It was 3am when we awoke. Darkness engulfed us as we left Jerusalem behind us and wounded down the valley towards the ancient desert fortress of Masada. Poised at the edge of the Judean Desert, Masada looms above the sands, overlooking the Dead Sea and the Moab Mountains in Jordan. At just 1,300 feet high, it’s perfect for a morning hike – providing a crash course in history and offering panoramic views of the surroundings.
In the darkness, we found our way up the Snake Path, a steep and winding dirt track that weaves it way along the mountain’s slope up to the top of the rock plateau where the desert fortress sits. Built around 37 and 31 BC, the fortress was home to Herod the Great and his massive troop. A flurry of majestic baths, synagogues, and amphitheaters were erected during its heydays. At the end of the Roman war, Masada was unfortunately sieged by the Romans and it resulted in the mass suicide of its 960 Jewish troops. But the ruins of the fortress still stand today.
We clambered over the rocky steps, up the steep slope, with the howling wind blowing against us. Along the way, we constantly looked behind our shoulders to see the vast Judean Desert, its gorges and palm trees fading further and further away beneath us. While we started the trek in darkness, daylight came soon enough and the temperature rose to a comfortable level. It took us just over an hour of walking to get to the top but with the cloudy sky, the sunrise sadly eluded us. Thankfully the view and historical sights more than made up for it.
The View From Above
From the top of Masada, we feasted on a 360-degree view of the area. With the Snake Path beneath our feet, we could see the Judean Desert stretching ahead and the Dead Sea shimmering in the far distance. Behind it sprawled the mountains of Jordan. As we made our way around the ruins of the fortress, we saw the Masada Gorge plunging vertically into a giant crack. Over on the other side of the plateau was an even more stunning sight of the surrounding mountains and steep gorges that roll down towards the sandy desert.
The views aside, Masada’s rich history is impressive. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Masada’s ruins are the most complete examples of a Roman siege in the world. Covering an area of around 1,800 feet by 900 feet, the desert fortress sprawls across the entire plateau top and consists of many features like camps, walls and ramps. Many parts of the fortress including the Northern Palace (where you can still see the original mosaics) are extremely well protected. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has invested great resources in conservation at Masada, with the help of world-renowned experts – and the efforts show.
By the time we headed back down to the base of the plateau, the sun had risen over our heads and it cast a bright golden glow on the mountain as well as its surrounding desert. We drank it all in – just like its original residents probably did.
This Masada Sunrise tour also includes a visit to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and a dip in the Dead Sea. Leaving at 3am and ending at 2pm, the tour picks up and drops you at Abraham Hostel. The price for this day trip is 260 Shekels (US$70).