We took Michele (jadedmuse) and David to visit what may be the most famous site in Israel after the Western Wall (wailing wall) in Jerusalem.
The first picture shows Michele (very pregnant) taking one of many photos on Masada.
The second picture shows us on the stairs that descend into the largest of the many cisterns used to store water to sustain this fortress in the waterless desert.
The last picture is David taking a drink from a slightly smaller cistern provided for cool water while walking around in this extremely HOT area. Remember we are at the edge of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the surface of the earth at 400 meters below sea level...it is hot.
What makes the achievements of Masada even more extraordinary is that the horst was completely surrounded by walls on the valley floor.
Northing remains of the walls themselves, but what becomes very apparent from the cable car and view points at the top are the foundations of the supporting tours. Foundations of some seven towers/encampments can be found around the base with evidence of a further camp on Mount Eleazar, across the Wadi to the south.
At the southern end of the site, Herod built a number of small guest palaces (some never completed) built in the traditional style of rooms off a central courtyard. They likely housed middle-ranking visitors and administrators of the site and possibly senior military staff.
The Western Palace is Masada's largest structure. It contained living quarters, guard rooms, reception rooms, bathing rooms, storage, kitchens as well as the public immersion pool.
The tower att he northern end of the complex provides views down onto the bathing complex and reception room where mosaics have been uncovered.
The twin towers, slightly to the north of the ramp were dual purpose - as look out towers across the Wadi and encroaching hills and dovecots, where pigeons were raised as messengers as well as for food. And ever practical, their droppings were used as fertiliser.
The natural landform that enabled the Romans to build the ramp to reclaim Masada from the Sacarii now forms the west entrance (via Arad and the Negev Desert).
At 90 metres, this 'side' of the horst is the lowest from the desert floor, with the landform decreasing its safety distance. Using Jewish slaves to avoid attack from above, the Romans inched up the side of the cliff and marched into Masada, only to find the inhabitants dead.
After the northern 'end', Masada becomes much more spread out with ruins dotted around the site. The western perimeter, overlooking the Roman ramp that provided access for the troops to recapture the fortress is the 'normal' route, via one of the oldest synagogues in Israel and spectacular views.
The synagogue itself is small and over-renovated with new concrete benches, but it is still a Holy site with a small temperature-controlled geniza (storage room for sacred scrolls) attached.
There is debate as to whether it was originally built as a synagogue or a stable which was converted by the Sicarii.
Built at the edge of the Store Room Complex (and one of the first buildings you see when you first enter the Masada site) the Look Out Tower is the tallest remaining building.
It would have provided guards extra height to not only look out beyond the walls to the valley and nearby mountainous terrain, but also to watch over the complex itself. Less evident today with its wide open spaces, the area to the south is likely to have been teeming with people living in less permanent structures.
Today it provides a lookout across the complex and the area that was devastated by an earthquake in the 4th century, believed to be responsible for most of the destruction of Masada.
Herod's private residence, the Northern Palace is, not surprisingly, the single most impressive structure (although it is a series of structures spread over three terraces 30 metres apart).
The top level, closest to the rest of the fortress, was Herod's own private quarters at the most isolated and protected spot (as well as enjoying the best of the breezes during the summer months).
The structure was not large by palace standards - four rooms off a central roofed hall - but they would have been lavishly decorated. Uncovered mosaics suggest Herod brought artists from Italy itself.
Stairs led to the level below directly from the private quarters, but these were destroyed in an earthquake. so retracing steps is required to go to the levels below the private quarters.
At the 2nd level are the circular foundations of the banqueting hall and, below on the third level, the lowest point of the fortress of Masada, a further terrace used for receptions.
Needless to say, all levels have extraordinary views of the valley and the Dead Sea, although views in Roman times would have seen considerably more water than you do today.
Visit any Roman ruins in the world and you'll find evidence of the bathhouse, integral as they were to Roman lifestyle. And Masada is no exception.
This would have been used by senior officials and high ranking military, situated as it is next to the entrance to Herod's Northern Palace. Its four rooms - apoditerium (dressing room), tepidarium (tepid room), fridgedarium (cold room) and caldarium (hot room) - are remarkably well preserved.
Original frescoes have been uncovered, floors preserved and the hypocaust floor of the caldarium highlights the Roman system of heating rooms - the creation of a double layered floor with hot air passing between the two levels, a system continued to be used today.
Head right past the small quarry (from where a great deal of the stone used in the building of Masada was taken) and head for the most 'developed' of the walls - a series of what is now known as the storerooms complex - some 29 long rooms (and corridors) built to house armaments, food, liquids that could supply an army under siege for months (even years).
They were built beyond the first walls of the palace but outside the royal residence, which was separated by another wall.
Once through the gatehouse, the extent of Masada is laid out before you. It's a surprisingly large flat plateau virtually completely exposed to the sun (little in terms of shade - be warned!). Choice is to go left or right.
The more extensive, condensed ruins and that of Herod's Palace is to the right whilst to the left are singular structures dotted round the site - likely to be due to more temporary structures were built outside the palace within a fortress walls. Namely where the 'plebs' lived.
Most official tours and the official guide book start by going right, working in an anti-clockwise direction. So, my Masada page will follow this route. :)
The other option to accessing Masada from the east (and the only access for those who decide to see the sunrise from the peak) is Snake Path - a pretty strenuous hike up the side of the cliff to the top.
In the heat of the day it can be a gruelling climb (lots of water is required) as it snakes its way up the cliff but, with steps and handrails at the more sheer points, safe. It takes about an hour walking up (less if you're fit and determined), 20 minutes or so to descend.
Walking in both directions will cost you NIS27.
Both the Cable Car and Snake Path will deposit you at the Gatehouse - the original entry to the fortress. If you have just walked the Snake Path, this was the route taken to access Masada, including mules carrying great weights.
Atop the plateau, wonderful views of the Dead Sea are apparent. The whole of Masada is laid out beyond the gatehouse, with restoration resulting in a black line having being painted on all the walls and stones showing the limit of original foundations as excavated in the 1960s onwards. Everything above the black line is 'newly' added, but using stones found on site.
Masada is extreme in exposure to the sun, and water is a crucial part of any tour round the ruins. There is little shade, but ironically there is no water shortage. Taps are located round the site - refill water bottles and drink!
The easiest way to reach the ruins of Masada is via the cable car, located at the base of the cliffs on the eastern side of the horst (ie closest to the Dead Sea) and the main entrance to what is now a National Park.
It runs every 10 minutes or so from 8am when the site opens and takes only a few minutes to reach the summit, providing stunning views of the Rift Valley and Dead Sea.
It costs (2011 prices ) NIS72 return including entrance fees or NIS 54 one way (including entrance fees) for those who prefer the option of one direction walking Snake Pass (see separate tip).