Belle Photo Essays

To Climb Masada at Dawn

Visiting Israel and climbing Masada

The light from our Bedouin guide’s fire is burning low and I can hear the gurgling sound of his hookah in the darkness. My friend and I have long since abandoned our tent to sleep under the stars, and as a three quarter moon sags heavily in the west, there is very little between us and the Milky Way, smeared across the heavens. The wind whistles softly, luffing the edges of the tarp over the campsite…..here, somewhere in the middle of the Judean Desert, I wait to climb Masada at dawn.

I am visiting Israel with one of my closest friends and this is our final night before I leave. It is only fitting, she insists, that we see the sun rise over Masada. In order to do so, we arrive at the campground before dinner. A large Israeli family is celebrating a reunion, with music and singing that will go on into the night, so we drag our tent and set it up out of sight, almost at the edge of the open desert.

Dinner is a picnic of cold roasted chicken and sliced cucumbers, with frozen bottles of water slowly melting in the desert heat serving as instant air conditioners. At dusk we join the others on bleachers and watch the epic story of the Roman assault on this ancient citadel unfold as a film of the site’s history is projected onto the towering desert walls in the distance.

Falling asleep that night, I need no cover – the warm desert wind is blanket enough. As my eyes track the moon slipping over the mountains, I realize I have never known silence like this. Dawn comes quickly and we put on hiking shoes, smearing on suntan lotion in anticipation of a day that will soon turn flaming hot. Shouldering our back packs and water bottles, we set out for the western slope of this epic stronghold.

As I climb the rocky path, I recall the stories I have long heard about this site. Masada is a forbidding looking place – rising 1300 feet off the desert floor, it dominates the horizon and provides awe inspiring views of the Dead Sea in the distance. In 74 A.D. a group of Jewish rebels, fighting the Roman army after the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem, made history by ending their own lives rather than being taken alive by their enemy. They had held out at the site – an imposing, abandoned fortress built by the Emperor Herod in the first century B.C. – for almost five years while Roman soldiers built an enormous ramp up the side of the citadel, eventually driving a battering ram through the fortress gates. Once the soldiers arrived inside, they found the remains of almost one thousand men, women and children. Only two women survived to tell the dramatic tale, recorded by the ancient historian Josephus Flavius.

The ramp is steep, and even in the pre-dawn darkness, sweat pours off my forehead. We make the final switchback in the cliffside path – ahead lies an ancient gate…

Passing through we can see the first rays of sunlight, reflecting like mercury off the surface of the Dead Sea.

Near a set of ancient walls, a small group of visitors begins a tour and a young man wearing a tefillah on his forehead bends down to pray.

Isolated in the midst of a vast desert, it’s hard to imagine the former grandeur of Herod’s magnificent fortress rising high off the Judean plain. Peering over the edge of the cliff at additional rooms and cisterns below, the massive scale of the structure becomes apparent.

If these stones could speak, they would tell a tale of both the might of conquering armies…

… and a small band of courageous rebels who defeated them by making the ultimate sacrifice to preserve their freedom.

We’ve toured an ancient spa complete with swimming pool, baths and opulent mosaics from the Roman period. In silence we view a room converted to a synagogue by the Jewish rebels and ponder the last moments of their brave uprising. With the heat of the day building, soon it will be time to start the long hike back to camp. For a few moments I sit at the edge of the cliff, where a bird lands to pick up a scatter of breadcrumbs. As it hangs precariously on the brink of the citadel I realize this desert is still as ancient and unchanged as it was in Josephus’ time. For two thousand years, birds like this one have alighted on this perch, witness to the occupation of armies, rebels, and now, throngs of tourists coming to touch history, and young Israelis, who climb Masada as a right of passage. Suddenly it feels like no time has passed, and the bird seems to hover forever.

I get up to leave, turning around for one more shot of the sweeping desert below. The moment I raise the camera to snap the shutter, the bird lifts off; I trace its graceful arc into a smudged, eggshell blue canopy. With wings fully extended, the ultimate freedom, it takes flight towards the rising sun.

All photos property of and by Amanda Summer and used with permission

Amanda Summer is a writer and archaeologist who excavates in Greece. She has written for the New York Times, Islands, Archaeology and The Best Travel Writing. When not digging, she lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her family and Airedale terrier. For more stories, visit her website, Travels with Persephone.

This article has 11 comments

  1. Katie

    This post made me feel like I was at Masada again. I have been there twice and this essay really captures the essence of the place. Thank you!

  2. Lisa Bergren

    Been there and it’s a haunting, beautiful place! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Linda Dini Jenkins

    Both gorgeous and moving! Thanks so much for sharing . . .

  4. judith works

    Great photos. I only made it up the easy by cable car. On the way I watched soldiers run up the path. It is an amazing place with the Roman encampment below and the fallen stones above silent in the wind.

  5. Justine de Jonge

    Ruins and desert as well as a beautiful sunrise – what a perfect way to experience Masada. Thank you so much for sharing. You’ve given me inspiration for yet another trip to add to my never-ending list!

  6. Krista

    Oh wow. These images are absolutely breathtaking!!! Love this so much, Amanda. 🙂 There is something so wonderful about viewing amazing places at sunrise. 🙂

  7. Ayelet - All Colores

    I live in Israel and have seen the Dead Sea, yet never at sunrise. This photo is spectacular, as are the rest. Throughout your post, I kept wanting to go back to that region, located only a few hours away from me, though it somehow escaped my list thus far.

  8. Rosaria Williams

    Fascinating, Amanda. The pictures are other-wordly.

  9. Suze

    Magnificent, Amanda. You have led a glorious life and you know exactly how to transmit as much. I savored this.

  10. Sarah Laurence

    Wonderful, Amanda! You’ve taken me out of this cold wet day. I’ve always wanted to visit Israel. Your gorgeous post reminds me of that longing.

  11. Andy Hayes

    Such an interesting place – thanks for sharing!

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