Hugging the coastline, I drove the length of the upper part of the Dead Sea. Timeless and untouched by human endeavor, except for the road and a handful of beaches and palm orchards. The stillness of the Dead Sea lay at the feet of the towering mountains and craggy cliff faces.
My destination: Masada. A plateau atop one of the mountain ranges discovered by Herod. Wanting a retreat from the world, he had built a palace and fortress here in the 1st century BCE. After Jerusalem fell in 70 ACE, about 1000 zealots and refugees retreated to this mighty city in the middle of what could be called nowhere, yet felt more like the middle of God’s creation - majestic, barren, stark and utterly breathtaking in its beauty.
Quite the operation, we were led in groups, divided by which language we spoke (Hebrew, Russian, German, Chinese, Greek, English, Spanish…) into a room where we saw a short film on the history of Masada and then from there exited onto an aerial tram. About 50 of us crammed into a cable car that climbed through the air up to the top of the mountain. There was a trail: Snake trail, so named because of how it snakes up the mountain to the East Gate, called “Snake Gate.” I figured it would take the better part of a morning and a lot of exertion to scale the cliff and reach the top so I opted for the five-minute aerial tram ride.
Next to the East Gate, the main entrance, is the Commander’s Quarters so he could view all the comings and goings as well as the storerooms. Huge warehouses, row after row, built of stone lay side by side along the northern end of the plateau. Warehouses for food, cloth, ammunition... All had been thought out on how to live on top of this plateau.
There was a synagogue, living quarters, rooms for livestock, leathermaking, a dovecote – well everything needed for city life – for it was larger than a village. It could take a half hour to walk from the North to the South end of the plateau. Herod’s palace quarters were cut into the face of the North end. Three floors of 1st century BC grandeur. I thought of the workers needed, the hauling of materials across the Dead Sea, the cost and labor harnessed for this incredible feat. Did they enjoy their task? Was this an adventure for them or servitude?
All sides and corners and locations of the plateau presented breathtaking views of the mountains and the sea. Three hundred sixty degrees of naked splendor. From the balcony of Herod’s palace, I was reminded of the castles in the movie, Lord of the Rings. Otherworldly – perched atop the threshold of all creation. Looking out from this balcony I had a feeling of power and of smallness, feeling a sense of responsibility to steward and an overwhelming feeling that all will unfold as it will and any effort of mine will be like a pebble rolling down a hill trying to shape the flow and speed of an avalanche, or as a drop of water trying to change the course of a rushing river.
Standing there I felt how I am simply part of some majestic unfolding of creation that is simply witnessed by humanity across millennia and memory. Was this what Herod felt? I doubt it. Given how he ruled, he probably felt like he was king of it all and this place gave him some distance from his Roman overlords, the intrigue, politics and the complex responsibilities of running a kingdom that was not ultimately under his control.
The West Gate led to a mountain range even higher up. The view from this Gate revealed the great system concocted for collecting water, with a strategy far more sophisticated and imaginative than the Essenes. Water was directed from the hills into long troughs cut deep into the wall of the mountain. Tunnels had been dug from the vast cisterns, pools and ritual baths on the plateau to this western wall. The water than flowed through the troughs into the tunnels and filled up the enormous pools. There was a scaled model that demonstrated how this worked. I marveled at the ingenuity.
I was atop the plateau for nearly five hours. Time did not exist up there. Everything felt slowed down, distilled to its essence. Each moment extended and extended – it extended from an experience of savoring the moment – a feeling of gratitude for the sensory experience of each event that was happening.
Every movement had my full attention and was a complete experience. I watched as the shadows of the clouds passing overhead, seeming to lumber like dark beasts across the mountains and down across the desert floor toward the sea. The sound of the gravel beneath my feet, the breath of the wind across my skin. A black raven glided across the canyon in front of me; I followed his flight until he disappeared from sight. I took a drink of water and felt its coolness move across my tongue and down my throat. A bite of food burst with flavor.
Each moment felt deliberate and specific. Anything that moved or made a sound drew attention. Here I had eyes to see and ears to hear. I found no distractions from being present. Absorbed in the immensity of the landscape, it altered my perception of myself, time and what I have come to know as life.
Everything was reduced to its essence. There was a purity there. Time expanded. I began to comprehend the Jewish value of purity. This place rang with purity and I felt purified being there. It felt complete. I felt complete.
The desert cliffs and peaks, valleys and length of blue sea were endless. As I turned and turned, the landscape towered, held, confronted and enamored. The perception of space was without end. I fathomed eternity.
As I said earlier, the Zealot rebel fighters and refugees fled to this plateau after Jerusalem fell in 70AD. The Romans marched across Israel. The Galilee ran with the blood of its people. The Qumran community was destroyed. This plateau was the last refuge and the last stand. 1000 rebels and refugees took advantage of all that Herod had built and with it created their own community, their own defenses, and a way of life.
There would have been the noises of life, work and relations on the plateau, but still the immense silence that towers all around would have been palpable at any time. The eye catches any movement, human, bird or cloud. In 73 AD, I can only imagine the sight and sound of the Romans marching across the desert towards them made a deafening sound. They would have been spotted perhaps a day away. The sound of armor and boots would have been alarming even if I had felt comforted knowing this fortress atop a cliff was impenetrable.
But of course the Romans were great engineers with an unbeatable military. They built a wooden tower as tall as the mountain. They were patient, persistent. Then they light it afire. The fire blew into the West Gate and the gate tumbled. As the Gate burned, the sun was setting, so the Romans decided to get a good night’s sleep before storming the fortress of Masada.
Inside the fortress that night, a decision was reached. The leader of the community said it would be better to die free than to be taken as slaves by the Romans. It was agreed. All the men first killed their wives and children and then themselves. They left lots, or stones, with their names on them.
When the Romans stormed the fortress the next morning they found all the inhabitants dead except for a woman and a couple children who had hidden themselves away. Thinking there would be hand to hand battle within the gates, the Romans were ready for a bloody, well-earned victory and instead were stunned as they came upon silence and the mass suicide.
Israel today remembers and honors the 1000 who made the last stand against the Romans and then took their lives rather than be captured and enslaved. Jewish youth, today, as part of their training and vow upon entering the military swear that ‘Masada will not fall again.’
Near the end of my afternoon on the plateau, storm clouds seemed to gather slowly and all at once. The wind stirred and made it difficult to walk on the plateau. When the rains unleashed, it washed all the other tourists away. I stayed under a shelter to feel the dance of the elements within this fierce, wondrous landscape untouched by time. And I felt the particular history of this plateau – a testament to the ingenuity, strength of heart, bravery and purity of a courageous people that lived and died free within it.