Masada: The Fortress
“Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually and . . . let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we are not subdued for want of necessaries; but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery” – excerpt from Eleazar Ben-Yair’s final speech at Masada in 73 or 74 CE. (Josephus Flavius, The Wars of the Jews, VII, 320-336).
Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans. Its fall signaled the violent destruction of the kingdom of Judea at the end of the Second Temple period. I had read The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman. The book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Dovekeepers-Novel-Alice-Hoffman/dp/1451617488) is an historical fiction about the rebels and others including Essenes and Samaritans who fled to Masada after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and so I hoped to see Masada when Barry and I came to Israel. Our great friends Ruth and Danny took us there.
Josephus, the Jewish commander of the Galilee during the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, devoted himself to chronicling the events at the time. He relates that one of the first events of the Great Revolt, which broke out in 66 CE, was the conquest of Masada by the Sicarii, headed by Menahem, son of Judah the Galilean, who was murdered in Jerusalem in 66 CE. After the murder, Eleazar Ben Yair fled from Jerusalem to Masada and became commander of the rebel community on the mountain.
The Masada plateau, 450 meters (1,476 feet) above the level of the Dead Sea, is approximately 650 meters (2,132 feet) long and 300 meters (935 feet) wide. East of the mountain is sediment left by the ancient Dead Sea, scored by numerous cracks.
Masada is close to two ancient routes: one cut through the center of the Judean Desert and led to southern Moab in eastern Transjordan; the other connected Edom, Moab, and the Arava Valley to En Gedi and Jerusalem. Masada’s remote location and its natural defenses were the advantages that transformed it into a fortress during the Second Temple period.
The rebels, who lived in rooms in the casemate wall and in some of Herod’s palaces, constructed a synagogue and Jewish ritual baths (mikvehs).
According to Josephus, the first fortress at Masada was built by “Jonathan the High Priest” – apparently the Hasmonean king Alexander Janaeus (103-76 BCE), whose coins were discovered in excavations of the site. King Hedod, who ruled from 37-4 BCE, was well aware of the strategic advantages of Masada. He therefore chose the site as a refuge against his enemies and as a winter palace.
During Herod’s reign, he had built luxurious palaces and well-stocked storerooms, cisterns, and a casemate wall.
After the death of Herod in 4 BCE and the annexation of Judea to the Roman Empire in 6 CE, the Romans stationed a garrison at Masada.
The Jewish rebels held Masada by 70 CE. According to Josephus, Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea. In 73 or 74 CE, the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis, led by Flavius Silva, laid siege to the mountain. The legion, consisting of 8,000 troops among which were auxiliary forces (including many slaves, including captured Jews), built eight camps around the base, a siege wall, and a ramp made of earth and wooden supports on a natural slope to the west. Captive Jews brought water to the troops, apparently from En Gedi, as well as food.
After a siege that lasted a few months, the Romans brought a tower with a battering ram up the ramp with which they began to batter the wall. The rebels constructed an inner support wall out of wood and earth, which the Romans then set ablaze. As Josephus describes it, when the hope of the rebels dwindled, Eleazar Ben Yair gave two speeches in which he convinced the leaders of the 960 members of the community that it would be better to take their own lives and the lives of their families than to live in shame and humiliation as Roman slaves.
Josephus says of the Jews on Masada when it was obvious that the Romans would soon breach the walls of their fortress: “Then, having chosen by lot ten of their number to dispatch the rest, they laid themselves down each beside his prostrate wife and children, and flinging their arms around them, offered their throats in readiness of the executants of the melancholy office. These, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom it fell should slay first the nine and then himself last of all; . . . They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; The Romans advanced to the assault . . . seeing none of the enemy but on all sides an awful solitude, and flames within and silence, they were at a loss to conjecture what had happened. Here encountering the mass of slain, instead of eluting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death display [sic] by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution” (The Wars of the Jews, VII, 395-406).
According to Josephus, two women and five children who had been hiding in the cisterns on the mountaintop told the Romans what had happened that night, on the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Passover. A Roman auxiliary unit remained at the site until the beginning of the second century CE. After they left Masada, the fortress remained uninhabited for a few centuries. During the fifth century CE, in the Byzantine period, hermits founded a monastery on Masada.
With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the monastery apparently ceased to exist. Masada sank into oblivion until the nineteenth century. From the 1920s and especially during the 1940s, Masada became a lodestone for pioneering Zionist youth groups. This led to the excavations and reconstruction by many, including Hebrew University, Israel Government Tourist Corporation, and Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Today, school groups, tour buses, tourists, historians, archeologists come to Masada.
In this land of strong religious feelings, Masada is a symbol of those who stand to the death for their god: “We were the very first that revolted from them [the Romans], and we are the last that fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God hath granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom, which hath not been the case of others, who were conquered unexpectedly. It is very plain that we shall be taken within a day’s time, but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends . . .” said Eleazar Ben-Yair. And today, Masada is a beautiful UNESCO site. With Ruth and Danny as our guides, we spent several hours wandering around Masada. Then we were ready to go. We decided we would walk down, but didn’t want to do the Snake Path.
We opted to go down the rampart that the Romans had built. Masada is so vast, and the signage was not obvious to us, but we made a good guess and started down.
However, after we had been walking down for about a half hour, we came to a warning sign that cautioned that we each needed to be carrying at least several liters of water before continuing on that trail that would take us out into the Judean desert! We had no water with us. Our goal was to get to Ruth and Danny’s car in as little time as possible! In this magnificent place where for centuries people had had great trouble getting into – we were having trouble leaving!
As we talked with one group about the best way for us to go, another group came up. These two Israeli men had known each other in school camp – and hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. In stopping to help us, they were reunited! And we learned our best option was to walk back up to the top – and take the cable car down to the parking lot. So back up we walked.
Built by Herod, king of Judea, Masada was a palatial fortress in the style of the ancient Roman East. The camps, fortification, and assault ramp at its base constitute the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world. The tragic events of the last days of the rebels at Masada transformed it into both a Jewish cultural icon and a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom from oppression.
To see where Masada is, go to – Masada Map | Israel Traveler from <http://www.israeltraveler.org/en/site/masada/map>. Most of the historical information comes from Masada National Park, by Guy Stiebel, with contributions by Orit Shaham-Grover with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Thanks to Ruth and Danny for being our terrific guides. Masada is waiting for you to explore. Aloha & Shalom, Renée