Masada, a mountain near the southern end of the Dead Sea ninety minutes drive south of Jerusalem, is a monument, a tribute and a symbol. But to what? It's certainly an awesome sight in the desert, rising nearly to sea level. (The Dead Sea is at the lowest place on land, a full 400 meters below.) And King Herod clearly thought that its remoteness, its inaccessibility and its grandeur would make a fine location for one of his many palaces, as well as a good place to hide out if his people ever rebelled and brought the wrath of the Roman Empire down on his head. So he spent several fortunes building a retreat atop the mountain, a place to which he could escape and where he could wait out even the most impatient foe. Not that he ever needed his bolthole; his reign had a stability that only a true despot can achieve.
Not surprisingly, Herod would never be satisfied to live in a shack. And with the resources of a whole nation to call upon at his whim, why should he? Masada once housed a splendid palace and a wide array of buildings to support all the staff needed to keep a zeroth century king in comfort, complete with pleasure gardens and opulence in the midst of utter desolation. All of that energy and expense (and how many lives?) for a place he might have visited two or three times in his life.
Masada would be interesting if that were the end of the story. But
it's not. We know of Masada not because of Herod but
instead for the actions of the original zealots, a band of Jewish true
believers who decided that with God on their side even the Roman
Empire must fall. They were wrong, of course, and the city of
Jerusalem paid a terrible price for their actions. Some of the
zealots escaped to Masada, where they took advantage of the late
Herod's unwitting hospitality and barricaded themselves within his
fortress. Eventually the Romans caught up with them, set up camps
around the mountain and waited for those inside to run out of food and
water. (You can see the marks of one of their camps in the picture on
After a year or so the Romans began to get impatient. So they began construction of a gigantic earthen ramp up the side of the mountain, an incredible engineering accomplishment that survives to this day. When it was finally finished, they broke through the wall and waited until morning for their final assault. Only to discover that everyone inside had taken their own lives the night before. Better a quick death than the slow, agonizing fate they could expect at the hands of Rome.
Or at least that's the story. It's hard to be sure of the details, since a lack of survivors means that our source for the tale is someone with his own motivations and a rather questionable history. And what lesson should we draw from the tale? That it's better to fight and die than to submit when your cause is just and the odds are insurmountable? Or should we be on our guard against fanatics, no matter what their beliefs? Were the zealots really the good guys in all this? Their actions caused the deaths, torture and enslavement of their entire society and the destruction of their holy city. Was their cause really worth the price they paid or the price they forced so many others to pay? Perhaps the only real lesson is that the more we learn about history the less certain we become about what if anything it all means.
A few months after my visit to Masada I found myself back in Israel,
sharing a weekend getaway to Eilat with my Israeli colleagues. Eilat
is at the southern tip of Israel, where it meets the northernmost bit
of the Red Sea. (Which isn't red, of course, but the most remarkable
sapphire blue.) Eilat is a tourist town full of big hotels and mini
markets and restaurants; deprive Waikiki of its foliage and it might
look something like this. A walk along the beach will find most
anything you would require. Including my daily dose of anachronism;
finding baseball caps for American sports teams so far from home was
odd enough. But a cap for the
House? Gee, how did you get so far from
Our hotel, an opulent new structure named after King Herod, occupied a
last bit of beachfront before you find yourself in Jordan. Herods was
designed with all of its guest rooms facing the the sea. A pleasant
vista and a wise choice; the view in the other direction reminds us
that there's a whole lot of nothing between us and civilization.
It's obvious that people don't come to Eilat to stay onshore; they're
there to get out on (and in) the water. Our weekend included a day on
the sea in a pair of old fishing boats. Along with the views of
Israel's neighbors off in the not-too-distant distance were closeups
of thrill-seekers jetskiing, parasailing and riding a peculiar tubular
contraption called a banana. Basically, you're towed behind a
powerboat, bouncing all the fillings out of your teeth and hanging on
for dear life until the boat's driver can flip you off. Which led to
the driver being flipped off by a few of his passengers. But that's
another story for another time.
A few of the hardier members of our company were able to get up close
and personal with the Red Sea, the sea life and the coral.
Cowardly people like me
had to be satisfied with a vicarious thrill and the photo opportunity
they presented. (The photo on the right is my answer to the question:
"Who watches the watchers?". Obviously I do.)
Our ultimate destination was a coral island just off the coast of
Egypt. This tiny bit of land is occupied by a citadel built by the
Crusaders back in the twelfth century. What must it have been like to
be stationed at such an outpost? Sure, you can see bits of four
different countries from the top: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi
Arabia. But to me one bit of desert looks much like another; I guess
I'm not so cultured in these things. Still, I can imagine their
thrill to see a boat appear in the harbor, if only to replenish the
supply of beer...
Before leaving Egyptian waters and heading back to Eilat we had one
more little ritual: watching various members of the crew and our
company swinging off the boat and dropping, often quite gracefully,
into the sea. It was a particular challenge to your
digital photographer to get the
subject framed and focused between the moment when they let go of
the rope and their arrival in the water. I just hope they know how
much I appreciate their efforts on my behalf. Who knows; if I can't
make it as a travel writer maybe I'll find something as an
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California