Just as many people incorrectly assume that indigenous populations of people still run around in flaxen skirts, so I have found that many people also assume that the Middle East is a hot place. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Israel this and the mercury was sitting at a belligerent 16 degrees Celsius as our tour bus pulled up to the Dead Sea. With an overcast sky and scattered rain dotting the distance, our arrival at the saltiest mecca on the planet left much to be desired.
Disembarking the tour bus, we found ourselves at the equivalent of a beachside resort. Unfortunately, this beachside resort had seen better days, but I guess that with our visit coinciding with the middle of winter, the owners weren’t too fussed with ensuring that the resort looked spic and span. Regardless of the ratty looking facilities, we Antipodeans made full use of the amenities and after some hasty changing and some pics with some local women (“We gonna post these pics on the net so that our divorced husbands can see we don’t care”), quickly found ourselves immersed – well something to that effect – in the waters of the Dead Sea.
Now the Dead Sea’s mineral content is literally one third of its composition, making it one of the most hypersaline lakes in the world. This environment is also extremely hostile to all forms of life and consequently, only some ridiculously tough bacteria and a whole bunch of tourists make their homes within its waters. The lake itself has been drying up at an alarming rate but that hasn’t seemed to put a dampener on any of its therapeutic properties with many thousands testifying to the uniquely skin enriching qualities of the water and mud. As the New Zealand contingent rushed past the nervous looking Korean tourists and lifeguards towards the warm waters of the sea, most would have thought that we were attempting to escape the soaring heat of an Israeli summer. Yet the temperature, or lack-there-of, was no deterrent to our hardy group, and soon virtually the whole contingent was floating across the surface of the oily sheen.
After approximately an hour of frolicking in the water, an experience that included an attempt to body surf (the storms around the lake had kicked of some small waves), and the obligatory mud soak, we found our time at the Dead Sea had come to an end. For me, this could not have come sooner as I had inadvertently splashed myself in the eyes with the toxic waters of the Dead Sea. Now to say that this was an uncomfortable experience would be a euphemism in its most insincere form. The truth is – with no hint of hyperbole – that getting splashed in the eyes with Dead Sea water is akin to rubbing a mixture of salt granules, lemon juice and tabasco sauce in one’s eyes with a toothbrush. Needless to say, with my eyes burning, I quickly made a frantic exit up the beach, lurching zombie-like through the shallow waters over the sharp but slippery salt rocks that festooned the bottom of the lake. I then immersed my head under one of the handy shower heads close to the shore to rid my eyes of the pure evil that had engulfed them.
After an experience resembling the fate of Lot’s wife, it was a with some relief that I found myself back on the bus and able to skol down large amounts of glorious water. Soon after, the clouds literally parted and the floods that had closed the road to Masada subsided. My historical nerd, as you can imagine, was at this point doing exuberant cartwheels and the long drive down the Dead Sea seemed to occur in an instant. Suddenly, looming out of the cliffs on the western side of the sea, appeared a natural citadel which could only be the fabled desert fortress.
Masada, the unique heritage site, was built by Herod the Great sometime around mid-30 BCE on a previous but rudimentary fortification. The structure is built at the top of a large cliff-top plateau that only has one access point, making the refuge impossible to attack by any normal means. Josephus, the turn-coat Jewish-Roman historian, stated that Herod built Masada to provide shelter in times of revolt. Herod needed to worry about this on two fronts. Firstly, Herod had conquered the original Jewish monarchs, the Hasmoneans, and the Roman senate subsequently installed him on the Judean Throne. Thus, as a vassal of the Roman Empire it is hardly surprising that the Jewish people were not exactly enamoured with their puppet king. Secondly, Herod had made an enemy out of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and she made no secret of the fact that she wanted control of Judea.
Outside of the reasons for its creation, what stands out is the sheer scale of the fortress. While ruins remain where once palaces (yes, multiple), administration buildings, storehouses and barracks stood, little imagination is required to envisage how splendid the site must have been in its heyday. Ensuring that the population in Masada was watered, Herod had an entire valley damned in the surrounding mountains and also had an ingenious drainage system on the mountain created to fill a number of gigantic cisterns. These cisterns would have been able to keep the population on Masada watered for up to ten years.
Yet despite all its ingenuity, the seemingly unconquerable Masada was not only defeated, but was crushed by the Romans in 73-74 CE. The fortress had fallen from Roman hands sometime early in the First Roman-Jewish Revolt when the Sicarii, an extremely militant offshoot of the anti-Roman Jewish Zealots, overran the Roman garrison on the mountain. Over the next few years, around 1,000 Jewish insurgents and refugees found asylum at Masada. When the Romans began to mop up the last pockets of Jewish resistance in the 70s, Masada was laid siege by a force of 15,000 Romans who at first were unable to breach the extensive defences of the fortress.
The siege and attack of the impenetrable fortress by the Romans is something that can only be understood with the naked eye. Standing at the top of the citadel, the remains of the Roman camps and siege wall are still evident almost two millennia after the final assault. The height and complexity of Masada made any direct assault suicide and so the Roman siege general, Lucius Flavius Silva, ordered an earthen ramp built against the western wall of the mountain. This 114-metre-high ramp enabled a siege tower with a battering ram to eventually breech Masada’s walls and allow the Roman army access onto the Plateau.
Here, legend states, the Roman army was not faced by the Jewish rebels, but by mass suicide. Josephus writes that instead of falling victim to the tyranny of the Romans, the Jewish rebels drew lots and killed every last man, woman and child in the fortress. Not to be outdone by the lack of battle, the Roman army then sacked the settlement, setting fire to the buildings and pillaging what they could find.
Regardless of the narrative and the historical debate that surrounds its authenticity, Masada truly must be seen to be believed. It’s size and the scale of the Roman siege remains are astounding. So it was with some disappointment that our time at Masada came to an end and we were ushered down the mountain inside the massive cable car. At the time, I felt like I had only just begun to explore the incredible site and there is still a massive desire to return and appreciate the historical place and all it can reveal. Till then, I’ll have to rely on my photographs and overly active imagination.