The air still holds the night’s chill, although the inky sky is beginning to show just the faintest hint of light. Throngs of students laugh and joke and generally clog the ramp leading to the top of Masada, an arid rock plateau south of Jerusalem overlooking the Dead Sea. Impatient, I slither and slip in between the teens, trying to ascend as quickly as I can.
I need to reach the top so I can jog down the much steeper Snake Path on the mountain’s opposing side. Then turn right around and walk back up it.
It’s long been my dream to climb Masada’s popular Snake Path, famed for its difficulty. My tour group was supposed to do so this morning, but our guide changed plans at the last minute and is leading us up the easy ramp path instead. When I protested, he gave me 30 minutes to run down and back up the path while the rest of the group snaps photos of the sunrise.
I’d read the Snake Path ascent alone takes 45 minutes. Obviously, I need to move quickly.
In Your Bucket Because …
- It’s a UNESCO Heritage Site and the second-most visited site in Israel, after Jerusalem.
- You want to see if you have what it takes to climb the rigorous Snake Path.
- Good for adventurers, history buffs, hikers.
Masada: A Popular Tourist Site
Masada, the last fortress of Jewish freedom fighters protesting Roman rule, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park. Its camps, fortifications and assault ramp constitute the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world. Because of its history and the wonderful condition of its ruins, it’s second in popularity only to Jerusalem as an Israeli tourist destination.
Masada’s storied past was recorded by Josephus Flavius. Although some of the facts are disputed, its main points appear to be verified by excavations. Herod, a Roman king of Judea, created Masada in 37-31 B.C. as a winter palace and refuge in case the Jews revolted. In 66 A.D., they did.
After the Jews took control of Masada, they settled there. But their victory was short lived. The Romans laid siege to Masada in 72-73, constructing an assault ramp path — the one we’re climbing — so they could reach the fortress walls, which they smashed in with a battering ram.
But when the walls fell, a big surprise awaited them: all 960 of the resident Jews were dead, victims of a mass suicide.
The Jews knew they were greatly outnumbered, and if they remained to fight they’d all be killed or enslaved. “And they knew the Romans were very cruel to their slaves,” our guide explains. Before they died, they burned everything but their food. “They wanted to say, ‘I wasn’t starving during your siege. I was doing just fine. But I will never let you conquer me.'” Today, Masada stands as a symbol of Jewish resistance to the Big, Bad Wolf — the Roman Empire.
I make it to the top, take a quick glance around, then start jogging down the Snake Path on the plateau’s other side. Small knots of people are huffing and puffing their way up the steep slope.
Even though I’m heading down, it’s still rather difficult. The path is rocky and narrow, and twists and turns unrelentingly. Finally, I’m at the bottom. Now I have to go back up.
A sign warns I’ve got 700 steps ahead of me that will cover a little more than a mile, and that I’ll be gaining 1,148 feet in altitude.
There’s also an encouraging note from Flavius about the Snake Path: ” … he that would walk along it must first go on one leg, and then on the other; there is also nothing but destruction in case your feet slip, for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind.”
O.K., I’m not looking over the edge.
Like those I passed, I’m soon huffing and puffing and basically willing myself up Masada’s flank. I imagine what it must have been like to live atop such an out-of-the-way place, even by ancient standards. And I wonder how such an oddball spot became a coveted, strategic site.
At last I’m atop the plateau once again, only this time I’m bathed in sweat. Our guide greets me, saying, “The truth is, there’s actually no importance to the Snake Path. It was the back door to the mountain, and wasn’t regularly used back then.”
I don’t care. I made a tough climb that left my muscles screaming in protest, but afforded me stunning views of the surrounding landscape. And a real appreciation for the people that battled so hard to live and thrive here.
- Hike in winter, when temps are moderate. (Cable car rides are available, too.)
- The park opens an hour before sunrise for ascents on foot.
- Plan to spend at least an hour on top, as there’s a lot to see.
- If you’re really into history, pop for a guided tour.
- Don’t miss the complex at Masada’s base, which houses an archeological display, film, model of the plateau and its surroundings, snack bar and gift shop.
- Special sound and light shows are held March-October.