding footpath–called the Snake Path for its serpentine nature–wide enough for two at a time made its way up the mountain to the fortress. Storehouses were built that could hold years of supplies–grain, oil and other foodstuffs and goods. Soil was brought up the mountain so that additional food could be farmed to extend the fortification’s rations.

But Herod isn’t really the center of the story here. During the Revolt of the Jews against Roman occupation in 66 C.E., the Sicarii captured the fortress (how remains a mystery). The wilderness stronghold (little grows near the Dead Sea and even today only sporadic and artificially-irrigated date palm farms can be found) became the fortress of last refuge for many Jews, not all of them Sicarii or even rebels.

In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege to Masada, perhaps bringing as many as 9,000 fighting men (and maybe 15,000 people total) against 960 defenders. The Romans first built eight forts at the base of the mountain and an encircling wall to prevent any escape. Then, over several long months, the Roman forces built a dirt ramp up to the fortress’s western wall. They attacked with a metal-clad siege tower, battering rams and ballistae supported by auxiliary archers and legionaries. The defenders fought bravely and fiercely to repel the Romans, but the attackers managed to achieve a break in the wall. Strangely, they then pulled back, waiting for the next day to launch a new assault.

The defenders knew that they were done. Rather than become subject to the Romans (through surrender or capture), they elected to take their own lives. But since Judaism forbids suicide, the men killed their wives and children and then drew lots to determine who would slay whom, repeating the process until one man was assigned to kill the remaining nine, set fire to the buildings, and then kill himself. And that’s exactly what they did.

To this day, Masada remains a warning used to teach children about the consequences of allowing Europeans and Westerners to come into their country to assert control. “Masada shall never fall again” is the preferred slogan, often used by the IDF.

Though we ascended by cable car, a number of us decided that we would walk back down the Snake Path. This was a mistake, one my knees have so far not let me forget. The Fitbit says I traveled 9 miles and 60 floors over the course of the day today. Much of this was the Snake Path.

After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a wilderness spring in the Wadi Arugot to which David fled from Saul. We went on a hike through and up the spring’s stream to get a feel for oasis geography as set against the geography of the rest of the Judean wilderness.

We followed the hike (and accompanying lecture) with a quick bite to eat and a short drive to Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran, and current scholarship links the Dead Sea Scrolls to a radical Jewish sect in existence around the period from 1st Century B.C.E. To 1st Century C.E. called the Essenes, who are believed to have copied or created the scrolls at Qumran before hiding them in the nearby hills. The ruins there are a minor interest, but probably would not be either a national park or a tourist stop if it were not for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The day ended with a trip to a (very commercial) nearby beach on the Dead Sea for a quick float. I opted not to participate in this given the very abbreviated time available to change, float, rinse off, shower off and then change clothes to be ready to leave.

Tomorrow, we will (depending upon safety and stability in the region), head toward Nablus and Shechem in Palestine-held territory before another hike of the wilderness and a visit to Jericho.

For the next entry, click here.

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