Climbing Mount Masada, Israel
Mount Masada sits high above sea level alongside the Dead Sea in Israel. It is a natural flat topped rock, providing great visibility of the surrounding western end of the Judean desert and the country of Jordan, which sits on the opposite side of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth above ground, and Mount Masada sits approximately 1300 ft above the Dead Sea.
The word masada means fortress or stronghold in Hebrew. Sometime around 31-37BCE, Herod built an elaborate fortress atop Mount Masada, constructing what in his time would have been elaborate, sumptuous living quarters, including a stately bath house. An elaborate drainage system carried rainwater from nearby wadis (streams)west of Masada, into 12 enormous storage cisterns on the NW slope of the mountain. (Some locals and tourists have jokingly referred to this fortress as Herodís Vacation Spa and Retreat.)
Long after Herod left the scene, around 70 CE, Jerusalem fell completely under Roman rule. Jewish resistance fighters fled to Mount Masada, and turned it into a rebel base. When they refused to leave the fortress as ordered, around 72CE, the Roman governor Flavius Silva set up an encampment outside the walls of the fortress, and with the mighty Tenth Legion, lay siege to the Jewish rebel stronghold. Up until that time, there was only one way to reach the top of the mountain, along a 950 foot long snaking path. It was well defended by the rebels. So the Tenth Legion built an enormous ramp along the western side of Masada, and with enormous battering rams, attempted to breach the defenses of the band of Jewish rebels. The siege lasted three years, longer than Rome had expected. The Jewish rebels had a huge stock of food, and the huge cisterns supplied all their water needs. And they were very determined to remain free of Roman rule. As the story is recorded by the Roman historian Josephus, most of the 900+ Jews of Masada committed suicide rather than be captured by the Romans, after the Roman garrison finally breached the walls and entered the fortress. This version of the final battle of Masada is disputed by some modern historians, who suggest that recent archaelogical findings dispute some of Josephusí accounts of the battle. There are some indications that not all the Jews willingly committed suicide, for as many as 25 skeletons were found in a cave alongside a steep southern slope, in a difficult to reach spot which may have served as a hiding place. But the end result was the same. There appeared to have been only five children and two women survivors, who had been found hiding in a cistern. We can never really know for sure what happened, as their story was not officially recorded except as reported by Romeís official historian, Josephus.
With this as background, I offer you my experience of Mount Masada, from my visit there in the early fall of 1971. I lived in Israel for almost a year, working on Kibbutz Ein Ha Horesh, which is located near the towns of Hadera and Netanya. During my year as a volunteer worker, I visited many places of historical note, including several trips to Jerusalem. One of my most intense experiences took place the day I climbed the 950 foot snake path to the top of Mount Masada, in the wee early morning hours in order to view the sunrise as it peeked over Mt. Moab, Jordan on the opposite side of the Dead Sea. I had expected to be thrilled, considering the anticipated view and the history of the Middle East. I had also expected to be breathless after the somewhat strenuous climb. But I had not expected to be chilled to the bone by what I can only describe as a mystical experience that took place that day.
As I climbed the snake path, my mind as well as my feet tread over the well worn hand-hewn stones, where thousands from the past had passed before me on their climb to the top of Mount Masada. In the darkness, the meandering path was lit only by moonlight and a few 20th century flashlights. The cool morning air made the one hour climb bearable. With each step I felt my head and heart lighten, and my thoughts wandered backwards in time, connecting with ancient souls whose feet had climbed these steps, some seeking freedom to follow their political and religious beliefs without persecution. But the souls and spirits of Romans, Arabs, Jews, and thousands of tourists seemed to intermingle in the surrounding air. My mind was caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.
