Masada is a spectacular plateau (horst) (photo) on the western cliffs of the Dead Sea. It is a fortified site that became the scene of famous events in the 1st century AD. The cliffs of the east side of Masada are some 400m high and the cliffs on the west side are about 91m high. It is surrounded by two stream beds: Wadi Masada (on the southeast) and Wadi ben Yair (on the west).
It is accessible in several ways:
- The snake path. This is a precarious and steep path that was described by Josephus almost 2000 years ago. It ascends 400 m and is for the physically prepared. It should not be undertaken alone and is best to do first thing in the morning before it becomes too hot. It is very important to warn people to carry at least 2 liters of water and to wear hats and protection from the sun.
- The cable car. For a fee it is possible to ascend and descend Masada via a cable car which leaves every 15 minutes or when 80 people are assembled. It is very fast.
- The Ramp path: This is accessible from the western side and people may either walk the long path around the base of the mountain, or the bus must approach Masada via Arad. This must be planned in advance.
NB if you have clients who are interested and have time, or any who do not wish to ascend Masada, there is a fabulous Museum which operates with headsets for a small fee.
History and Archaeology:
Masada (Hebrew מצדה metsada) means fortress. Our main literary source about Masada is the work Jewish War written by the famous Jewish historian Josephus in the first century AD. According to Josephus the site of Masada was first fortified during the Hasmonean period by the ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) to protect the south-eastern border of his kingdom.
Herod the Great took over the fortress after the assassination of his father. In the year 40 BC he hid female family members there when he was fighting over the throne with Antigonus; one of the Hasmonean dynasty. Herod fled to Rome to seek help from his patrons, as Antigonus had laid siege to Masada. The besieged family members were running out of water. There was only one cistern at that time that could be used to accumulate run-off rainwater. (One can see a cistern in question in Masada. This is the kind of cistern referred to metaphorically by the prophet Jeremiah who spoke of God’s people abandoning Him:
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2 v 13.)
It started raining however and the besieged were saved. Herod returned shortly after and the siege was lifted.
Herod had realized the value of this high and not easily approachable fortress and prepared it as a place of refuge for himself in the time of turmoil. In addition, he made it very comfortable for his family and guests (we are not sure if he was ever there) with sumptuous palaces and baths, remains of which have been excavated and are open to the public.
In the year 66 AD rebels against Rome seized the fortress and the fortress remained under their control for a numbers of years. Jerusalem fell in 70 AD and the Temple was destroyed. The Roman general Flavius Silva approached the fortress sometime in the winter of 73. The Romans were able to capture the fortress. However, the rebels of the fortress belonged to a hard-core group known as Sicarii. The interpreted the fall of Masada as God’s deed and committed a collective suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. They knew that their wives would be raped, the men killed and the children sold into slavery.
Masada had no national significance until the twentieth century. Josephus story was not central to the Jewish national history until it was revised by modern Zionists. Isaac Lamdan wrote a famous poem in 1927 using Masada as a symbol of the Jewish people’s struggle for freedom. During WWII when Palestine was in danger of falling into the Nazis’ hands, the Jews in Palestine were preparing to stand their ground to the end, in the same way that the zealots did in the 1st century AD. The rich archaeological site of Masada was excavated by Yigal Yadin much later in the excavations of 1963 and 1965.
Bible verses mentioning the word metsada or fortress:
The Lord Is Our Fortress/Masada – Psa. 18:2; Psa. 91:2; Psa. 144:2
Josephus’s description of Masada location and history:
The Wars of the Jews 7.8.3 – 4 The Roman Siege of Masada (if available in Chinese):
(We should remember that Josephus became a traitor to the Jews, defecting to the Romans. In addition to this he was not present at Masada and relied on eye witnesses who escaped. So we should question the accuracy and integrity of his account, which in some cases does not yet match the archeological findings. For example until today no-where near 960 skeletons have been found.)
“A rock of no slight circumference and lofty from end to end is abruptly terminated on every side by deep ravines, the precipices rising sheer from an invisible base and being inaccessible to the foot of any living creature, save in two places where the rock permits of no easy ascent. Of these tracks one leads from the Lake Asphaltitis on the east, the other, by which the approach is easier, from the west. The former they call the snake, seeing a resemblance to that reptile in its narrowness and continual windings; for its course is broken in skirting the jutting crags and, returning frequently upon itself and gradually lengthening out again, it makes painful headway. One traversing this route must firmly plant each foot alternately. Destruction faces him; for on either side yawn chasms so terrific as to daunt the hardiest. After following this perilous track for thirty furlongs, one reaches the summit, which instead of tapering to a sharp peak, expands into a plain.
On this plateau the high priest Jonathan (161–143 B.C.) first erected a fortress and called it Masada; the subsequent planning of the place engaged the serious attention of King Herod. For first he enclosed the entire summit, a circuit measuring seven furlongs, with a wall of white stone, twelve cubits high and eight broad; on it stood 37 towers, fifty cubits high, from which access was obtained to apartments constructed around the whole interior of the wall. For the actual top, being of rich soil and softer than any plain, was given up by the king to cultivation; in order that, should there ever be a dearth of provisions from outside, those who had committed their lives to the protection of the fortress might not suffer from it.
