Conquering Sunrise at Masada

It was 4:30am when my alarm went off, as I wandered out into the darkness. An Ibex appeared in silhouette, perching itself on a nearby hill, watching as we rubbed our eyes on the way to grab lukewarm coffee and some stale pastries. In the distance, the moon reflected brightly off the shimmering waters of the Dead Sea. This was morning at Ein Gedi, a supposedly-stunning nature preserve in the southern part of Israel, though I’d barely know it for it was just as dark as it was when we had arrived the night before.

Please Don't Feed the Ibex

A sign at the visitor's center in Ein Gedi

Masada

Why were up at this ungodly hour? To conquer Masada, a World Heritage Site consisting of a mountain that bears the ruins of ancient Jewish settlement that was said to have been built by King Herod. Ruins aside, the story of Masada is enough to draw in visitors.

 Legend has it that when the Romans were invading, Masada was one of the last Jewish enclaves to resist the siege because of its defensive mountain-top position. Try as they may, the Romans just could not successfully climb up and capture the city.

So the Romans commenced on an enormous construction project, building a ramp of dirt and rocks that winds its way to the top of the mountain. Considering the time it took to build this ramp so their attack was no surprise to the Jews. In fact, when the Romans arrived, they found nobody. All of the Jews were dead, having chosen suicide over a life as a Roman slave.

The Hike Up

The easy way up is to ascend via the very ramp that the Romans built. But easy? Who needs easy!? Instead, we ascended via the traditional way up…the Snake Path (If hiking isn’t your thing, there’s also a lift, but it doesn’t run early enough for you to see the sunrise). Up and up we climbed as the first glimpse of light began to peek over the horizon. “Must make it,” I thought to myself.

Snake Path Sign

Sign for the Snake Path

It was still dim when I arrived at the top. My group seemed to have the right idea by heading to a high place. We settled on a fort as the sun’s rays began illuminating the brightly colored rocks.

Sunrise at Masada

The sunrise over the Dead Sea

Birds at Sunrise

Birds at sunrise with the Dead Sea in the background

The Site

Masada Ruins

Ruins at Masada

One thing that I kind of admire about Masada is that reconstruction has been done with a light touch (a far cry from some of the ruins in neighboring Egypt). Walking around, I noticed a black line that traversed its way across the short remnants of walls. It rather cleverly marks the point at which historians started rebuilding, giving you an idea what shape the place was in when it was “discovered.”

Reconstruction Line

The black line marks where reconstruction began

Though not much remains of this ancient city, it paints a wonderfully vivid picture of what life might have been like for its settlers. Sections of houses remain,  as do public places (with some fantastic mosaics), underground water reservoirs for storing rainwater and even a palace with one hell of a view that King Herod himself is said to have stayed in.

Mosaic

An ancient mosaic

As we descended the Snake Path and the lift whirred above us, taking those up who did not wish to hike, I was reminded of the huge sense of accomplishment I find in taking the harder way up, a notion that first came to me when I hiked up to China’s Emei Shan back in 2010, a two day hike that could easily be circumvented by taking the bus up.

Lift

Lift to the top of Masada

A Spiritual Journey?

I thought back to my hike to Bhutan’s truly epic Taktsang “Tiger’s Nest” Monastery, dramatically located on the side of a cliff. The Bhutanese government had the option of having a lift for people to take up there and they rejected it because the whole point is that getting there is supposed to be tough…a spiritual journey!

Spiritual journey, or not, this hike up Masada was one that took me back in time. That, and it was the start of what would be an incredibly long day, from full of extremes… For after a real breakfast, we were off for a dip at the lowest point in the world…

What do you think?

Have you had spiritual experiences while traveling?  And have you visited Masada, or other sites with epic stories such as this? What did you think?

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21 Responses to Conquering Sunrise at Masada

  1. Lori Bonnell March 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi Aaron,

    I’ve been following you for some time now. My son will be leaving in two weeks for the International March of the Living which takes place in Poland and then Israel. He will climb Masada, amongst many other things. It was cool for me to read your post to see what he will be doing/seeing! I’ll get there…someday…

    • Aaron March 18, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

      Hi Lori,

      Glad you’ve been enjoying my site and that you found this post to be useful! Sounds as if your son is off on a pretty epic adventure of his own! And you sure can get there some day. Just have to put your mind to it!

      Best,
      Aaron

  2. Leslie (Downtown Traveler) March 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    What a cool hike! I’d never heard of Masada until this post but the backstory makes this hike all the more interesting. By the way, what is an ibex? It sounds like a scary dinosaur era creature!

    • Aaron March 18, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks! It kinda feels like the Middle East is full of fascinating history around every corner. And an Ibex is similar to a mountain goat.

