Masada – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Masada is a rock outcrop in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea in southern Israel. During his reign from 37to 34BC Herod the Great had a palace complex built on Masada’s flat summit. The mountain top was also the site of the last stand by Jewish rebels against the Roman army in 73AD. At the foot of Masada are the remains of Roman army camps and an attack ramp which have survived since the Roman siege on the Jewish rebels. In 2001 Masada and the ancient structures on its summit were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site measuring 276 hectares together with a buffer zone of 28,965 hectares was found to meet the criteria to be declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNECO) World Heritage Site.

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

king herod palaceUNESCO is an organization dedicated to contributing to world peace and security by international collaboration in education, science and culture to increase universal respect for human rights and our shared human heritage. 195 states are part of UNESCO; their representatives serve on committees which pursue the organization’s objectives through various projects including the project which names various places, things and geographical phenomenon as World Heritage Sites (WHS). To be included on the WHS list sites are rigorously verified to see if they meet certain criteria. The sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of a list of ten criteria. Once the sites are listed they benefit from international attention; attract tourism; the sites can be provided funds for restoration, preservation or conservation; the listing promotes national pride; closer ties with the UN; facilitates partnerships with authorities or the private sector with the purpose of conservation and the site becomes protected under the Geneva Convention against destruction or misuse during wartime.

Masada’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Criteria

Masada meets three of the possible criteria on the list of ten of which sites only need to comply with one criterion.


“to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”

Because of the dramatic events which took place on Masada during the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73AD) when Masada became the site of the last stand against the Romans it became a symbol of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Israel. The story of the decisions by the Jews to commit mass suicide rather than being subjected to captivity under the Romans became a symbol of heroic national pride for the Jewish people. The fall of Masada is considered one of the events which led to the subsequent dispersal of the Israeli people across the globe to the Diaspora. It took until 1948 for the Israelis to once again have their own country.


“to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”

The incredibly well preserved remains of Herod’s palace complex on the top of Masada serve as an example of a Roman Era luxury villa. The palace complex includes storerooms, bath houses, living quarters, guard houses, a complex water system, cisterns and a dovecote. There are the remains of murals and mosaics as well as household items. These remains serve as an example of the Roman architecture and lifestyle. At the foot of Masada are further ancient remains, this time from a later period when the Roman army was camped here while holding Masada under siege. The siege ramp and remains of the Roman camp serve as the most complete example of Roman siege works in the world.


to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions with ideas or with beliefs with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)”

This criterion is similar to (iii) as the events of 73AD when the Jewish rebels on Masada were held under siege by the Romans and eventually made the decision to commit suicide rather than be captured serves as a symbol of the Jewish cultural identity and the continual human struggle against oppression. Symbolically the Jews of Masada were an important symbol of the universal battle between oppressors and those seeking liberty.

Integrity of Masada

Under the UNESCO criteria a site needs to authentic in order to be listed as a World Heritage Site. The integrity of Masada is masadaverified by its remote location in a harsh climate where it remained uncompromised for more than 13 centuries until its discovery in 1828. The wilderness and raw desert environment of Masada has remained untouched for many millennia. Apart for the Visitor Center at the base of the mountain and the cable car Masada has remained unchanged preserving the visual impact of the views from the summit across the barren landscape below.

Authenticity of Masada

The human settlements on Masada have remained untouched for 13 centuries; covered by layers of sand. Thanks to the dry atmosphere and remote location the architectural remains have preserved their authenticity. The level of excavation and reconstruction has been kept to a minimum. Where reconstructions have been made a black line clearly indicates the joining point between the original architecture and the new mortar. The Roman camps and siege ramp have had even less human intervention and are virtually untouched. The sparse inhabitation in the Judean Desert together with the harsh environment serves as a natural deterrent to urbanization and development. The architectural sits are protected by the 1978 Antiquities Law and the designation of Masada and its surrounding area as a national park further protects the site. Masada is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Antiquities Authority.



Masada fortifications on the site of the cliff mini-DSC_0341 mini-IMG_3653 mini-DSC_0351 Guided tour on mount Masada Masada ruins Cable car station on Mount Masada mini-DSC_0325 Cable car to top of Mt. Masada mini-DSC_0366 Masada mini-IMG_3692 mini-IMG_3654

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