A simple Masada sunrise tour from Tel Aviv led me to explore another one of the Holy Land’s extensive biblical landmarks, one with a history of opulent luxury, violent war and one of the first recorded mass suicides, the infamous Masada National Park.
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Waking up for this sunrise tour after only a couple of hours of broken sleep definitely filled me with mixed emotions, and with a lack of sleep most of them generally fell on the cranky side.
One, I generally love a good sunrise but on the whole hate sunrise tours. They’re usually overhyped, overcrowded and the dreams of a serene, beautiful experience are always ruined by hordes of noisy tourists all trying to get the money shot of the sunrise just to say they’ve done it.
Two, this was a hike into Masada national park. A visit to the heart of the Judean desert with stunning views over the Dead Sea and across into Jordan. That alone would normally be enough to drag my ageing backside out of bed, but Masada was much more than just a simple national park. This UNESCO world heritage site was also one of the many iconic biblical sites I had read about for years and had always wanted to visit. I couldn’t miss this opportunity to see it just because my body was tired, my mind would never forgive it.
Which leads me to the third problem, my eyes physically refused to open for more than a second before going on strike, and finally, who’s stupid idea was it to stay out late drinking cocktails until just a couple of hours earlier? Damn Tel Aviv and its awesome nightlife!
I’m getting too old for this …
Climbing The Mountain.
But get up I did, no matter how reluctantly. The voice in the back of my head screaming at me to get out of bed like an apoplectic Staff Sergeant helped, and a quick nap on the bus ride from the hostel to the national park entrance gave me a bit more energy to forge on. After paying the entrance fee, I stepped onto the path that would lead me to the top of the plateau itself. There are two entrances to Masada, the snake path at the Eastern entrance, and the siege ramp path on the Western side.
We had arrived at the entrance a lot later than most sunrise tours start, and it was already starting to get a little light by the time we were a short way up the path. A torch definitely wasn’t needed, but I still would never recommend not bringing one. Just in case.
The route itself wasn’t too taxing, although I am definitely out of shape! There were a couple of times I had to stop and catch my breath (or take photos of the stunning landscape of course, nothing to do with my lack of fitness, honestly!)
But the winding path was never that steep that someone of moderate fitness levels couldn’t have handled it. There’s no rush or pressure to get to the top quickly as the walk takes around 45 minutes or so at a really slow, steady pace you can easily make it up in time for the sunrise. For those who still genuinely don’t think they can make this trek, the Western entrance (with the siege path) is supposed to be easier with a more gradual incline, and there is always the cable car if you don’t mind waiting until it opens and missing the sunset.
The walk up is truly breathtaking though, and unlike a lot of sunrise tours where you are hiking in the pitch black for most of the journey and relying only on a small beam of torchlight to keep you from falling and breaking your neck, here I was at least able to admire some of the view as I walked. With the mountains of Jordan just visible in the dim light beyond the dead sea and the land littered with undulating waves of ancient sediment where the sea itself once covered, it was a spectacular view.
Despite that, reaching the top was a relief in more ways than one. Downing the rest of my large water bottle in one and silently thanking my sleep addled mind for remembering to bring it, I looked around expecting to find the huge crowds of people you always get at sunrise tours, but they just weren’t there.
Machu Picchu, Mount Bromo, Mount Sinai, all of the countless sunrise tours I have done over the years have had that tinge of disappointment attached at having to put up with more people than at some hippy music festival.
Enjoying Real Solitude.
At the Masada plateau, there was a dozen or so people at most, including the half a dozen in the relatively small group I had arrived with, all spread out over a very large area. And I could enjoy the sunrise in peace and relative solitude. It was perfect.
I suppose this is one of the upsides to a lot of tourists being too afraid of even coming to the country!
There are definitely benefits to travelling through country’s that aren’t overly touristy.
Of course as beautiful as the sunrise was, that wasn’t the real reason I wanted to come here.
Revelling In The History.
This was the holy land, the land where the stories of the bible itself played out and were recorded for history, and you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting something of historical or religious significance. Masada was no exception.
Rumoured to go back as far as the Hasmonean period, the Masada plateau rose to prominence during the reign of King Herod, where he built a luxurious palace thanks largely to the patronage of the occupying Roman army in 37 – 4 BCE. This palace also had one of the best defensive spots in the region, and after Herods death and the Great Revolt against the Romans, a group of what could be considered extremist Jews took over the palace and fortified it.
Masada then became a fortress for the disparate group of extremist Jews including Sicarii, Essenes and Samaritans after the destruction of Jerusalem – who depending on which version you believe were either heroic freedom fighters or murdering criminals – and later gained the reputation of the last rebel stronghold against the Romans.
This isn’t Hollywood though, and unlike in Star Wars the rebels didn’t win. After a prolonged seige led by Josephus Flavius, the remaining rebels knew they couldn’t win and instead committed one of the first mass suicides in recorded history. Men, women and children.
How can you not stand amongst the ruins of such a fortress and not feel awed by its presence?
After reading about this place for so long I was surprised at how large the Masada plateau actually was, I imagined it to be a lot smaller, but this sprawling expanse contained the ruins of the Northern palace near the snake path gate and the Western palace near the seige ramp path, as well of course as the walled fortifications and a synagogue. And that’s before you even get to the smaller excavations and ruins.
As amazing as the tour was, I wished I could have spent a lot longer here to simply wander and soak in the experience of being there.
Knowing the history of Masada definitely added more than a few layers of experience to what was an already spectacular site. I have no doubt there are people who go there simply as part of the tours offered in Jerusalem in Tel Aviv, thinking it is nothing more than a nice sunrise and a stunning view to start the day with, but I urge all of those travellers to read a little bit about the site before you come, learn a little bit of the history, stay (or come back) and watch the sound and light show in the evening. Whatever you do, get a deeper connection to Masada beyond the sunrise, it is definitely worth it.