All in All, a Hamburger

The head of the Masada excavations says the reaction, like the picture, is out of proportion.

Not long ago, I learned that we live in an era when the Golden Arches rise within Masada. Internet readers' forums were flooded with discussions of this image, and somebody even reflected that [Masada excavator] Yigael Yadin must be turning in his grave. What was all this about? It all happened because a McDonald's branch opened in the Masada area.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I've been at Masada since 1994. Together with the late Prof. Ehud Netzer, I directed the excavations and we also monitored development projects conducted along the hilltop. During long excavation seasons, this wonderful site became, for me, more than a second home. And now people talk about Masada as though it is in ruins. Somebody sent me a text message this week saying "Big Macs at Masada? Did you fall asleep and let this happen?"

McDonald's - Emil Salman - October 2011
Emil Salman

The fact that in recent months I devoted myself to collating excavation findings, and was less involved in field work, created concerns: What was happening at Masada? The first association stirred by the garish McDonald's "M" involved the wall of the Harel shopping mall in Mevasseret Zion. In fact, the photograph published by Haaretz looked like a local version of the HOLLYWOOD sign on the Los Angeles hills.

I examined the photograph repeatedly and something looked askew in the frame, and then it hit me: The photograph, either as the work of the devil or of photoshop, is a mirror image. The pressing of one button created the illusion that the image was photographed from the restaurant's glass door, and presented in a way that enables readers to read the decal, presented oppositely as it was in reality, black on white - or, more precisely, yellow - on the side of Masada's hills. "America's conquest of the last Zionist outpost has been consummated," everyone screamed. That's how consciousness is manufactured.

An exchange of dialogue in the movie Pulp Fiction, which I love, features a conversation between Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield during a ride through the streets of Los Angeles. Jules turns to his comrade Vincent and declares: "Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast."

I tried to grasp why my heart dropped when I heard about a McDonald's opening at Masada. Why do the hamburgers and the yellow "M" cause so much resistance? I assume that this is connected to a defensive response raised against the prospect that the malicious global world, represented by the Americans, might swallow up everything that we were; this is just like the opposition stirred in France by the encroachment of McDonald's, stemming from sentimental memories of what once was. But let's admit the truth - memory is very selective. Nobody expects that today we should reach Masada after a trek of several days through the desert. Our mechanism of remembrance and forgetfulness causes us to forget (for example ) the long lines which stretched at Masada up to a decade ago, and the long periods of waiting in the burning sun.

Personally, McDonald's hamburgers are not my cup of tea. But they are not the devil. After all, nobody will claim that the million visitors who come to Masada every year should be forced to starve. The souvenir stores which have operated at the entrance to the site since its opening have not, up to now, bothered anyone.

Changing attitudes

Let's speak frankly: Personally, I would prefer for tourists to spend eight hours atop the hill and at the museum, and become acquainted with every stone at this magnificent site. But the fact is that tourists come for two-hour visits. And it's worth remembering that their purchasing power provides income for quite a few families.

The consumer area has not bothered anyone up to now, and the steering and planning committee of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority drew very clear lines in the sand to divide between the "sacred" and the "profane." The consumer area was separated from the actual entryway and the exhibits; it does not compete with the site in any way, and it causes no harm to a visit to Masada. All the services required of a site of Masada's dimensions have been quartered in one closed-off ground floor; and there's no point on the hill at which you can guess what is being sold below, whether at McDonald's or anywhere else.

Had all the protests referred to the prices on this ground floor, I would have been happy to join the demonstrators. But we live in a post-modern, extortionist era, and like the creation of myths, the rise in prices is the trend of the day.

It bears mention that changing attitudes in Israel toward the Masada story reflect what's happened to our society. They are a kind of mirror image of what we have undergone during the past century. For some time, Masada has ceased to be the story of the last night atop the hill, and suicide. The remains on the site contain much more evidence of life in antiquity than of death. The excavations and scientific analysis of the materials bear witness to a complex picture of life at the site 2,000 years ago.

Let's keep things in perspective. You are invited to visit Masada, and as a result of the visit, I hope, you will be exposed to Herodian wonders of construction and the power of life in the days of rebellion; and you will have an opportunity to follow the dictates of the heart or of the head, while making the fateful choice of whether or not to invest NIS 1.5 and enlarge the meal.

Seriously: Come and get a taste of what Masada has to offer, and find that it has much more than you've been told. When you distinguish between the wheat and the chaff, you'll find that most of the issues raised by the site pertain to our lives - they have acute pertinence to our lives today.


Dr. Stiebel is the director of the Masada excavation team on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology.