Last Updated on 01/06/21 by quiltripping
Besides the day that we spent in Jerusalem, the other sights I was especially interested in seeing on the few days we had in Israel were the historic UNESCO listed site of Masada along with the Dead Sea. After doing some research, I decided that a day trip from Tel Aviv was the most efficient way to experience these two locations on the same excursion.
A day trip from Tel Aviv
I like to use Viator.com to easily find local tours that fit my schedule. I picked a small group tour that offered hotel pick up and drop off and included a visit to the Masada National Park and the Dead Sea.
The tour got an early morning start as it is a two hour drive from Tel Aviv to the Masada historic area. The countryside we drove through was arid and dry except for irrigated sections which were lush and green with date palm groves.
Passing through the Palestinian territory on the way to Masada was a non event for our tour. It was interesting passing the occasional Jewish settlements with nothing but dry, rocky desert surrounding them.
Tour to Masada
Masada is a fortress built by King Herod the Great in 31 BCE on a large flat topped plateau on the edge of the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. Herod built a huge palace complex here as a winter retreat and also as a place to escape to during a possible rebellion.
The plateau rises 1400 feet and has steep drop offs on all sides. In such a landscape, I think it would be a challenge to build anything even with today’s technology. What is especially impressive is that Herod built his palace with multiple terraces that appear to be hanging on the northern side of the plateau and that gave him stunning views over the desert and the Dead Sea beyond.
For its time, this truly was an engineering marvel. The plateau has no natural sources of water, so Herod’s builders put gravity to good use, building cisterns and a sophisticated system that collected and transported rainwater. They used gravity to direct the water throughout the complex, which included bathhouses and a swimming pool. As I looked down over the desert, I could only imagine the challenges of hauling building materials and other supplies to this isolated location so high over the desert.
Herod’s enemies may not have been able to get to the top easily, but today’s tourist have a couple of options. For those that have the energy, there are two hiking paths up to the top (bring lots of water if you are going to do this and start early in the day). For the rest of us, a cable car system whisked us to the top in 3 minutes and with minimal sweating.
What is especially interesting is that even though the cable car was climbing about 800 vertical feet, once I was on the plateau, I was actually only 100 feet above sea level. That is because the Dead Sea is the lowest body of water on the planet at 1300 feet below sea level.
Once we reached the top of the plateau, our tour guide took us around the site and explained in detail what we were seeing. The complex is huge and surpassingly well preserved after 2000 years. Besides Herod’s two palaces which had his personal quarters, reception rooms, and a throne room, there were also many storage rooms and spaces for his administrators and servants. The complex also included a synagogue, Roman baths and an armory.
Our guide also went on to talk about the second reason for which Masada is well known. In 66 CE, a sect of Jews known as Zealots revolted against Roman rule and ultimately retreated to the safety and isolation of Masada. Eventually, in 73 CE a Roman legion laid siege to the plateau and built a huge ramp of stone and fill that allowed them to get a battering ramp to the top. Stories say that the large Jewish population chose to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Romans though archeological evidence is still trying to prove this.
Even after all these years, the ramp is still present and the evidence of the Roman army encampments can be seen on the desert floor from the top of the plateau. It is these well preserved encampment remains and the siege ramp that established Masada as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.
The ramp along with the Snake Trail on the eastern side are the two paths by which the top of the plateau can be reached on foot today. Hikes to the top start very early in the day to avoid the hot midday temperatures. Combining a hike with watching the sun rise from the top of the plateau is also a popular tourist activity and there are tours from Tel Aviv that allow you to do this.
Our guide gave us some free time to explore on our own, though not nearly as much as I would have liked (I like lots of extra time for photos). Still, since I don’t do well with heights, I don’t think I would have taken some of the walkways and stairs along the cliff edge anyway. But it would have been nice to be able to explore the whole site at a more leisurely pace.
If you choose to visit Masada on your own, you will want to get the most current visitor information at the Masada National Park website.
Floating in the Dead Sea
Swimming in the Dead Sea is one of those experiences that you read about and think “if I am ever in the area, I want to do this”. Well, I finally had a chance to do it.
From Masada, our guide took us to a public beach on the Dead Sea. This seems to be a popular location as it was quite busy. The beach had basic facilities for changing, showering and also a snack bar and souvenir shop.
After changing, I walked down to the shore and waded into the water. The salinity concentration of the Dead Sea is about ten times higher than the salinity in the oceans. This actually makes the water denser than the human body, and as a result, it makes it easy to float without even trying.
What surprised me was that the water actually felt somewhat slimy due to the high concentration of salts – not really something I enjoyed. I did the obligatory floating for a bit and then smeared some mud on my arms and legs. The minerals are supposed to be good for the skin (though be careful not to get any of the water or mud in your eyes). Then I had enough and rinsed and changed.
I was actually a little disappointed in my Dead Sea experience. Sure, I got in the water, but I was also trying to keep an eye on my belongings on the shore the whole time. I also did not feel comfortable in the changing facility which was just one huge hut with benches along the walls. It was crowded and there was no privacy and absolutely no accounting for modesty.
If we had had a few more days in Israel and Jordan itinerary, I would have preferred to experience the Dead Sea at one of the upscale resorts on the Jordanian coast (I had looked into the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar). We really enjoyed our time at a resort on the Red Sea in Jordan, and I expect we would have felt the same at a high quality Dead Sea resort. The water would still have felt as slippery, but I think the upscale experience would have been much more pleasant, and definitely more relaxing.
Overall, I did enjoy my day trip from Tel Aviv. Masada was interesting as was the drive through the Palestinian territory. And, I can say that I swam in the Dead Sea. Bucket list item – check!
Thanks for visiting.