  3. Erik March 23, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    I did the snake path up- and it nearly killed me! In the end it was a great experience. I would have preferred to take it on the way down, but the cable car doesn’t run early enough.

    • Aaron March 23, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

      Haha well you could have taken the Roman Ramp up. All the other sunrise groups went up that way. We opted for the tougher Snake Path up. And yes…tough climb!

      • neil October 11, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

        Hi – is this link still active ?

        DID YOU ACTUALLY SEE ANYONE AT THE ROMAN RAMP (West Side)? Did you see any SENIORS doing it ?

        We want to climb the Roman Ramp, first week April 2016. I’m 73 and wife is 70. I am fairly fit but need a cane for steps, sometimes 2 to hike. Wife about the same.
        .
        Can one drive all the way to the top on the Roman side then hike this Ramp ?

        thanks !

  4. Caanan @ No Vacation Required March 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Almost every hike seems to be a spiritual experience for us in that it allows us to clear our minds of the white noise and become more deeply aware of the oneness of all things. This is why we are so fond of hiking and why we make a yearly trip to Glacier National Park.

    Your pictures are beautiful. I like that you took the snake path and not the tram. We need to do those things why we can.

    • Aaron March 28, 2012 at 1:32 am #

      Thanks Caanan! I’m totally with you on hikes being spiritual experiences. Both the process of getting somewhere and the end result. Later in my trip, I hiked up to the highest peak at Petra for a complete solitary experience and it was just incredible! I’m glad you two are into it to!

  5. Sophie HeadingThere March 29, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    Aaron- I have very much enjoyed stumbling across your blog. Magical post, beautiful pics (especially the birds)! Whilst in Colombia I took a lone, four hour hike to the Valley of the Statues in St Augustin, arriving completely exhausted and covered in mud. The hundreds of statues representing human and animal forms,carved by an unknown culture, had a presence and quality about them that that was overwhelimng. A spiritual experience? I’m not sure, but certainly one of the most poignant days of my life.

    • Aaron March 30, 2012 at 1:05 am #

      Sophie, so glad to hear you’ve enjoyed my blog thus far! You know, I visited St Augustin when I was about 6 and still remember those satutues! Don’t remember a hike though. But you’re so correct that the end result of a hike tends to be so worth the extreme effort you have to put in to get to them!

      • Sophie HeadingThere March 31, 2012 at 4:45 am #

        Cool! What an amamzing trip to do as a child. There are two statue sites, and the second, smaller one can be reached by hiking across a valley. Really beautiful, although I did get a little spooked when I reached the river in the valley basin and realised how alone I was!

  6. RenegadePilgrim April 2, 2012 at 3:43 am #

    Aaron, I did the Snake Path too, when I was in Israel in 2010. I think my hostel roommate and I were the only Christians at the top as the sun rose around 5:30a! There were a lot of Birthright groups and as the morning progressed, many groups celebrating Bat Mitzvahs and other important events.

    I was struck by the history of the place, the importance of it to the Jews and Christians (apparently hermits lived up there off and on through the years), as well as the enormity of it all. It was a very memorable experience…and it wasn’t that bad…I think it’s only 900ft elevation gain, below sea level! 🙂

    • Aaron April 2, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

      Hermits lived up there throughout the years? That they did not tell us! Yes the hike isn’t all that hard comparatively speaking (nor was Mount Sinai). And I’m glad you enjoyed your sunrise experience up there! What’s its symbolism to Christians?

      • RenegadePilgrim April 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

        Yeah, when I was reading the plaques around there, I found at least one place that Christian hermits lived (so, that would really be the only reason it’s symbolic to Christians, is that history….nothing compared to the symbolism for the Jews). I’ve found stuff online that says there were Byzantine monks who lived there off and on through the years…and there might have even been a chapel too. Interesting stuff.

        • Aaron April 6, 2012 at 12:10 am #

          Very interesting! Since I was part of a group, I didn’t get the time to to fully investigate the grounds so I missed the plaques. And I think there was something about King Herod having palace up there, but we skipped that too.

  7. Ali May 6, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    That sounds really cool, but I’m in such horrible shape I know I couldn’t handle a hike like that. The few times I have done things like this, I am usually proud of myself for finishing it. Gorgeous sunrise!

    • Aaron May 6, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      I think that’s why I love these big hikes. I like challenging myself! Usually the end result is more than worth the effort you put in to getting there!

  8. James June 12, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Hey Aaron – great blog! I’m heading to Israel next week and planned to do the Masada sunrise hike. Could you let me know how you get from Ein Gedi to Masada in the morning so early? I’m planning on staying at a hostel in Ein Gedi but not sure how I get to the start of the hike?! Any help would be awesome thanks!

    • Aaron June 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      Unfortunately I can’t help as I went with a Birthright trip. Good luck!

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