Trip Start Mar 31, 2010
Trip End Apr 10, 2010

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Flag of Israel  , Dead Sea Region,
Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Hasmonean fortifications on this 1,300 ft. high plateau were taken over by Herod the Great in 43 BC, who turned it into a palatial "bunker" for safe haven from revolts, due to its inaccessible topography in the midst of the desert, until his death in 4 BC. Masada is presented as a symbol of Jewish patriotism because, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans, 900 Jews fled there and chose to die in 73 AD rather than be taken prisoner by General Flavius Silva and the Roman tenth legion.  Only 2 women and 5 children survived (hiding in a cistern) to tell the story. Even today, Israeli soldiers are sworn into the army by taking an oath there: "Masada shall not fall again." 

Those who died at Masada were Sicarii (meaning "dagger-men"), a militant splinter group of the Jewish extremists the Zealots, who attempted to expel the Romans and their Jewish sympathizers from Judea through terrorist acts like stealthy assassinations (literally, cloak-and-dagger) or destroying the city's food supply to incite people to revolt. At public events, particularly during the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, they would stab their enemies - Romans, Herodians, or wealthy Jews comfortable with Roman rule, then blend into the lamenting crowd. Barabbas, freed in place of Jesus in the Gospels,  was said to have been a member of the Sicarii.

True to Herod the Great's style, Masada is spectacular, situated south of the Dead Sea in a desert middle-of-nowhere, about an hour's climb up a serpentine path.  Fortunately for us, nowadays we can ride a cable car up to the summit. When we arrive we see a Jewish group walking farther down the perimeter, celebrating with upbeat songs and loud drums - to me it sounds pretty good, almost like a batucada. We later see other Jews come to pray here.

The compound is totally self-sufficient: there are huge cisterns, storerooms which held years' worth of food supplies, bathhouses, swimming pools, and two palaces, one of which is built on the cliffside in multi-level terraces.  There is evidence of Essenes living at Masada; the Zealots were also there and built a synagogue. Years after Masada was abandoned, the desert father St. Euthymius founded a community known as a laura or hermits' monastery typical of monks in the Judean desert; the church was built in 422 and served hermits using 13 cells.  They fed off the meat from pigeons raised in their columbarium.

From up high we see the siege camp and ramp of the Roman General Silva down below, and the kids test how well their words were carried back and forth by trying out the far-reaching echo.

The stillness of the desert pervades everything.  We see swallows and other birds delighting in it, and watch the clouds calmly glide over their shadows below. I am still surprised at the quiet seduction the desert holds for me. It is such an open, welcoming space.

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