Geological Features of Masada

Masada is located in one of the most fascinating geological locations on Earth; the Dead Sea region; along the Great Rift Valley which runs from north to south and along the desert belt which runs from west to east.

2014-05-17_224722Masada between the Desert and the Dead Sea

Masada stands between the Dead Sea Rift Valley and the eastern side of the Judean Desert. It shares properties with both these diverse geographical regions and is part of them yet a separate entity. Masada grew from the blending of these two geological regions. Masada is an isolated cliff part of the Judean fault escarpment.

The Judean Hills reach 800-1000 meters about sea level; the Dead Sea falls to about 400 meters below sea level making a vertical difference of approximately 1,400 meters over the course of only 25 meters. You don’t need a geologist to tell you this once you drive the twisting and turning road down (literally) from Jerusalem to Masada and feel your ears “pop” as you dip below sea level. Masada lies on the boundary line between the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. Masada’s sheer cliffs and the structure of its rock are a direct result of its unique location. The scarp (steep bank or slope) is a result of the fault (displacement or fracture in the earth causing rock mass movement) which created the Dead Sea Valley. Masada’s eastern cliff is part of this scarp which explains its sheer cliffs. The border between the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea is an abrupt precipitous, almost vertical slope. At some points it reaches a height of 600 meters over a horizontal distance of less than a kilometer. The western slope of Masada is a result of a second fault line about 2km to the west of the great scarp, running parallel to it.

Thousands of years ago this region would have been rich in water, flora and fauna. The remains of those ancient animals and plants formed layers compressed between the limestone strata creating phosphoric chalk which is used today for industry and agriculture. This ancient organic matter also contributed to the clay and bituminous chalk as well as mineral rich brown-black colored lines in the rocks of the Dead Sea region. The clay was mentioned by a 1st century geographer in relation with Masada and was used by several civilizations for multiple purposes. Pure sulphur is also found in the Dead Sea region between layers of lissan marl and gypsum. The earth in this region is rich in many minerals, oils and natural gas.

The unique location of Masada supports diverse natural microhabitats and vegetation which decreases progressively as you move from west to east. The Judean Desert measures 60-80km from north to south and 20-25km from east to west. The Judean mountain range prevents precipitation in the area on one side and on the other the Dead Sea presents the lowest point on Earth and a highly saline environment. The area is a meeting point of extremes. However the Judean Desert is not entirely arid due to a steep gradient of the escarpment so that the terrain needs only a wet winter to create a green covering of vegetation on the previously barren landscape. This steep gradient in the terrain also effects the climate changes between the desert and Mediterranean climates.

Surrounding Masada

Masada is bound on the north, south and west by the Judean Desert Nature Reserve. To the east there are areas defined as Cable car to Mazadaagricultural and open areas where nothing can be built. So Masada has the unique situation, unlike most landmarks of standing isolated in the barren landscape without being crowded by hotels, restaurants or other trappings of mankind and the tourist industry. The only built structure within proximity of Masada is the Visitor Center at the base of the mount where the cable car originates. Thus the rural landscape has been preserved.

There are dramatic differences in the terrain surrounding Masada. To the west the Judean Desert; in the east a landscape created by the Lissan Formation with mainly thin black and white layers and at the eastern edge the Dead Sea.

In the south the huge fault scarp, the western wall of the Syrian-African Rift Valley forming the boundary between the Judean Desert and Dead Sea Regions and to the north the Judean Desert landscape reaches out towards Ein Gedi and the northern shore of the Dead Sea.

king herod palaceThe Geological and Physical Structure of Masada

Geologists have studied the rock of Masada and the surrounding earth using seismites – layers of earth which have been altered by earthquakes triggering off-fault deformations. Not to get too technical, experts can date when certain natural events occurred like earthquakes, floods, erosion, avalanches by examining these seismites and other clues in the layers of rock.

The rock which makes up the mass of Masada is mainly limestone and dolomite. The summit is mostly covered with hard dolomite which slopes downwards to a layer of water-impervious marl where the ancient water cisterns were created on the northwestern slope. The lower row of water cisterns were dug out of Marmoreal dolomite rock and it is the dolomite cliffs which give Masada its impenetrable natural fortifications. Lower down on the mount there are alternate layers of limestone, chalk and slate.

Masada’s eastern side is approximately 400 meters high; the cliffs on the western side are approximately 90 meters high. The top of Masada is a rhomboid-shaped flat plateau measuring approximately 550 meters by 270 meters with a circumference of approximately 1,300 meters and covering an area of approximately 7.28 hectors on Masada’s flat summit.


mini-DSC_0356 A view to the Dead Sea from Masada mini-IMG_3719 Top of Mt.Masada palm plantation mini-IMG_3695 Guided tour on mount Masada mini-DSC_0316 mini-DSC_0293 Masada ruins mini-DSC_0392 mini-DSC_0325 mini-masada-cable-car

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