There, too, he built a palace on the western slope, beneath the ramparts on the crest and inclining toward the north. The palace wall was strong and of great height, and had four towers, sixty cubits high, at the corners. The fittings of the interior—apartments, colonnades, and baths—were of manifold variety and sumptuous; columns, each formed of a single block, supporting the building throughout, and the walls and floors of the apartments being laid with variegated stones. Moreover, at each spot used for habitation, both on the summit and about the palace, as also before the wall, he had cut out in the rock numerous large tanks, as reservoirs for water, thus procuring a supply as ample as where springs are available. . . .
But the stores laid up within would have excited still more amazement, alike for their lavish splendor and their durability. For here had been stored a mass of grain, amply sufficient to last for years, abundance of wine and oil, besides every variety of pulse and piles of dates. All these Eleazar, when he with his Sicarii became through treachery master of the fortress, found in perfect condition and no with inferior to goods recently laid in; although from the date of storage to the capture of the palace by the Romans well-nigh a century had elapsed. Indeed, the Romans found what remained of the fruits undecayed. It would not be erroneous to attribute such durability to the atmosphere, which at the altitude of the citadel is untainted by all earth-born and foul alloy.
There was also found a mass of arms of every description, hoarded up by the king [Herod] and sufficient for ten thousand men, besides unwrought iron, brass, and lead; these preparations having, in fact, been made for grave reasons. For it is said that Herod furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself, suspecting a twofold danger: peril on the one hand from the Jewish people, lest they should depose him and restore their former dynasty [the Hasmoneans] to power; the greater and more serious from Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. For she never concealed her intention, but was constantly importuning Anthony, urging him to slay Herod, and praying him to confer on her the throne of Judaea. And, far from expecting him to refuse to gratify her, one might rather be surprised that Anthony should never have obeyed her behests, basely enslaved as he was by his passion for her.
It was such fears that drove Herod to fortify Masada, which he was destined to leave to the Romans as a final task in their war with the Jews.
Josephus: The Wars of the Jews 8.2
The Roman general advanced at the head of his forces against Eleazar and his band of Sicarii who held Masada and, promptly making himself master of the whole district, established garrisons at the most suitable points, threw up a wall all around the fortress, to make it difficult for any of the besieged to escape, and posted sentinels to guard it. He himself encamped at a spot which he selected as most convenient for siege operations, where the rocks of the fortress abutted on the adjacent mountain, although ill suited for commissariat purposes. For not only were supplies conveyed from a distance, entailing hard labor for the Jews who were appointed for that purpose, but even water had to be brought into the camp, there being no spring in the neighborhood.
Having completed these preliminary arrangements, Silva turned his attention to the siege, which demanded great skill and severe exertion, owing to the strength of the fortress. Since therefore Silva, the Roman general, had now completed his wall surrounding the whole exterior of the place and taken the strictest precautions that none should escape, he applied himself to the siege. He had discovered only one spot capable of supporting earthworks. For in the rear of the wall that barred the road leading from the west to the palace and the ridge was a projection of rock, of considerable breadth and jutting far out, but still three hundred cubits below the elevation of Masada; it was called Leuce [the White Promontory].
Silva, having accordingly ascended and occupied this eminence, ordered his troops to throw up an embankment. Working with a will and a multitude of hands, they raised a solid bank to the height of two hundred cubits. This, however, being still considered of insufficient stability and extent as an emplacement for the engines, on top of it was constructed a platform of great stones fitted closely together, fifty cubits broad and as many high. The engines in general were similarly constructed to those first devised by Vespasian and afterwards by Titus for their siege operations; in addition a sixty-cubit tower was constructed entirely cased in iron, from which the Romans by volleys of missiles from numerous quick firers and “ballistae” quickly beat off the defenders on the ramparts and prevented them from showing themselves. Simultaneously, Silva, having further provided himself with a great battering ram, ordered it to be directed without intermission against the wall, and having, though with difficulty, succeeded in effecting a breach, brought it down in ruins.
The Sicarii, however, had already hastily built up another wall inside, which was not likely to meet with a similar fate from the engines; for it was pliable and calculated to break the force of the impact, having been constructed as follows. Great beams were laid lengthwise and contiguous and joined at the extremities; of these there were two parallel rows a wall’s breadth apart, and the intermediate space was filled with earth. Further, to prevent the soil from dispersing as the mound rose, they clamped, by other transverse beams, those laid longitudinally. The work thus presented to the enemy the appearance of masonry, but the blows of the engines were weakened, battering upon a yielding material which, as it settled down under the concussion, they merely served to solidify.
Observing this, Silva, thinking it easier to destroy this wall by fire, ordered his soldiers to hurl at it showers of burning torches. Being mainly made of wood, it quickly caught fire, and, from its hollow nature becoming ignited right through blazed up in a volume of flame. At the first outbreak of the fire, a north wind which blew in the faces of the Romans caused them an alarm; for, diverting the flame from above, it drove it against them, and the fear that all their engines would be burnt up had almost reduced them to despair. Then suddenly the wind, veering as if by divine providence, to the south and blowing with full force in the opposite direction, wafted and flung the flames against the wall, which now through and through was ablaze.
