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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?