The Fortress of Masada

Masada ruins

I can’t imagine a more inhospitable place to build a palace than Masada in Israel.  It is on a butte hundreds of feet above the Judean Desert.  Sheer cliff walls surround the top of the butte.  A narrow path called the Snake Path winds its way up the cliff’s side.  There is a nice view of the Dead Sea from the top, but the heat is unbearable in summer.  How did they get water up here?  What were they thinking?  Surely, a palace along the Mediterranean Sea would be better.

view from Masada in Israel
A view from Masada

Herod the Great had the palace built in 37 B.C. as a redoubt in case of trouble in Judea.  If he had to flee Jerusalem, at least he could still live in style in this palace in the sky.  In fact there were four palaces on the site, so that four of his wives could live separately.  Maybe the plan wasn’t so bad after all…

He never visited the place.  Instead, the last remnant of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, approximately 1,200 men, women and children, fled there in 70 A.D.  It was the perfect stronghold.  It was easy to defend from attackers trying to scamper up the Snake Path one or two at a time.  Herod had stored water in large cisterns and there was plenty of Spam and baked beans in the cellar (or whatever food could be stored in those times).

Another Masada view
Another Masada view

The Romans were too proud to allow the remaining rebels to stay there so they marshaled their forces and laid siege.  Three Roman legions (about 48,000 men) set up camp in the valley below. They tried everything in their bag of siege tricks to capture the fortress, as shown in the 1970s movie called Masada.

The Jews held out for three years.  Eventually, after a moving speech by their leader, they chose to commit suicide rather than live as Roman slaves.  Each man killed his wife and children.  Only two women and two children survived.

Masada ruins
Ruins of Herod's Palaces in Masada, Israel

The Romans destroyed the place.  Almost 2,000 years later, not much remains of Herod’s palaces except for a few walls and cisterns.  Yet the dramatic story of the rebels lives on.  It is passed down through the generations of Israelis with the phrase “Sheynit Masada lo tipul,” which means “Masada shall not fall again.”

Visitors no longer have to hike up the Snake Path to the top of Masada.  A cable car whisks you to the top in a couple of minutes.  Even so, when visiting in the summer bring sun screen and lots of water!

desert landscape
Desert landscape surrounding Masada

Our tour guide to Masada was excellent.  His name is Shraga Rosensaft.  If you are visiting Israel and would like a personable, interesting, and expert guide, please contact him at or

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Floating in the Dead Sea


The feeling is ethereal.  You don’t notice anything different as you walk into the water.  Go in past your knees as you could be in any lake in the world.  But take a few more steps, until the water is up to your waist, and then sit back like you are in a chair.  Relax.  Let your arms go out to your sides.  You’re floating in the Dead Sea, at the lowest place on Earth.

Relaxing in the Dead Sea

The Israelis call this lake the Salt Sea.  It’s known everywhere else as the Dead Sea because of the belief that it is so salty that nothing can live in the water.  Scientists have proven that that’s not true because there are some microorganisms that have adapted to this extreme environment.  Ocean water is approximately 4% salt.  The water of the Dead Sea is approximately 38% salt.  This change in chemistry affects the buoyancy of anything floating in it.

Salt from the Dead Sea in Israel
The salt washes up on shore at the Dead Sea

Like me.  Sitting in the chair position without moving is easy and very relaxing.  I can also tilt back and extend my body to lie flat on my back without effort.  I am hesitant to put head back in the water because the guide told us not to get any water splashed into our eyes.  At such a high salt content, the water would badly sting your eyes.  I can’t comfortably open my eyes under sea water, so I am taking no chances.  I keep my sunglasses on.  As I move my body to lie flat on my stomach, I quickly realize that’s a bad idea without goggles.

I paddle out a little farther into deeper water.  I can’t touch the bottom.  I try to stand up straight like a pole without moving, my arms at my side.  I hang there like a clothespin on a line, gently swaying with the breeze.  I tilt back and forth a little with the slight waves.

Resorts on the Dead Sea
A resort on the shore of the Dead Sea

Having approximate neutral buoyancy to your body is a strange feeling.  I have taken scuba diving lessons and have gone diving about 15 times.   With scuba diving equipment called a BCD (buoyancy compensation device), while underwater you can either add air to your vest or let air out of your vest to control buoyancy.  If you add too much you start to rise in the water, too little and you start to sink.  Getting to neutral buoyancy is a skill that divers work on.  It can be hard to get it exactly right.

The feeling is the same when floating in the Dead Sea, but you’re not underwater and no equipment is required.  Just walk in to the water and relax…

Camel in Israel
A camel at sea level in Israel
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