For the hardy, the Masada experience begins with the Act of Creation.
The desert night is at its coldest when you arrive at the foot of the 1,440-foot-high mesa before dawn. The long, winding Snake Path stretches ahead in the moonlight. By the time you climb it to the top, an hour later, the world is awash with pale light. Then it happens. As you approach the cliff edge and look across the Dead Sea -- the lowest point on the face of the planet -- the sun edges upward from behind the Mountains of Moab in Jordan and bursts upon the world as if for the first time.
Masada is for many visitors the ultimate archeological experience in the Holy Land, even though its archeological remains are far less impressive than those at other sites in the country. It is the spectacular setting and, even more, the spectacular story of Masada that make a visit there a life experience. It offers a tangible contact with an episode from antiquity that makes us sense that we ourselves are part of a long-running drama -- perhaps melodrama -- in which costumes change, but not human poignancy.
Swept over repeatedly by invaders who demolished the structures of their predecessors, Israel does not offer the monumental remains of Egypt or of the Maya. What it does offer is a history that is part of the heritage of half of mankind. And with a bit of imagination and the Bible, visitors can reconstruct the palaces and the passions of antiquity for themselves. Whether climbing to the top of Masada, inspecting the ruins of Caesarea or touring the recent excavations in and around Jerusalem, there is ample opportunity to peek into the past.
The flat-topped mount of Masada, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, stands in a desolate landscape on the edge of the Judean Desert, normally shunned even by wandering Bedouins seeking forage for their sheep and goats. It was Masada's remote setting and its tactical defendability that led King Herod in Jerusalem -- the king who ruled when Jesus was born -- to choose it as the site of one of the fortresses he prudently constructed on the edge of his kingdom. He built a royal enclave atop Masada that included an elaborately furnished palace, an extensive system of cisterns, storehouses and an armory.
It would be almost 100 years before the fortress would serve its purpose. In A.D. 70, when the Roman legions conquered Jerusalem, a small band of Jewish fighters and their families under Eliezar Ben Yair escaped into the desert and took refuge on Masada. For three years, the Romans laid siege to the mountain, until they succeeded in building a massive ramp from a spur closest to the top of Masada. One evening, despite fierce resistance, the Romans managed to breach the defense wall. With the outcome of the following morning's battle inevitable, Ben Yair assembled his followers.
"All men are equally destined to death," he said, according to the contemporary historian Josephus Flavius. "While freedom is our own, let us die free men." They would die, he suggested, by their own hands rather than succumb to the Romans.
"While they embraced their wives and children for the last time, they wept over and stabbed them in the same moment, taking comfort however that this work was not to be performed by their enemies." Then 10 men, chosen by lot, put their comrades to the sword. The 10 then cast lots among themselves to choose the one who would kill the other nine. "The surviving man, having surveyed the bodies and found that they were all dead, threw himself upon his sword."
When the Romans charged through the breach at dawn, they found 960 bodies and two old women, who emerged from hiding to tell the harrowing tale.
In the 1960s, the remains of numerous structures were discovered on Masada, including the palace, a three-tiered structure built on the very edge of the mount and offering a magnificent view. Perhaps the most evocative find was 11 pieces of broken pottery with names written on them -- the lots by which the Jews chose who would slay their comrades.
The Israeli army for many years held swearing-in ceremonies for young recruits atop Masada. In a torchlight ceremony at dusk after the men had climbed to the top of the mount, they would be presented a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other and vow that "Masada shall not fall again." Recently Masada has become a popular place for bar mitzvahs, the site linking the 13-year-olds dramatically to their past.
For visitors who like to make their discoveries in comfort, Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast offers a different sort of archeological experience. Here you can have a pleasant lunch at one of the seaside restaurants inside a fortress that dates from the Crusade period and is guarded by a moat. The town's extensive remains cover an assortment of historical periods and include Roman aqueducts and a restored Roman amphitheater (musical performances are still held there), Arab residences and Byzantine mosaics.
Founded by Herod in 10 B.C. as a major port -- a transshipment point between Europe and the East -- Caesarea was an urban wonder that covered an area half the size of Manhattan. Its marble-clad buildings, none of which remain, were described by traders sailing past as glistening white in the sun. Enormous breakwaters sheltered an artificial harbor that could accommodate 300 ships. The main channels of the sea-flushed sewer system, uncovered in recent years, are big enough to drive a minibus though.
Under Roman rule, Caesarea displaced Jerusalem as capital of Judea. In the 1960s, a stone inscription was found at Caesarea mentioning Pontius Pilate -- the only archeological evidence ever found of the procurator of Judea. It is now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
It is Jerusalem itself that offers the most concentrated assemblage of archeological sites in the country, the bulk of them uncovered only in recent years. Following the Six Day War in 1967, three major excavations were undertaken in and around the Old City. These digs cut through some 25 distinct layers of settlement over a span of 4,000 years, often separated by charred remains of destruction.
The most prominent of these periods is the century prior to the destruction of the city in A.D. 70. It was a time of immense spiritual ferment from which would emerge Christianity and a new form of Judaism -- rabbinic Judaism, freed from a cultic link to the Jerusalem temple after the latter's destruction. It was also a time of intense physical development unmatched in Jerusalem until the present.
During this period, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are estimated to have come to Jerusalem for religious holidays each year. In order to accommodate them, King Herod doubled the size of the Temple Mount -- the artificial esplanade on which the temple stood. He also enlarged the temple itself.
But the new magnificence was short-lived. The Romans put the torch to the temple and shoved the columns of the royal portico over the edge of the mount. The mount would remain desolate until the Moslems built the magnificent Dome of the Rock upon it seven centuries later.
In the 1970s, at the foot of the Temple Mount, archeologists uncovered monumental remains of Herodian Jerusalem, including massive staircases leading up to the mount and the columns from the portico -- each so large that it takes three men linking outstretched hands to embrace it. Also uncovered were remains of palaces built in the 8th century A.D. by the Moslem conquerors of Jerusalem -- palaces that even Moslem historians had been unaware of. Today, the partially restored remains have been incorporated in an "archeological park" extending for about half a mile.
About a third of a mile west of the Temple Mount, beneath today's Jewish Quarter, archeologists have found remains of the Upper City of Herodian Jerusalem, where the priests and aristocracy dwelled in lavish villas. Last fall, some of these partially restored dwellings were opened to the public, including the basement -- all that remains -- of a mansion that covered nearly 2,000 square feet. Sunken baths, exquisite mosaic floors and brightly colored murals are visible.
Most of the archeological remains in the Jewish Quarter are located in basement museums beneath new buildings constructed after completion of the archeological excavations.
The last great archeological undertaking in Jerusalem was the excavation of the City of David, the small Jebusite city captured in 1,000 B.C. by David. The site was located on a steep ridge over a spring that was the only water supply in the area. Since the latter part of the 19th century, archeologists have been probing the ridge with almost no success in unearthing any evidence at all of the city in which David had reigned 33 years.
But within the last decade, substantial remains of the city in which the political character of the Israelite nation was shaped have come to light. The largest structure revealed is a 60-foot-high stepped foundation that had served as the base of the royal citadel from which David and Solomon had ruled. The archeologists also cleared an underground water system including a tunnel and 40-foot-high shaft that permitted water to be drawn from the spring, which lay outside the city walls, even when the city was besieged.
Abraham Rabinovich is a feature writer for the Jerusalem Post and author of "The Boats of Cherbourg," to be published this spring by Seaver/Holt.