The rock of Masada, located at the eastern edge of the Judean desert, is a place of majestic beauty. With a sheer drop of more than 400 m (1,300 ft) overlooking the Dead Sea, Masada is the most spectacular site in Israel and the scene of one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the country.
The only written source on the history of Masada comes from Josephus Flavius’ The Jewish War. Masada (which derives from a Hebrew word for “fortress”) was first fortified by Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), one of the kings of the Hasmonean dynasty. Herod the Great captured it during the power-struggle which followed the murder of his father Antipater in 43 BC. Under the influence of Rome, king Herod the Great built a series of palaces and buildings for himself and planned the fortress as a last refuge in the event of a revolt. His Northern Palace, constructed against the northern cliff-face, is Masada’s most impressive structure. It was built on three rock terraces, each containing grand rooms and supported by gigantic retaining walls to expand their size.
From AD 6, the Romans controlled Masada but in the summer of AD 66, it became a place of refuge for Jewish rebels during the first Jewish revolt against the Rome (AD 66-73). The rebels turned the palaces into their command posts and used them as public buildings. In AD 73, the Roman governor of Judea, Lucius Flavius Silva, headed the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to Masada. The Romans succeeded in reaching the steep fortress after constructing a huge earthen ramp on its western side. The remains of the Roman siege are the most complete examples of such a siege in the world. The siege ended up in a tragic way for the zealots who decided to commit suicide rather than being captured by the Romans.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 2001, the Masada National Park features a Visitors’ Center, a fascinating interactive museum showcasing archaeological finds unearthed at Masada and a thrilling audio-visual production.
Visitors to Masada will find that there are three ways to reach the fortress; on foot by hiking up the steep“snake path” on the east side, via the siege ramp on the west side or by cable car.
Driving south from Jerusalem, the landscape is dominated by an artificial cone-shaped mountain on which Herod the Great built the fortress-palace he dedicated to himself. Herodium rises 758 metres above sea level with breathtaking views overlooking the Judean Desert as far as the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab. It is one of the most important and unique building complexes built by Herod and is considered among the most impressive structures of the ancient world.
The construction of Herodium began around 25 BC on the location of his victory over his Hasmonean and Parthian enemies in 40 BC. To commemorate the event, the king built one of the largest monarchical complexes of the Roman Empire which served as a residential palace, an administrative centre and a mausoleum. Herod built many magnificent palaces throughout the Land. These palaces included guest rooms, bathhouses, swimming pools, and luxurious gardens, all decorated in the style of the lavish palaces of Rome. It was at Herodium that Herod entertained Agrippa, the son-in-law of the emperor Augustus, in 15 BC.
Herod planned the site as a complex of palaces consisting of three parts:
1. The fortified mountain palace; The combination of fortress and palace is a uniquely Herodian innovation, which he repeated on several other sites, including Masada.
2. Lower Herodium, combining a magnificent recreation area, a bathhouse, an administrative centre, and a system of structures to serve during the king’s funeral (including the procession way).
3. The slope on the northern part of the hill where Herod built a huge three stories high mausoleum that could be seen from afar.
The search for Herod’s tomb was one of the greatest archaeological quests in Israel. The historian Josephus wrote that Herod was buried in Herodium, but archaeologists had been unable to locate the tomb until 2007. Finally, after thirty years of searching at the site, the late Prof. Ehud Netzer of the university’s Institute of Archaeology announced that he had found the tomb of Herod. What he discovered were the remains of a large tomb and opulent coffins on the northern slope of the mountain facing Jerusalem.
Following Herod’s death, his son and heir Archilaus continued to reside at Herodium. After Judea became a Roman province, the site served as a centre for Roman prefects. During the Great Revolt, the Zealots captured the fortress in AD 66 but then handed it over without resistance to the Romans following the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Fifty years later, Herodium was captured again by the rebels during the Bar Kokhva revolt. As part of their defence measures, they dug tunnels around the cisterns and hid there. During the Byzantine period, Lower Herodium was rebuilt on top of the ruins and constituted of a large village with three churches. The settlement appears to have continued until the 9th century AD after which the site was abandoned.
Today, Herodium is a national park under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. An astonishing archaeological site complete with a labyrinth of cool underground caves and tunnels, the Park recently opened a small Visitors Center with a lovely film production about King Herod and his funeral procession.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Ehud Netzer who died in October 2010 following a fall while preparing an exhibition of the findings for the Israel Museum. The exhibition “The King’s final journey” finally opened in 2013, showing Herod’s impact on the architectural landscape of the Land of Israel. More than 200 objects found at Herodian sites, including Jerusalem, Jericho, Cypros and Herodium were exhibited for the first time as well as the King’s reconstructed burial chamber.