Model of how Pontius Pilate's original palace at Masada may have appeared.
If you want to plumb the depths of commitment to an ideal of religious zealotry, one of the best places to go is the ruin of the mountain fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea. Here, a band of Jewish sicarii (or daggermen) holed themselves and their families up in order to avoid Roman oppression at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE. In the end, when it became apparent that the huge earthen ramp the Romans built to bring seigeworks to the cliff would prevail, the sicarii men drew lots. The ten men selected each went among a group of about 70, probably not their own kin, and performed a bloody ritual of slaughter before turning their daggers on themselves. When the Romans at last breached the fortress they found cooking fires still burning and stores of food and water enough to withstand several more months of seige. But they found no living rebels. They took no slaves. Approximately 700 people died at their own hands, free, that day.
Now, in the present age, Masada has become a national symbol of pride and independence for the state of Israel. New recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces swear their oaths of allegiance after performing a harrowing early-morning climb up the sheer eastern face of the bluff, following a twisting path called Snake Trail.
The mountain fortress of Masada and the thin winding path of Snake Trail seen in the morning light before my climb.
With one day, actually just one morning, left during my visit to Israel, I decided to wake really early in Tel Aviv, leave the comfort of my hotel, zip through Jerusalem in the gloaming, traffic-free hours before dawn, cruise down the Dead Sea highway, and try to scale Masada in a way that would trace the footsteps of these new recruits and still give me several hours on top to snoop around among the archeological preservations and reconstructions. I wanted to get a sense for the place and its mystique. I wanted to maximize my last day of exploration in the Middle East. I wanted to cap off my travels with the one spot that might be, while not as famous as the Pyramids in Egypt, most relevant to our modern world’s troubles and trials. In the execution of this plan, I was not disappointed.
First of all, the drive and the climb went just as planned, exhausting my body in such a way that my limbs shook and my skin under my backpack foamed with sweat when I reached the summit. This was purposeful. It was my choice to experience the rigor of the climb, sun cresting the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea to bleach the bluff and burn my skin. I could have taken a ski-lift tram to the top but I wanted to be tired. I wanted to feel the emotional drain that the new Israeli recruits must feel, along with the euphoria of their ascent and their sacred entrance among the place of the death of those terrible, awesome martyrs from two-thousand years ago. The view from half-way up Snake Trail shows the amazing precipice of the heights and reveals, also, the outline of one of seven militarily-square Roman encampments, a place that sheltered somewhere around 600 legonaires, and the well-preserved wall of the Roman circumvallation, far below at the start point of the trail.
View from half-way up Snake Trail, just before sunrise.
What I came away with, after relaxing and soaking up the historical information on placards scattered around the blufftop ruins, was a sense of the awesomeness and the holiness of the place, the same strange mixture of secular strength and religious fervor that colors the Israeli outlook on the world.
To talk about that sense, to really give a reader a feeling for it, is — if anything — the Not Quite Right element here. Think of killing your own children, having those deaths link to cultural motifs like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Torah, and then tying the oath of an impressionable young soldier to that moment. What do we, as Americans or Canadians or Australians or Europeans hold similarly dear? What symbols make us fight for our freedoms? What experiences lead us to rise from the comfort of our Monday Night Football- or Oprah-opiated lives to actually do something for the betterment of ourselves or our fellow men? Do such symbols exist that might benefit the whole of mankind rather than just one group, one nationality, like the Israelis?
I fear they do not.
Ruins of the storerooms atop Masada.