Familiar echoes beckon on a haunting hilltop above the Holy Land’s ‘great salt lake’

Postcard from Peggy: Visiting Masada, the site of Israel’s last stand against Rome, and tiptoeing in the Dead Sea.

(Postcard from Peggy | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Editor’s noteThe Salt Lake Tribune’s senior religion writer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is on assignment in the Middle East. Besides her deeper reporting, she is sharing shorter daily dispatches. This one is from Masada.

Masada, Israel • The story of an ancient battle between a band of Jewish zealots, the Romans who were determined to eliminate them, and their decision to end their lives rather than give up their freedom is a point of pride for many Israelis.

It is told as a heroic tale, which has inspired generations of Jews throughout the world, and it all happened about an hour southeast of Jerusalem on a rocky plateau in the middle of a desert, and, below it, a storied salty lake.

So, of course, we had to see it.

Driving to Masada, my first thought was how much like southern Utah the landscape looked — or how it would look if the Great Salt Lake were there.

Taking a cable car ride to the top of the fortress (OK, I’m a wimp, but, in 90-degree heat, we opted not to walk up the steep path), I was stunned by the rocky, forbidding, almost impassable setting.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) View from atop Masada looking north to the Dead Sea on Saturday, April 16, 2022.

Masada was built by King Herod, who ruled Judea from 37 to 4 B.C., on a rocky, flat hilltop far above the Dead Sea. We sauntered around the ruins of his architectural feat, including a three-tier palace, complete with aqueducts that brought water to be stored in cisterns and storage rooms. It was the king’s winter escape and a “haven from his enemies,” according to history.com.

In A.D. 68, some zealots fled to Masada during the Great Revolt against Rome and built it into a stone fortress. The Romans came after the rebels, the last holdouts in Judea.

With more than 10,000 soldiers and a ramp to breach the city’s walls, it became clear that the Romans were on the verge of taking the city. Believing the cause to be hopeless, Masada’s leader, Elazar ben Yair, persuaded the inhabitants to give up their lives rather than submit to the Romans.

“We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them,” ben Yair reportedly said, “and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Masada, an ancient hilltop fortress that was the last stand by zealots and the Jewish revolt against Rome A.D. 66-73. Saturday, April 16, 2022.

To us, the recovered ruins of the buildings — including a synagogue — were impressive windows into their world.

Without evidence of bodies or burials, however, there remain questions about the collective deaths and historian Josephus’ part in promoting the story.

Masada, Israel’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, “still resonates with diaspora Jews who make the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain,” writes U.S. historian Jodi Magness, “where their guides relate the story of a small band of freedom fighters who made a heroic last stand against Rome.”

After descending from the mountain, we made our way to the Dead Sea, far below sea level, for a little healing in the turquoise water.

Coming from Utah, I had to put my feet in that salty sister to our own lake. It seemed, well, similar.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack healing her feet in the salty Dead Sea on Saturday, April 16, 2022.

In the evening, we returned to Jerusalem and took one last stroll around the Old City just as the sun was setting.

Christians were chanting and circling the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Holy Saturday and kissing the “bed” where Christ’s body allegedly was laid before burial.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Christians chant in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre near the site believed to be the tomb that held Christ’s body after he was taken off the cross. Saturday, April 16, 2022.

Jewish men and women, meanwhile, were praying at the Western Wall for their Sabbath observance (and electronic devices were banned until it was over). I was able to enter the women’s section and touch the wall, where so many women were reading scriptures and praying. It felt right and good to share a moment with them.

About the same time, Muslims shopkeepers had closed their stores and were breaking their Ramadan fast together around small tables. Others were praying at the Al Aqsa mosque, while Islamic readings heard over loudspeakers echoed through the empty hallways.

It seemed like there were holy whispers everywhere.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) The Western Wall plaza at the end of the Sabbath on Saturday, April 16, 2022.