According to UNESCO’s world heritage treaty (1972), this inclusion reflects the extraordinary worldly importance of this site, which makes it worthy for protection for future generations.
UNESCO’s main focus is on the northern palace, which was built by Herod the Great, and is an exceptional example for a splendid villa of roman times as well as the roman siege system that surround the site and is the most comprehensive example to survive of such a siege system.
Since 2001 – Masada has been a world heritage site on the world heritage center list.
One of UNESCO’s reasons for choosing Masada is that Masada is a symbol for the violent destruction of the Judea Kingdom and the exile that followed it at the beginning of the 1st century. It is also mentioned that the tragical events during the final days of the Jewish erfugees who held this castle-fortress, make Masada symbols of both cultural-Jewish identity and the continuous human struggle between oppression and freedom.
Herod the Great’s Masada
Masada resides on an isolated cliff ion the Judea Desert, more than 400 meters above the adjacent Dead Sea. The combination of cliffs and escarpments in the middle of a desert, provided the place a perfect natural defense system.
Despite the natural elements, Herod the Great surrounded Masada by a strong double wall. This was not an easy operation along 600 meters length and 300 meters width of Masada’s peak.
Herod the Great did more than that – Masada was not just a fortress, but also a royal citadel with big palaces, a state-of-the-art public bath house, and some smaller palaces which probably hosted Herod’s family members.
Northern Palace of Masada
The northern palace is the most impressive structure at Masada, and the way it was constructed is still astonishing: the palace is attached to the northern cliff edge, and it seems to be hanging on a brink. The cliff is made of three rock levels, and in order to make those levels bigger – builders constructed huge supporting walls.
The top level had four bedrooms and a veranda overlooking the spectacular view of the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi Oasis and the Moab hills. A sophisticated hidden stairway led to the second level where a big hall was built, surrounded by another veranda with polls that seem to hang from the edge of the cliff. The stairway then continued to the lowest level, where a huge hall was built, surrounded by exedras. The walls of this hall were decorated with beautiful wall paintings, and next to the hall a private wash house was built – for the use of the northern palace residents.
At the peak of the mountain Herod built a public wash house for the rest of Masada residents. It seems like Herod challenged the forces of nature by building this fabulous wash house in one of the most arid places in the universe.
29 storerooms were built at the top of the mountain, each lengthening 27 meters. Archaeological excavations revealed hundreds of pottery pieces with huge amounts of food. Thus, by a rare combination of natural conditions and man labor, Masada became a nearly unconquerable location.
Herod carved 12 gigantic water holes in the western edge of the cliff of Masada, where flood water were gathered. The size of all water holes combined is 40,000 square meters. This was a huge amount of water that provided all Masada residents with enough water to drink,bathe and swim, and even grow vegetables.
The water holes are spread into two lines – the top line is located 80 meters below the Masada peak, and the second line is located 130 meters below. Beasts of burden carried the water to the cliff top via special routes.
Masada of the Zealots
Despite the might and splendor that Herod’s buildings reflect, it seems that the most exciting findings are the small pieces of remnant left by the zealots, which enable us to understand the end of the big rebellion.
The big halls of the palaces were not suitable for families to live in, so they were turned into headquarters and public building. The building adjacent to the northern wall, which used to be a horse stable was turned into a synagogue. This is one of the earliest Jewish synagogues found, and it operated while the 2nd temple was still active. Defenders also built two water “Mikveh” places which allowed them to wash according to Jewish tradition rules.
By looking at ovens and food storage facilities, we understand that most of the residents lived inside the walls or in small huts next to the walls. Personal belongings such as pieces of clothing, baskets and food containers were found in rooms that were not torched by Romans. Many of those belongings were found in heaps alongside coals – from which we understand were meant to burn so that the Romans wouldn’t get to them.
More than 5000 coins were found in Masada, most of them date back to the time of the great rebellion. Mostly exciting are the coins that carry the Hebrew writing: “Israel shekel” and “holy Jerusalem”. The coins also state the year of the great rebellion in which they were created. Apart from those coins, pieces of scrolls and some 700 ostracons (scriptured pottery) were found.
Hundreds of Catapult stones that were fired by Roman soldiers, human skeletons (probably Zealots’) that spread throughout the mountain, and big rolling stones testify of the intensity of the fight between Romans and Zealots.
The Roman siege system remained nearly intact surrounding the Masada. From the top of the cliff, one can easily wive the camp grounds, the embankment ground, and the various routes and towers the fighters used. The total length of the double wall that surrounded Masada is 2 kilometers, and it is 2 meters wide. The Roman siege system is surprisingly big, if you consider that it was aimed at 960 people who defended the Masada, some of them were children and women. This reflects the strength of the Masada cliff and the persistence shown by defending Jewish fighters – the Zealots.
The Israel Parks and Nature authority puts great efforts and resources into preserving the Masada, and makes use of the best researchers and technologies worldwide. The reconstructing of collapsed walls and buildings recreate the original Masada. Reconstructing and preservation is made with the original construction materials which were used to build Masada. This form of reconstruction is especially important when handling wall paintings, mosaics and artistic elements.
Access to Masada peak
Today, Masada peak is accessible by a cable cart or by one of two walking paths:
1. The embankment path – a steep, but short and convenient path that goes all the way up from the western parking lot (Access Through Arad). It was re-opened by monks in the Byzantine era. It overcomes a 100 meter height difference, and takes 20 minutes to climb.
2. The snake trail – a long path that overcomes a 350 meters height difference. It is wide and convenient, and goes all the way up from the Masada eastern parking lot. It takes 45 minutes to climb.
The Audio-Visual spectacle
The Audion Visual Spectacle takes place in Masada national park during the months of March – October on Tuesday and Thursday. The spectacle tells the story of the last Jewish settlers of Masada. The Masada cliff – on its western side serves as background to this magnificent spectacle.
At the dawn of the 3rd millennium, The Dead Sea area continues to search for its identity in between the spirit of the desert, and the permanent and growing life in the middle east. It is an area where dreams and ideas are created on one hand, and the will to live a peaceful quiet life exists on the other hand.
The Dead Sea is one of the finalists in the Seven Natural Wonders of the World campaign. Come see the Dead Sea like never before on the Dead Sea Website for the new7wonders campaign. Join our Facebook group to support the dead sea in the new7wonders campaign.