Masada, the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi make up an iconic day trip experience for the tourist in Israel – and easy drive from Jerusalem.
Masada is a large, flat rock in the Judean Desert, near the shore of the Dead Sea. Masada was originally used by Herod the Great 2000 years ago to build a large fortress. (Masada means ‘fortress’ in Hebrew.) After the destruction of the Second Temple, a large group of Jewish resistance fighters – possibly around 900 people – took it over, living there for several years until the Romans came after them. The Roman siege of Masada took months, as they built a large ramp to reach the walls. Once it was complete, the residents killed themselves rather than be enslaved.
The story is told by a contemporary writer, Josephus. It’s hard to say how accurate he actually was, since he was writing for a particular audience, although much of the archeology does back up his story. Masada has become, in modern Israel, a symbol of Jewish strength.
There are 3 ways to get to the top of the mountain: you can ride the cable car up the front, which is obviously the fastest and easiest way; you can walk up the snake path in the front; or you can walk up the ramp at the back. If you want to walk up, the ramp at the back is much easier. However, the parking lots are accessible from completely different highways, so you have to plan ahead depending on which way you want to go up.
If you are visiting Israel, Masada is kind of one of those things you just have to do, at least once – and it is amazing. I was beside myself the first time I went, the history geek in me freaking out over actually being there. Now that I’ve been to Israel several times, I realize that, as an archeological site, there are many, even more amazing spots in the country. But for its symbolism, it can’t be beaten.
The Dead Sea is amazing because of how unique and just plain old fun it is. Bring beach shoes or sandals that can get wet, though, because the beaches are miserably uncomfortable – sharp rocks and salt deposits.
Be sure not to get the water in your eyes or mouth – it’s nasty stuff. The last time we were there, we watched some guy swim out past the barrier and then dunk his head under, oblivious to the lifeguard yelling at him. When he got back to shore, the lifeguard dragged him to the fresh water showers on the beach, – although he must have been headed that way anyway, because that had to sting.
The first time I visited, we went to a beach where we could actually dig up the mud and slather ourselves with it, but for every trip since, the mud is actually dragged to the shoreline in barrels. The experience is the same – you get to revert to childhood and play in the soft, gooey mud. It is great for people with skin problems such as psoriasis. You let it dry on your skin until you can’t stand it any more and then rinse at the showers right at the beach. You can then have a proper shower in the change rooms and appreciate your nice soft skin.
I wish I could tell you more about the Ein Gedi reserve from experience, but I have yet to really experience it. It’s been on the itinerary repeatedly, but then we run out of time and it is what always gets squeezed out. With one trip, they actually parked our buses in the parking lot and told us we had half an hour to eat our packed lunches right there, but wouldn’t be able to go in. As I looked longingly at the entrance, my (very smart) friend, Tamara, found me and asked if I’d rather eat lunch or have a peek in the reserve. That was an easy choice! She talked the lady selling tickets into letting us go in, where we walked for 15 minutes down the trail. We encountered a beautiful tiny waterfall, right there in the middle of the desert. We splashed around a bit and admired the tiny dragonflies flitting everywhere, then mustered up great willpower and turned around and left. I very much look forward to returning some day and seeing the larger waterfalls. They look gorgeous.