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March 5, 2012March 5, 2012  0 comments  Biblical Archaeology

There's a good reason why back in 2001 UNESCO selected Masada as the first historic venue in Israel to be bestowed with its coveted World Heritage Site status - the national park is simply a must visit for first-time visitors to the Holy Land. But with the recent opening of new amenities and a spectacular museum, Masada has also become one of Israel's premier tourist attractions for repeat visitors.



Herod's winter home, Masada; photo courtesy Travelujah.


While an underground parking lot, spotless bathrooms, elevators, souvenir stores and a modern food hall including McDonald's are nice upgrades for mass tourism, the true new draw is the interactive museum. Dedicated to the memory of Prof. Yigal Yadin who excavated the Second Temple Era site from 1963 to 1965, the museum houses more than 700 artifacts excavated at the 2,000-year-old Judean Desert palace and fortress by the Dead Sea. Among them are a piece of tallit (prayer shawl), and Roman arrowheads - some with their wooden shafts still attached.

To view the 12 ostraca - shards of pottery each bearing a single Hebrew name, which may have been used as the death lots in the final moments of the Jewish rebels' last act of defiance against the Roman army - is to feel a shiver of recognition at the enormity of Jewish history.

The museum, designed by Eliav Nahlieli, uses a series of nine three-dimensional tableaux to suggest the settings where the artifacts on display would have been used. Visitors, equipped with audio headsets (in either Hebrew or English), pass from one gallery to the next, viewing black, life-size statue-like figures engaged in activity. Thus one passes from a Herodian banquet to the synagogue frequented by the 950 Jewish rebels during their years of refuge atop the mountain - from when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. until the community's mass suicide three years later on the eve of General Flavius Silva's final assault by his 9,000 legionnaires and their slaves.

The last room suggests the difficult field conditions for Yadin and his international army of volunteers as they painstakingly excavated the remote mountain - and forged a national myth with its leitmotif "Masada shall not fall again."

Created with a $1-million donation by Shuki Levy, a Tel Aviv-born music composer now living in Los Angeles, the new museum is part of a broader restoration program of the UNESCO World Heritage Site initiated by Israel's Nature and Parks Authority, including upgrading the cable car to the top of mountain, which towers more than 400 meters above the Dead Sea.

While there is a wealth of material artifacts discovered at the site and the eight Roman army camps which ring in (the world's best preserved Roman siege works), including frescoes, mosaics and Legionnaire's uniforms, there is only a single literary source about Masada - The Jewish War, a Greek-language history written by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish general turned renegade who ended up living out his days in Rome at the villa of Vespasian.

Historians are divided on the reliability of Josephus' text. Did the mass suicide he describes actually occur, or was it a literary invention? No bones were found to substantiate the legend. But in a sense the question of mass suicide is secondary. Here at Masada one viscerally sees how Jewish sovereignty ended and two millennia of exile began.

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The feel of Masada changes according to the time of day and the seasons. While summer temperatures can soar past 100 Fahrenheit in the shade - hence the cable car that connects the visitors center to the mountain plateau - summer visitors will be rewarded for ascending the Snake Path in the pre-dawn darkness to watch the spectacular sunrise over the mountains of Moab in Jordan. Try to finish your tour before 10 a.m. and descend by the cable car when the heat becomes unbearable.

But if you have the luxury of visiting between November and April, the weather at Masada can be balmy. Regardless of the season, hikers must bring a 1.5 liter bottle of water and a hat. While no food is allowed on top of the mountain, refrigerated water is dispensed free at several spots. Make sure to top up!

Less challenging than the Snake Path is the Roman Ramp on the west side of the site. This can only be accessed from Rte. 3199 via Arad. The road dead ends at Masada and does not connect to Rte. 90.

Opera afficianados won't want to miss the Carmen Opera Festival under the baton of Daniel Oren being held on the plain facing the desert palace. Three performances are slated June 7-11 while the hit fusion pop band The Idan Raichel Project is performing June 8.

In 2010, 42,617 people saw Verdi's Nabucco at Masada's first opera festival. That number grew to 45,600 fans who took in Aida last year. This year's spectacle promises to be even bigger. See http://www.carmen-at-masada.com/

If you go:
The easiest way to reach Masada is the daily tour from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and this tour is offered daily and can be booked online on Travelujah.com. The tour includes a visit to the Dead Sea as well.

