At 3 am early Friday morning, with no one awake but the teenagers stumbling out of taxis on their way home from bars and the lone Orthodox Jew walking down the street, a few of my friends and I climbed into a tour van with complete strangers—two from Germany, one from Switzerland, one from the Netherlands, an Australian and of course a few Americans. After brief introductions, tired and quiet, we left Jerusalem, the city lights fading behind us, opening up onto a vast darkness with only the stars above as we made our way to the ancient fortress of Masada for a sunrise hike.
The story of Masada is one whose strength still echoes thousands of years later. Around 73 or 74 CE, Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea and the last hope for those fleeing from the conquering Romans. Still, the Romans laid siege to the mountain, surrounding it with thousands of troops and constructing a siege wall and a ramp. After a few months, when the Romans had almost made it to the top, the 960 remaining rebels, urged by their leader, committed mass suicide rather than become slaves to the Romans. Two women and five children survived, hidden in the water cisterns. As we arrived at Masada, and began the trek up to the top, racing the sun, the story of those rebels and the women and children who survived them were not far from mind. The steps we took up the mountain via the “snake path” were the same ones they had taken. The view we looked down upon was the same they had seen, the desert and Jordan across the Dead Sea.
After 700 stairs up the “snake path,” winding our way back and forth along the side of the mountain, we finally made it to the top of Masada. During our brief 45-minute hike up, the landscape had grown lighter—the sky had changed from a deep dark blue, becoming tinged with hints of red, orange and yellow. The brightening light illuminated what remained of Masada’s fortress. Crumbled walls of synagogues and churches, of rebel dwellings, of bathing pools surrounded us. The ruins were starkly outlined against the sky. Although in disarray, it was easy to imagine the buildings and the walls at their full strength, once housing hundreds.
The sky growing ever lighter, we perched on top of what remained of a rebel dwelling, waiting in silence for the sun to rise over the Moab Mountains of Jordan. In the distance, the Judean Desert appeared to go on for miles and in front of us, between Israel and Jordan; the Dead Sea shimmered in the light. Almost suddenly, the sun peeked over the mountains, blinding us as light washed over the landscape. From the other people and tour groups waiting for the sun came a loud cheer and clapping, as if the sun rising was a miracle. It seemed laughable at first, but as we sat among ruins that were thousands of years old, where 960 people had perished to maintain their pride and honor, the rising of the sun at that moment as it bathed those ruins in light seemed like a tribute to those 960 who had fallen so long ago. It was a testament to their lives lost, and their lives lived. It deserved applause.
Jerelyn Luther ’16 is blogging this summer from Jerusalem, Israel.