Masada & Qumran

Masada (May 3)

Masada is a fortress and palace built by King Herod the Great as a refuge if there was ever a revolt. It was built between 37 and 31 BCE.

Model of King Herod's Palace

The cliffs are about 1000 feet high, but fortunately, there's a cable car.

Of course, there's always the option of walking up the so called "Snake Trail". The name comes from the winding nature of the trail, not because there are snakes. We opted for the cable car !

Walkers on the Snake Trail

It's quite flat on top, as well as dry and dusty and usually quite windy. There are paths between all the major sites.

The top of Masada

Once at the top, you can look out over the desert below. These are all members of our group.

Masada is best known for the siege which took place here. A Jewish sect, known as the Sicarii took over the Roman garrison in 66 CE. In 73 CE the Roman governor of Judea laid siege to the fortress. The Romans built a wall around the base of the rock and built camps for their soldiers. Remnants of the wall of the garrison can still be seen.

The remains of the Roman fort (the square outline) and the wall (in the foreground)

Once established, the Romans built  a ramp up from the valley floor, in order to attack the fortress. The ramp is still visible.

The Roman ramp. The modern pathway, on the left, is built along the side of the ramp.

Of course, the legend is that when the Jews realized that they could not stop the Romans, rather than be taken prisoner and sent into slavery, they committed mass suicide. The story was told by the Roman historian, Josephus, presumably based on reports from the Roman commanders . Josephus reported that 967 bodies were found, but more recent studies have cast doubt on some of his reporting.

Many of the buildings have been excavated and it's clear that there were substantial buildings and at least one palace built at Masada. 

This building may have been a temple

Orthodox Jews still pray here

And scholars write The Torah, which is always written by hand, never printed

It was a palace as well, with beautiful mosaics.

And of course, Roman bath houses, complete with underfloor heating.

Underfloor heating. The fire would be stoked outside the building

Even the walls had heated ducts to keep them warm

Most important were the water cisterns. Water would be collected at the bottom of the hill and carried up to the top using donkeys. Then the water would be stored in large underground cisterns like this one. This enabled the defenders to survive a siege for many months or even years.


Qumran is the place near which, between 1947 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. When the site was excavated, the archaeologists concluded that the buildings they found had been occupied by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes and hypothesized that that the Dead Sea Scrolls had been written by the Essenes and then hidden in the nearby caves, presumably to avoid discovery and destruction by the Romans.

However, more recent research casts doubt on the authorship of the scrolls and some scholars believe some or all of the scrolls may have been brought from other places. 

Sign at Qumran

Excavated buildings at Qumran

Some of these "holes" may have been ritual baths.

The cliffs in which the caves and the scrolls were located

Classic view of Cave 4. It is an artificial cave cut into the cliff face by men. 

Several hundred scrolls were found here by Bedouin who were searching for scrolls.

Qumran is located in the West Bank and although under the control of the Israeli National Parks, has not been well developed, presumably because the Israelis are concerned the Palestinians may take the site back at some time in the future. Nevertheless, as the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, it is very significant.

After leaving Qumran, we traveled to our hotel located on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where we watched the sun going down. 

Sunset over the Sea of Galilee