Masada Israel, majestically towering high above the plateau of the Dead Sea, the mountain of Masada is undoubtedly one of the most impressive in the Judean Desert. Masada Israel is located in the Dead Sea region. The elevation of Masada at the top is barely 100m above sea level, while the bottom of Masada is way below, close to
the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, forming a remarkable drop of about 400m. Geologically, Masada is a ‘Horst’; a rock that was pushed up by the pressures of continuous shift of the Great Rift Valley, creating an elevated plateau (Mount Masada, Israel) with steep slopes –the perfect conditions for a natural fortress, which is the meaning of its Hebrew name. Masada Israel is ideally located above the main ancient roads stretching along the western coast of the Dead Sea as far as Ein Gedi. These roads served transporting the precious Dead Sea salt through Judea and to the rest of the ancient world. Masada Israel is also located right above the narrowest part of the Dead Sea, facing the Lisan peninsula which separates it into the Northern and the Southern basins. All these have shaped the civil and strategic roles of Masada to place it honorably among the pages of history.
The earliest archaeological evidence in Masada Israel dates back to the late Stone Age – the Chalcolithic era, around the 4th millennium BC. In spite of the harsh desert conditions and the relative isolation of the Dead Sea, evidence shows that the mountain of Masada was inhabited throughout the millennia until the 6th- 7th centuries CE (AD). Three phases though, seem to have major significance: The first is from the Hasmonean (Maccabean Period) of 167-73 BCE through to the Herodian Period between 36-4 BCE. The second phase was the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans between 66-74 CE; and the third in modern times – the excavations of Masada lead by Shmaryahu Gutmann, and Yiga’el Yadin, in the 1950-60s. A visit to the Masada weaves all three phases together into a wonderful and awesome drama.
Herod the Great and Masada
Above 90% of the findings in Masada Israel originated from the times of King Herod the Great. The dwellers in the following centuries basically used the numerous Herodian facilities, with minor alterations, to adjust them to their various needs.
The diamond-shaped Masada Israel mountain top is 600m long and barely needed any further fortification, but Herod, having more enemies than friends, toiled to fortify the mountain top with a magnificent double-wall. Having already constructed 6 fortresses in the Judean desert alone, he turned Masada to the ultimate refuge. The genius architect-king built two magnificent palaces, a set of 29 huge warehouses and various workshops to supply all the needs of the fortress. The revolutionary innovation of Herod was the water system, taking to a far grander scale a method already employed in his and the previous century in desert outposts and communities. Overcoming the harsh desert conditions of less than 2 inches of rainfall per year – he managed to capture the water of the rare flash-floods from the valleys to the west, that may stream only 3-5 times a year; and harness it to fill 12 huge cisterns in just a few hours, together with maximising all the rainfall on the mountaintop itself, thus maintaining several swimming pools, a fully equipped Roman bath-house, gardens and plantations. Scholars assess that in case of need Herod could easily survive on Masada for several years.
historical viewpoints, albeit a minority, maintains that Herod himself probably never came to dwell in Masada, but the peak moments of his era were the detainment of his wife Miriam the Hasmonean, and her mother Alexandra. Herod secured them in the Masada fortress and took off on a risky journey to face the Roman Emperor. He left behind an order to kill both the queen and her mother, should anything happen to him. This affair led to a chain of events that ended in the execution of his beloved wife. The consequence was a gradual deterioration in Herod’s physical and mental condition and haunted the doomed king till his last day.
Most investigators hold the opinion that Herod did use this fortress as a winter palace and secure dwelling, more isolated than his palaces in Jericho, which are similarly in the Great Rift Valley, but where winter is also colder.
The Great Revolt of Masada Israel
The 8 year conflict between the Jews and the Romans broke out in 66 CE after long years of corrupt and tyrannical Roman government (so well described in the New Testament). Shortly after its outbreak a Jewish force managed to conquer Masada from a relatively weak Roman garrison. The Roman government crushes the rebellion advancing from North to South. The importance of Masada rises as the Roman forces proceed towards Jerusalem. The city is besieged and destroyed in 70 CE, and many flee to find shelter in Masada.
The findings on mount Masada Israel, paint a picture of a dense population of religious zealots who praise the spiritual and despise the physical comforts of the Roman hedonism. They divide the luxurious halls of the Herodian palaces to tiny rooms in order to accommodate almost a thousand rebels, 350 of which are armed soldiers led by the charismatic El’azar Ben-Yair. On top of the rich mosaics they built stoves for cooking, tarnishing the extravagant fresco decorations.
Masada Israel remained the last stronghold of the Jews after the Romans captured all of Judea in the winter of 73 CE. At this point, the Romans prepared to do the impossible and conquer the mount of Masada. They besieged Masada with most of a full legion – 10,000 soldiers. The Romans circled Masada constructing a 3 mile long wall-rampart, incorporating 8 siege-camps, including a hospital, a vantage-point camp and an H.Q. These are relatively well preserved due to a lack of rain and humidity, actually representing the most impressive Roman-siege remains in the world. Thanks to these, Masada Israel was declared as a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ in 2001.
Unlike a normal siege where the besiegers are well off and doomed to slow ‘suffocation’ cut off from critical supplies, here in Masada Israel the zealots felt at ease, having enough shade, water and supplies to last for many months. The Romans have to spread around an endless and exposed fortification line of mount Masada, needing food and water for their 10,000 men. The nearest spring-water was 4-hours journey on foot from Masada, with limited supplies of food obtained from the 10-mile distant Ein Gedi. The Romans had to find a way to climb the steep slopes of Masada with a strong enough force to break into the fortress, racing against the nearing spring and summer that would bring on intolerable temperatures. But the Roman spirit didn’t wane: they force the Jewish captives among them to construct an enormous ramp, exposing them to arrow and rock-showers from the defenders above. The ramp was completed on Passover eve of 74 CE, the Romans raised their huge siege tower to its pinnacle and were ready to break into Masada the next morning.
When the Romans finally broke into Masada ,they are astounded. The zealots chose to hold on to their freedom of spirit rather than their flesh and blood, taking their own lives and leaving the Romans the daunting sight of a bloody mass suicide.
Modern Era of Masada Israel
Two ardent scholars, who had held prime positions in the Independence War for Israel in 1948-49 excavated mount Masada and brought it to the center of the Israeli national awareness and to be a symbol of national pride.
Shmaryahu Gutman was the first to excavate Masada Israel in the 1950’s. He discovered the Roman ramp and surveyed the mountain. It was he who identified the site as the historical Masada. Since then Masada became a center of Zionist pilgrimage, and the story of its defenders against the Romans became a major legend of heroism in the new born Israeli State.
Yiga’el Yadin led the comprehensive excavations during the 1960’s and discovered the palaces, the mosaics, the warehouses, the bath-house and the synagogue – at the time, the earliest that had been discovered. However, the most significant finding for him was a pile of broken pottery with some of the zealots’ families’ names on them, one of which bore the surname of El’azar Ben-Yair, previously known to us only from the pages of history, thanks to the 1st century Judean general-turned-historian – Josephus Flavius. Yadin, previously the second chief of staff of the IDF, the man who had helped march Israel to its liberty after close to 2,000 years of exile found himself holding a fragment of pottery bearing a name written by the hand of the last commander of the last stronghold of free Jewish rebels before the exile.