The Romans, thus blessed by God’s aid, returned rejoicing to their camp, with the determination of attacking the enemy on the morrow; and throughout that night they kept stricter watch lest any of them should secretly escape.
Josephus: The Wars of the Jews 7.8.6 , 7.9.1 the Speech of Eleazar Ben Yair:
However, neither did Eleazar once think of flying away, nor would he permit anyone else to do so; but when he saw their wall burnt down by the fire, and could devise no other way of escaping, or room for their farther courage, and setting before their eyes what the Romans would do to them, their children, and their wives, if they got them into their power, he consulted about having them all slain. Now, as he judged this to be the best thing they could do in their present circumstances, he gathered the most courageous of his companions together, and encouraged them to take that course by a speech, which he made to them in the manner following:
Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice. And let us not at this time bring a reproach on ourselves for self-contradiction, while we formerly would not undergo slavery, though it were then without danger, but must now, together with slavery choose such punishments also as are intolerable; I mean this, upon the supposition that the Romans once reduced us under their power while we are alive. We were the very first that revolted from them, and we are the last that fight against them; 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, which has not been the case with 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. This is what our enemies themselves cannot by any means hinder, although they be very desirous to take us alive. Nor can we purpose to ourselves any more to fight them and beat them. It had been proper indeed for us to have conjectured at the purpose of God much sooner, and at the very first, when we were so desirous of defending our liberty, and when we received such sore treatment from one another, and worse treatment from our enemies, and to have been sensible that the same God, who had of old taken the Jewish nation into his favor, had now condemned them to destruction; for had he either continued favorable, or been but in a lesser degree displeased with us, he had not overlooked the destruction of so many men, or delivered his most holy city to be burnt and demolished by our enemies.
To be sure, we weakly hoped to have preserved ourselves and ourselves alone, still in a state of freedom, as we had been guilty of no sins ourselves against God, nor been partners with those of others; we also taught other men to preserve their liberty. Wherefore, consider how God has convinced us that our hopes were in vain, by bringing such distress on us in the desperate state we are now in, and which is beyond all our expectations; for the nature of this fortress, which was in itself unconquerable, has not proved a means of our deliverance; and even while we have still great abundance of food, and a great quantity of arms and other necessities more than we want, we are openly deprived by God himself of all hope of deliverance; for that fire which was driven upon our enemies did not, of its own accord, turn back upon the wall which we had built: this was the effect of God’s anger against us for our manifold sins, which we have been guilty of in a most insolent and extravagant manner with regard to our own countrymen; the punishments of which let us not receive from the Romans but from God himself, as executed by our own hands, for these will be more moderate than the other.
Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fail of our wealth also: and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessities; but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.”
They caressed and embraced their wives and took their children in their arms, clinging in tears to those parting kisses, at that same instant, as though served by hands other than their own, they accomplished their purpose, having the thought of the ills they would endure under the enemy’s hands to console them for their constraint in killing them. And in the end not one was found a truant in so daring a deed: all carried through their task with their dearest ones. Wretched victims of necessity, to whom to slay with their own hands their own wives and children seemed the lightest of evils! Unable, indeed, any longer to endure their anguish at what they had done, and feeling that they wronged the slain by surviving them if it were but for a moment, they quickly piled together all the stores and set them on fire; 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.
These [ten] 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. Finally, then, the nine bared their throats, and the last solitary survivor, after surveying the prostrate multitude, to see whether haply amid the shambles there were yet one left who needed his hand, and finding that all were slain, set the palace ablaze, and then collecting his strength drove his sword clean through his body and fell beside his family. They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; but an old woman and another, a relative of Eleazar, superior in sagacity and training to most of her sex, with five children, escaped by concealing themselves in the subterranean aqueducts, while the rest were absorbed in the slaughter. The victims numbered 960, including women and children; and the tragedy occurred on the fifteenth of the month of Xanthicus [May 2, A.D. 73].
In the place of the lots, a picture is shown of what appear to be the names of those men who drew the lots, written on pottery shards. It is very moving to note that one of the names is that of Eleazar ben Yair.
Important parts of the site to show:
- In the northern palace we can show the black line, under which everything is original.
- Within the Northern Palace there are moving testaments to the devotion of the Jewish rebels. We can show their cooking ovens, their ritual baths indicating their desire to remain ritually pure and to refuse to partake of the opulence of Herod.
- It is important to show the bath house, the fortifications and three layers of the Northern Palace, the place of the lots, the water gate and siege ramp and well as the Roman garrisons and wall.
- In addition, we can show the water gate, the cistern, the storehouses and the aqueducts used to channel water to the cisterns from the water gate.
- In the synagogue it is moving to read one of the scriptures found there; Ezekiel 37, and to connect it to modern times; to the Holocaust/ Shoa. The synagogue is a rare example of a synagogue from the Second Temple Period, having been built by the rebels on what was formerly stables.
- We can mention that in the early Christian period, the Byzantines built a church here.
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