Masada: Exploring Israel's ancient desert fortress

Looming over the Judaean Desert and the Dead Sea, Masada, Israel’s ruined rock-top fortress, is a fascinating insight into the past

5 mins

Picture the scene: an 8,000-strong Roman army, equipped with shields, swords, catapults and arrows, marching towards a plateau in the middle of the Judaean Desert. Outnumbered, the 960 Jews living on top of the mountain have only rocks to defend themselves – but the advantage of elevation and a sophisticated food and water storage system. Who do you think won?

After capturing Jerusalem in AD 70, the Romans headed 52km south to Mount Masada, the site of the last Jewish resistance to the expanding Roman Empire. Once there, while under attack from the Jews above, the Romans built eight camps and a wall around the base of the 434m-high plateau, which rises from the desert like a Hasidic Jew’s fur shtreimel hat. After surrounding the Jewish rebels, the Romans built a ramp from rocks and earth on the plateau’s western border – the most shallow side – which they supported with beams before constructing a siege tower and wheeling it up the ramp to destroy the Jews’ protective wall with a battering ram and fire.


Cable car and hiking route up to Masada (Shutterstock)

Cable car and hiking route up to Masada (Shutterstock)

But the Jews didn’t go down without a fight and, while scholars’ estimates vary, it’s thought that it took the Romans up to seven months to capture Masada.

Yet by the time the Romans set the Jews’ defensive wall on fire in AD 73, the Jews had chosen suicide over slavery – they’d drawn lots in a grim game to decide who would murder the majority before killing themselves. Only two women and five children survived, by hiding in a water pipe. Their story was passed on to Yosef ben Matityahu, a Jewish slave who defected to the Romans once they freed him. Later, under the name of Titus Flavius Josephus, he became a historian.

While monks settled on Masada in the fifth century, the site was subsequently abandoned in the sixth century until its rediscovery in 1838 by two American researchers, Edward Robinson and Eli Smith.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when the first archaeological digs took place and the plateau was designated a national park, attracting travellers. More arrived once a cable car was built in the 1970s, and again when the tableland was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

The Fortress of Masada in Israel (Shutterstock)

The Fortress of Masada in Israel (Shutterstock)

The archaeological excavations found the remains of the Romans’ camps, fortifications and a largely intact attack ramp at the foot of the mountain. But that’s not all. The seven-hectare plateau was first fortified around 100 BC, long before the arrival of the Romans. King Herod the Great developed the fortress during his reign between 37 BC and 4 BC, building walls and towers as well as aqueducts, cisterns and warehouses. He also constructed two palaces and bathhouses, which were set among opulent ornamental gardens on tiered terraces on the rock’s northern face. Other finds, from coins and pots to perfume bottles, were also unearthed.

Today, you can take the cable car to the top to bypass the arduous hour-long climb up Snake Path, which winds up Masada’s north-east face. But climbing the mountain – best done before sunrise to avoid the worst of the heat – helps you imagine the challenge the Romans faced.

When the sun peaks over the horizon, the arid land turns as gold as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. At the summit, you can explore the extensive ruins of King Herod’s palace, which has a panorama of the Dead Sea and beyond, into Jordan.

Later on, return to watch a 45-minute light show, Masada from Dusk to Dawn, which is projected at night on to the mountain’s western slope, close to the Romans’ ramp. Set to a soundtrack performed by a choir and an orchestra, it tells the story of Masada, bringing alive the Roman siege with
a battle of arrows and flames.

Need to know information when visiting Masada, Israel

The ruins of the palace of King Herod's Masada at sunset (Shutterstock)

The ruins of the palace of King Herod's Masada at sunset (Shutterstock)

Location: 52km south of Jerusalem, southern Israel

Getting there: British Airways, easyJet, El Al and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Tel Aviv from Luton, Heathrow and Stansted; flight time is around
five hours.

Getting around: Tourist Israel’s Masada Sunrise Tours leave from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and include a sunrise climb, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and the Dead Sea (

When to go: April to May and September to October, when temperatures peak at around 25°C and rainfall is low.

Accommodation: Pitch a tent at Campsite Masada West in Masada National Park or Tel Arad Campsite in Tel Arad National Park (

Ein Gedi Hotel ( has developed from a kibbutz (agricultural commune) into a spa hotel with a botanical garden. Ein Bokek’s resorts are a 15-minute bus ride away.

Further information: Top 10 Israel and Petra (DK Eyewitness).

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