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

Center map
Get Directions