Masada is Israel's most popular paid-admission tourist site, with nearly 800,000 visitors each year. The stirring combination of luxury desert fortress constructed by Herod the Great 2,000 years ago, its re-use as the last stand of the Jewish zealots who spearheaded the revolt against Rome nearly a century later, and the site's early-1960s excavation by eminent archaeologist Yigael Yadin is for many visitors the high point of their trip to Israel.
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Most tourists take the easy way up – the comfortable cable car that was installed 15 years ago, which replaced the much smaller one that had been in place since 1971. Before that, there were only two ways to access the raised plateau: the Snake Path (which faces the Dead Sea), a tough 45-minute ascent that can be aggravated by scorching summertime heat; or the Roman Ramp (facing the Judean Desert), a more straightforward 15-minute climb. Both options afford supreme views of the spectacular landscape, and many visitors prefer the climb (and then pat themselves on the back by purchasing an "I Climbed Masada" T-shirt at the gift shop).
But gluttons for physical punishment may find the Snake Path climb too puny. It was with them in mind that Silva, the Tenth Legion commander who besieged the fortress in 72 C.E., created the runner's path. It branches off the Snake Path not far from the start, and then makes a lengthy circumvention of the base of the mountain that follows the line of siege camps constructed by the Romans. The path loops northwards along a red-marked trail and climbs a sharp cliff before reaching the main Roman siege camp, where you continue on a green trail. By now, you have probably hiked for over two hours.
Before scaling the Roman ramp and finally starting your tour up on top, take the time to check out two sites most visitors never get to see. Follow the sign to the cisterns that Herod's contractors hewed into the foot of the mountain. Here in the arid desert, the master builder of the Holy Land saw to it that he would never lack for water. By means of a system of dams and aqueducts, Herod harnessed the flash floods of the desert to fill 12 colossal cisterns. Next, climb the steps to the small hill that is at the base of the ramp. It houses a grave containing the remains of three Jewish defenders of Masada that Yadin discovered and subsequently handed over to the Israel Defense Forces. The defenders were reburied on this spot by their modern-day comrades-in-arms, with full military honors.
Unless you want to share their fate, you yourself should take some precautions. Desert conditions in this region are unforgiving. Do not attempt this hike in the summer, and take adequate water (a minimum of two liters per person). Wear good shoes, a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.