Given that both the Dead Sea and Masada are located southeast of Jerusalem, it is only practical to arrange a day trip that would include both sites. Such packages are available from many of Israel's local tour operators.
The trip starts off early in the morning from Jerusalem (or even earlier if you are staying in Tel Aviv). The tour bus will travel along a well-maintained highway which connects Jerusalem to the Dead Sea region. During the journey, the bus will pass by many undulating and barren desert mounds, as it descends below sea level. This arid landscape is a huge contrast to the greenery of Jerusalem and its outskirts. From the bus, one can also see some Bedouin settlements, though these are usually a more “modern” type with tin roofs and some basic amenities, rather than the traditional image of tents and camels.
One popular attraction is the "Sea Level" sign along the highway where the tour bus will stop to allow tourists to pose next to it.
Another tourist site on the way to the Dead Sea is the Inn of the Good Samaritan, the reputed site of where the Good Samaritan (in Jesus’ parable) had put up the injured Jew. It is now a small archaeological centre with some collections of mosaic, pottery and other craft works for public view.
After travelling for about two and a half hours, the tour bus should reach Masada, which from afar, is basically an elevated plateau (400m high) with very steep cliffs in the midst of a very barren, dry and hot desert.
History of Masada
According to the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius' The Jewish War (the only written source about Masada), Masada originated as a fortress built by King Herod the Great between 37 - 31 B.C. Herod had intended the fortress as a refuge for himself, so he built large walls to surround it, big warehouses, cisterns (to store water), barracks and a grand palace on top of the plateau.
In 66 A.D. (long after Herod's death), there was a revolt by the Jews against the Romans. By then, Masada had become a Roman garrison. With the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish rebels and their families feld from Jerusalem to Masada, which they overran.
In 72 A.D., the Roman governor Flavius Silva, commanded the Tenth Legion, together with thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war, to re-take Masada. For over a year, the Romans established camps at the base of the plateau and built siege ramparts against the western side of Masada. In 73 A.D., they succeeded in moving a battering ram to break down the west wall of the Masada fortress.
Rather than capitulate to the Romans, the Jewish defenders (about 1,000 men, women and children) on Masada decided to burn the fortress and end their own lives. They cast lots among themselves to choose 10 men to kill the rest. The last Jew would then kill the remaining survivors before committing suicide.
This heroic story has been passed down among the Jews for generations to this day. In 1842, the site was finally identified, but only in 1963 did intensive archaeological excavations begin. Today, to Israelis, Masada symbolises the determination of the Jewish people to be free in its own land. Reflecting this public sentiment is an Israeli flag found at the top of the plateau, which symbolises the significance of Masada and its historical lessons for Israel. Subsequently, Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Moshe Dayan also initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony of soldiers who have completed their IDF basic training on top of Masada. The ceremony would end with the declaration: "Masada shall not fall again."
In 2001, Masada was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Masada site
At the archaeological site, one can see many of the ancient buildings that have been restored from their remains, as have the wall-paintings of Herod's two main palaces, and the Roman-style bathhouses that he commissioned. The synagogue, storehouses, and houses of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored. An interesting feature is the elaborate system of the water channels, which had enabled the Jewish rebels to maintain their water supplies for such a long time during the Roman siege.
In the area in front of the northern palace, small ostraca (broken piece of pottery) were recovered, each bearing a single name. One read "ben Ya'ir" and could be abbreviation for Eleazar ben Ya'ir, the commander of the fortress during the Roman siege. These could be the ten names are those of the men chosen by lot to kill the others and then themselves, as recounted by the Jewish historian Josephus.
From the top of the plateau, besides the historical significance of what transpired around 73 AD, one can also have a magnificent overview of the surrounding desert and its geological formations. The arid and barren conditions only reinforced the harshness of the siege experienced by both the Romans and the Jews back then.
Thankfully, in the modern age, tourists are now given the option of scaling this plateau with cable cars. The cable car ride starts from a very modern-looking and well-maintained visitor centre, which also provides a short but informative audio-visual presentation on the historical significance of the site. (Alternatively, one can also walk up the long and tortuous ancient dirt trail called the “snake path” below in the hot sun, which is estimated to take more than an hour.)
After the Masada visit, the tour bus will bring the tourists to a Dead Sea beach, which has been nicely built-up to serve as a tourist attraction. Notwithstanding the hot sun, tourists will eagerly walk down the footpath to the beach, where there are many people enjoying the sea and the therapeutic mud.
At the Dead Sea, tourists are encouraged to experience floating on the water, though they are also warned not to let the highly salty water get into their eyes, or it would sting terribly. Besides being a cooling experience to dip oneself in the water, it can be quite fun trying hard to balance one’s body in the salty water, without accidentally flipping over.
Despite the hot sun which roasted the prickling sand and gravels extra hot, many tourists will then walk over to one of the mud pools to lather with some of the Dead Sea mud. After being caked in the mud for a few minutes, one can then wash himself off at one of the communal showers.
Dead Sea water and mud
The tour bus will usually leave the Dead Sea by late afternoon, allowing the tourists to return to Jerusalem in the evening, when one can enjoy a relaxing dinner after a long but exciting trip.