After reaching the top of the mountain, I was quite breathless. Then the suddenness of the rising Sun nearly overwhelmed my senses. I had expected something wonderful and was not disappointed, as the morning sunrise was majestic beyond my wildest dreams. Within minutes, the sunlight was so brilliant and intense I had to shield my eyes from this glory of God. I was completely enveloped by history and the magnificance of nature. But it was no longer 1971 in my mind. For the spirits of thousands of past souls were encircling my body, and transporting me back in time. I looked around, and for a moment, I was disoriented. After all, I had never been here before, and yet it felt so incredibly familiar. Ah, you might say, you had done your homework and read much of the history of the place. But the fact is, I was never a history buff, and knew very little about Masada until that day. Our rather large kibbutz had successfully hired a great tour guide, who was steeped in both archaelogy and the history of Israel. We knew he could answer all our questions with the best available knowledge. Excavations of the ancient ruins were still in progress, having only begun in the mid 1960ís. There are many more areas of Masada that are now accessible. At the time of my visit, the ruins were only partly uncovered. Herodís magnificent quarters were not yet available for public viewing.
As we began our guided tour of the ruins, I felt chilled, even in the warmth of the sun. I assumed I must be on the verge of a flu or cold virus, so I moved slowly, following along with our group, listening to our guide. I was almost giddy, and the climb had tired me more than I had expected. I suddenly became aware of the scent of warm fresh baked bread. No one else seemed to smell it, and of course, we were miles from the nearest bakery. I stopped and notice a depression in some stone walls, that looked like a small oven. About that time, our guide motioned us to look at the ďbakeryĒ of Masada. I told him I had already smelled the aroma of fresh bread. He laughed, and told me another tourist had said the same thing recently, from a different tour group. I shrugged my shoulders, and chalked it up to my vivid imagination. We all laughed and continued following the guide. A few moments later, I became shaky and had to stop. One of my friends had to catch me, as I nearly fainted. The air had become very dry and warm, and perhaps I was just thirsty. Yes, I was very, very thirsty. After a few sips from my canteen, I felt ready to continue. Suddenly, I interrupted the tour guide, and asked him if we were on the way to the water cisterns next. He smiled and said yes. But as he hadnít yet told the group thatís where we were headed, he wanted to know if I had been to Masada before. I said no. But I said it with great hesitation, and my voice was shaky. So I asked him to stop for a moment, and answer a question or two. He listened patiently as I described the steps that led into the cistern, and told him how many steps there would be leading down along a sidewall into the cistern, and proceeded to describe the interior of the cistern. He just stared at me, and said. ďLetís go see how close you are in your description.Ē It was exactly as I had described it, including the angle of the shaft of light shining in through a small opening at the top of the cistern. I nearly fainted again. I offered no explanation. I could not speak, and was completely overcome by the experience. I kept hearing a girls voice that day, whispering secrets in my ear, telling me she was still there. I am not of Jewish, Arab, or Roman ancestry, and I had never visited Masada before that day. To this day, I have no solid explanation, and even my memory of going into the cistern is now a little fuzzy. But on that day, it was as if I had been there before. A friend I met later in life believed I was being used as a medium or channel, and the spirit of a previous resident of Masada was communicating through me. And now a part of me remains atop Mount Masada, although I never went back for another visit.
On our return trip toward the kibbutz, driving along the dusty Judean desert road, I had another sensation of knowing where things were, without having ever been there before. I asked the guide a few questions, specifically about a turnoff up ahead on the right that led in at an angle a few kilometers and then stopped...seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I was not the least bit surprised when I was told another new archaelogical dig was going on at the end of that road. I did not go to that site, although I had been invited to work on that dig. I somehow knew what they would find there would match the images in my mind.
It is events such as this that have re-enforced in my mind, the notion...no, the belief, that we are all united in one cosmic energy source beyond the realm of our visible Earth and galaxy. I donít call it Heaven, nor do I call it Hell even when it scares it out of me. But I do believe in the Unity of everything and everyone. You are part of me, I am part of you, and we are all connected. I suppose thatís why I cannot accept some of the cruel things we do to one another, and how we can continually rape the planet, perhaps thinking there will be another one to come along some day so we may rescue us from ourselves. And it is this sense of the Unity of All that makes me focus on Love, Compassion, and Respect for everything that surrounds us, for all animals, plants, and minerals. We are all One.