Independent travelers can reach Masada by Egged bus from both cities. The earliest bus departs Jerusalem at 7 a.m., meaning that in the summer months it will already be too hot to climb the Snake Path by the time the bus bulls in at 8:45.

An alternative suggestion for independent travelers is to stay overnight at the Masada Guest House. (These very comfortable lodges are no longer called youth hostels though they can get noisy with boisterous teens.) See

Another choice is Kfar ha-Nokdim - an ersatz Bedouin encampment where one can ride camels, join a drum circle and sleep under the desert stars in the summer.

Another  recommendation is to hire a private guide with an air-conditioned car. This will enable you to pack in a full day's itinerary of places few tourists visit such as the Inn of the Good Samaritan site to see the new Good Samaritan Museum on Rte. 1 leading to the Dead Sea, and the Mount of Temptations near the Jordan River. Time permitting you can splash in the waterfalls of the Ein Gedi oasis, float in the Dead Sea and finish the day eating scrumptious lamb chops at a grill restaurant in Jericho.

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Gil Zohar writes for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian travel network focused on Holy Land tours.  He is a licensed tour guide and journalist. He may be reached at GilZohar@rogers.com.



Tags: masada judean desert 

December 1, 2010December 1, 2010  0 comments  attractions

The stark beauty of the place is noticeable from the moment you get out of the car or bus. The Wadi Qelt area of the Judean desert forms an oasis of sheer beauty and certainly seems to have been a fitting place for Joachim and Anne to have stood and prayed to God for the Virgin Mary.


St. George Monastery

But for Manahem and Iguem, two pilgrims from Russia, the beauty of the area is a secondary concern. They made the trip to St. George's Monastery, in a remote part of the West Bank, not because of the scenery but because "we revere the saints," they explain to Travelujah. For them, it's all about visiting the holy places, places where biblical characters walked and lived, where they prayed and where their prayers were answered.

Asked to comment further on what they felt was so special about this place, why this place in particular when other churches or monasteries might be easier to visit, the priest and nun from central Russia simply smiled and said "it's a holy place, of course we want to come."

Their devotion and that of the thousands of other visitors to this remote sanctuary, named for Saint George, a 6th century Cypriot priest who came here around one hundred years after the place was initially built, had been severely tested over the past few years. That's because the ancient road leading to the monastery, dating from the time of the Ottoman Empire, had been severely damaged by an earthquake and winter storms in the area.

The road had provided an all important access point to the ancient monastery, which is carved into the side of a mountain and accessible even now only through a narrow, winding road followed by a long, winding foot path leading down (and up, when you leave) the side of a rather high mountain (at least 700 feet).

The area might have remained largely inaccessible, languishing between the government of Israel, which controls the area and the Palestinian Authority, who sees any encroachment on the West Bank by the Israelis as an affront, given that they want the same land to build their state. However, a special request by His Beatitude, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theopholis III to the Israeli Tourism Ministry spurred efforts along to find funds to rebuild the road.

Group of Monks taking ride to St. Georges

"We are not in the business of building roads," Mr. Rafi Ben Hur, the Senior Deputy Director-General at the Israeli Tourism Ministry explains. "However, in this case, we felt we had to make an effort [to find the funds]." According to official reports, 1.76 million Israeli Shekels (around $480,000) was invested by the ministry to rebuild the road and to install new retaining walls and culverts to divert future rainstorm waters so that the monastery will continue to be accessible for tourists and pilgrims alike.

"The area has been rebuilt and is open for tourists, pilgrims and Palestinians alike," Mr. Ben Hur was careful to stress. "We want this place to be a bridge for peace and we hope that through this new effort, [the pilgrims who come will be] emissaries of peace."

Seeing the smiling faces of Manahem and Iguem as they soak in the atmosphere while Theopholis III and Archbishop Aristrachos, both of the Greek Orthodox Church, offer benedictions in the sanctuary, it certainly seems like Mr. Ben Hur's wish may come to fruition.

Eric Hammer is an author and journalist living in central Israel. His work has appeared in several regional  newspapers. He writes frequently for Travelujah.

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