Despite taking water from the Jordan to irrigate many thousands of hectares of land, much of southern Israel remains stony desert with just the occasional acacia tree clinging to life. To the east of the rift valley are the mountains of Moab in Jordan which was as far as Moses was permitted to come as he could not enter the Promised Land. Between those hills and those on the Israeli side is the still vast Dead Sea.
I was quite amazed by its size, even though it is diminishing rapidly by approximately 80 cm in depth per year. It is said that it will disappear completely in around ten years’ time, and already I could see large lagoons forming as the bed is exposed in certain areas.
As we headed south, out of the Israeli mountains the fortress of Masada rose sharply out of the rocky desert. We knew what it was without being told by our guide as it stands separate, proudly apart from the surrounding hills having been separated by an earthquake many millennia ago.
I took the option of walking up the Snake Path to the summit, the route that King Herod the Great would have taken to his palace on the northern edge. This is the route the Jewish Zealots would have used as they tried to hide away from the Romans of Vespasian and Titus during their brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt of the AD 60’s.
The ramp the Romans built from the western side to gain a position to assault the Jewish is still in place although much eroded. After all it is 2,000 years old. Amazingly you can still see many of the Legion camps and the siege wall the Romans would have built to contain the besieged Jews.
There are many doubts about Josephus Flavius’ account of the taking of Masada, and I wondered if he embellished the story in favour of the Jews, particularly the story of the mass suicide (certain archaeological evidence does cast some doubt on this). Josephus was a leader of the resistance to the Romans but when captured had gone over to them, and gained favour with Vespasian. Did he feel a pang of guilt as he realized that the taking of Masada meant the end of the resistance of his people? Did he try to make some amends by slanting some aspects of the story in favour of the Jews? We shall never know but the story of Masada is etched on the hearts of all Israelis, and to this day the Oath of their soldiers includes the words “Masada shall never fall again”.