Israeli tourist officials are praying that this week's "Masada" mini-series on ABC-TV will do for the Holy Land what "Shogun" has done for tourism in Japan and "Roots" for West Africa -- create awareness and boost the visitor count.
The four-day video event today through Wednesday may not rival the Bible in generating travel interest, but exposing the history and landscape of ancient Israel to a nationwide audience of 60 million viewers promises to be a blessing for the Israel tourist industry.
One tour operator, Kopel Tours of New York, following in the "Shogun" and "Roots" vein, has been marketing a "Masada Epic Tour" through travel agents and organizations since last fall. (Ten departures are scheduled this year, beginning May 11.)
Masada is a reddish table-top mountain in rocky desert terrain along the Dead Sea. Included for years on many other tours of Israel, it is an intriguing archeological site where a heart-rending chapter is Jewish history unfolded.
The TV saga starring Peter O'Toole and Peter Strauss is based on a novel, "The Antagonists," by Ernest Gann. The current paperback edition has been renamed "Masada."
Filmed on location in Israel, the $18 million production, which used archeologically accurate replicas and more than 1,000 extras, is the costliest dramatic project ABC has undertaken. Some filming was done at the western foot of Masada. While not much was shot atop the hallowed ruin, producers did get permission to rebuild an outer fortified wall.
On this bleak bluff 2,000 years ago, a heroic band of 967 Jewish Zealots for three years withstood military assaults from a mighty Roman legion below. The Zealots (from which the English word "zealot" is derived) were members of a sect that militantly opposed the Roman domination of Judea in the 1st Century A.D. The Romans had overthrown the Jewish Maccabean kingdom in the previous century, but periodic rebellions by the most fanatic inhabitants continued. By 70 A.D. every pocket of Jewish resistance in Judea, except the Zealots at Masada, had been wiped out.
In 73 A.D. these freedom-loving Jews defending Masada were unable to hold out any longer. Rather than submit to slavery, they killed themselves before the Romans could storm the fortress. (Two women and five children hid and lived to tell the story.)
The episode spelled the end of the Jewish state, an entity that did not emerge again until 1948. The credo of reborn Israel is "Masada shall not fall again." Knowing the significance of Masada is a key to fathoming the mentality of this young nation surrounded by unfriendly neighbors.
To Israelis, Masada simply means survival. It is a monument to a courageous last stand, much like the Alamo is to Americans. (The word "Masada" is Hebrew for "fortress.") Members of the Israeli armored corps take their oath of allegiance on Masada in a stirring ceremony in which a banner inscribed "Masada shall not fall again" is set ablaze. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs are held there in the ruins of an ancient synagogue.
Except for the shiny Swiss cable car climbing its face, Masada does not stand out among the smooth, mesa-type hills of the Judean Desert. Cut off by deep ravines, Masada rises steeply 1,400 feet above the Dead Sea plain, which is composed of lunar-like salt flats at 1,300 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest spot on earth -- and one of the hottest.
Prior to the excavations in 1963-65, one would have seen nothing but rubble. Thousands of volunteers -- two thirds of them non-Jewish -- from 28 countries helped archeologists dig and sift.
"Without the volunteers the work normally would have taken 26 years," Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin told American travel journalists in Jerusalem recently. "We accomplished our task in 11 months." Prof. Yadin was in charge of the excavations. Commenting on the appearance of the '60s-generation volunteers, Yadin said, "We couldn't tell the difference between the hippies and the professors because of the long hair and beards."
Workers found clothing, Jewish and Roman coins, leather, pottery, parchment scrolls and skeletons with hair still attached. These artifacts, well-preserved in the dry climate, now can be seen at the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
Since 1965, there has been more restoration than digging, Yadin explained. Black-painted lines on the walls of the buildings indicate the point where archeologists have added to what they unearthed. Walls have not been completely rebuilt, thus leaving something to the imagination.
Yadin said he originally was opposed to the cable car, fearing it would not be appropriate at a sacred archeological site. But today he's glad the system enables so many people to visit the mountain shrine. Before the cable car started operation in 1970, fewer than 70,000 hardy souls visited Masada each year. Now an annual crowd of 600,000 gets to scramble around the ruins, according to Yadin.
"The income of Masada is so great that it does not have to depend on the National Parks Authority for funding," Yadin said. "Unlike any other such attraction in Israel, it is fully self-supporting."
Musing on the television mini-series "Masada," Yadin wondered whether the spirit of Masada will survive the film version, which he noted is based on a novel and not strictly on accounts by 1st-century historian Josephus Flavius, who documented the episode for posterity.
"Masada is such a story that you don't have to make up a story," Yadin remarked. "We shall have to wait and see whether it is too sensational or a Cecil B. DeMille-type of production."
The TV cast and crew sweltered in temperatures that ranged from 95 to 130 degrees and had to be continuously sprayed with water. They endured the same windstorms that plagued the Jews and Romans. Three times the wind destroyed an entire Roman camp that had been recreated for the production.
Occasional mountain goats and Bedouin nomads are the only signs of life in this sun-baked wasteland south of Jerusalem. Even the water is dead. The Dead Sea, shimmering like blue glass as one gazes from the eastern side of Masada, supports nary a fish because of its heavy mineral content.
While most tourists reach the fortress by the cable car, there are two walking paths. The western approach, an easy 20-minute hike, is an earthen ramp built by the Romans. The eastern "snake path" is more difficult and takes about an hour. Most individuals and youth groups scale the butte by foot.
Most fascinating for tourists trekking around the ruins are the palaces and baths of King Herod of Judea. He lived in splendor on Masada 100 years before the Jews took refuge there. His three-tiered "hanging palace" was a private retreat precipitously hugging Masada's northern wall. Cool breezes on this side brought some relief in the torrid summers. One can examine fragments of frescoes, mosaic floors and sandstone columns with Corinthian capitals.
Herod greeted dignitaries at the larger "Western Palace," where tourists traipse through the swimming pool and bathing chambers tiled in red, white and black chips. When the Jewish zealots took over Masada, they used Herod's "shrines" with no regard for their original pompous purposes.
Other remains on the stony plateau include Jewish ritual bath; a 1st-century synagogue, which was recreated in the TV epic; a 5th-century Byzantine church used by monks for a short time; and ramparts where Herod's soldiers lived in cubicles and kept watch. One also sees the stone balls hurled at the defenders by Roman catapults.
Walking around Masada requires good shoes. There are plenty of staircases to climb and loose rocks.
Some visitors to Masada stay a night or two at a Dead Sea resort hotel, where they revive themselves in the fresh-water swimming pool or the slimy, salty sea.
The Dead Sea, referred to as the "Salt Sea" in the Bible, is so loaded with minerals that one cannot swim -- or drown -- in it. Containing one-half pound of salt per quart, the water is eight times as heavy as regular saltwater. Anyone can lean back, cross his legs and read a book. Tourists giggle as they float effortlessly.
The Dead Sea's "magic" is no laughing matter to hotel guests (many Europeans) who have rheumatism and skin diseases and stay for weeks at a time to bathe in the curative waters. In addition, one can tan for hours without burning because the sun's damaging rays are reduced because the location is so far below sea level. A few weeks on the Dead Sea is said to cure psoriasis for 6 to 12 months.