Desert fortress Masada

Masada comes from the Hebrew word Metzad and this means fortress. It is basically a fortress that was built on top of a rock plateau. It is located very close to the Dead Sea and it is a bit south of the Westbank, so it is not accessible to Palestinians from the Westbank currently. When you drive on route 90 that goes along the Dead Sea and you are coming from Jericho to the south then you will cross a military checkpoint. In Arabic Masada is called Kasr es-Sebbeh.

Model of Masada and the palaces

Isolated rock plateau Masada

If you reach to Masada you see a large isolated rock plateau that you can either climb by following the path that curves up like a snake to the top and is therefore called the snake path, OR you can take the cable car that brings you up to the top in less than two minutes.

The top of this rock formation is almost flat and if you would see it from the sky you’d see it is in a kind of diamond shape. It is wider in the middle and it narrows down to the edges.

The first person to use this as a fortification to protect the south eastern border of the Hasmonean Kingdom was Alexander Jannaeus. This was in the 1st century before Christ. In the time that the region was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty for about one hundred years.

The Greeks in Palestine

Palestine had been ruled by the Greeks after Alexander the Great conquered the region. He became very famous but he died very young and his army generals immediately tried to take over power. The territory that Alexander had taken was divided after his death between Ptolemy and Seleucis. And Palestine was first part of the Ptolemaic kingdom and later it became under the rule of the Seleucids.

The Jewish people in the region collided with the rulers because of the fact that the Jews worshiped only one God and the Greeks had multiple gods and lots of temples to honor these gods. And the Jews had a lot of different rituals and they had their own strict dietary rules and other habits that set them aside from the Greek speaking community that lived in Palestine. And the Greeks were really on a mission to Hellenize the area. Hellenization comes from Greek word Hellazein which means tto speak Greek or to identify with Greeks. This Hellenization was a process to try and make the whole empire Greek speaking and appreciating Greek culture, go to theater plays and poetry readings and adopt the Greek way of living, of speaking of eating of worshiping the Greek gods. And because the Jews did not want to submit to that, they were seen as a difficult group and they faced discrimination.

The worst of the Hellenistic rulers was Antiochus IV who called himself Epiphanes, which means that he saw himself as a manifestation of God as a Glorious person. When he came to Jerusalem he went to the Temple of the Jews and he defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar to worship the Greek God Zeus. And you know, the pig is viewed by the Jews as an unclean animal.

The Hasmonean and Herodian dynasty

So this led to a revolt against the Greek rulers and out of this revolt the Hasmonean dynasty managed to rule the province of Juda and it became an independent Kingdom for about 100 years.

It finished by the time the Romans entered the scene. They had a lot of problems among themselves who was going to be the next Hasmonean ruler and eventually the Romans decided that Herod the Great should become their client king, so then the Herodian dynasty replaced them.

And that meant that the Masada fortification that was started under the Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus now became in the hands of Herod the Great.

And Herod the Great was a very suspicious man who was always afraid to lose his power so he built a lot of fortifications in Palestine. The most well known is Masada and I think the second most well known is the Herodion close to Bethlehem. That place actually deserves another episode!

Herod the Great, the great builder

What Herod the Great did with this rock plateau is really amazing. As are all his buildings. Because definitely Herod the Great was a great builder. That is probably the only great thing about him, cause otherwise he was a vicious ruler and he killed several of his close relatives including his wife and some of his children, because he was so afraid that they would betray him.

So what did he do? He had the whole area which is about 18 acres (that’s 8 hectares or 80 dunum) surrounded by a 4 meter high wall. (13 ft) This wall is 1300 meters long (that is 4300 ft) And every 75 meters he built a tower, that’s 37 towers in total. Now the plateau itself is already 440 meters above sea level and it is surrounded by a deep gorge. The only way to conquer this fortification would be to surround it and to besiege it and to starve the soldiers and people that were on it.

The palace on the northern edge of Masada fortification

Store rooms and water cisterns on Masada

And of course Herod the Great realized that so he built a hug store room complex with 29 long halls where they could store grains, dried nuts, dried fruits, pickled food, salted food, anything you can keep in high temperatures, because obviously they did not have fridges at that time.

He also had a hug cistern dug to collect rainwater because that is the other really important supply you need to have. But the water was not only used for drinking. Imagine Herod the Great had to retreat on the Masada fortification to withstand his enemies, then he needed to have the chance to have a warm bath and a scrub. So he built a Roman bath. The full thing. With an underground heating system that is called a hypocaust in Latin.

Model of the Roman bathhouse on Masada

The northern palace on Masada

Of course Herod the Great built a palace for himself to live in and not just on the top of the rock plateau, no he built it on the top of the northern part of the plateau, on the edge and then it continued two levels down over the end of the cliffs. It is also called the Hanging Palace, because literally it seemed to hang on the cliff. A bit like the prow of a ship.

The Western palace on Masada

There was another palace, more to the west of the rock plateau which was actually the largest structure on the mount. About 3700 m2. In the ruins you can still see some beautiful mosaic pieces of the throne room and some of the corridor to the bathroom.

Buildings and quarry on Masada

Other than the water cisterns, the storage rooms and the bathhouse there were also residential buildings where the officers lived and barracks for the soldiers. They found a workshop for a leather tanning, a tannery and other structures that were probably used as workshops.

And all of these buildings had to be built with stones that were quarried from a quarry on top of the plateau. When you visit today you can see the stone quarry that looks like a deep pit and could potentially have been used to store something, maybe water or food although it is not plastered. But maybe horse food. Because there were also horse stables. And I assume they used donkeys to go up the snake path with supplies as there was no cable car yet at that time.

The colombarium on Masada

Another smart invention of those days that Herod the Great also used was the colombarium, about which I spoke before in the episode of Tel Maresha or Beit Guvrin, which is basically a tower with lots of small nesting spaces for pigeons. These pigeons were then used for their eggs and their meat.

Colombarium Masada

Herod the Great and Masada

Now, the irony is that Herod the Great himself hardly ever spent time here. He once sent his mother, Cyprus and his sister and his fiancee Mariamne to safety at Masada when he was attacked by the Parthians who made an alliance with the Greek King Antigonus. Herod had his family located on Masada with 800 soldiers. The Parthians lay siege around Masada and the only one water reservoir at that time was nearing its end and if there was no more water than they would not be able to survive much longer, but to their great luck it started raining and the reservoir filled up again and eventually the Parthians were defeated and Herod’s family was saved.

But the most famous and well known story about Masada has nothing to do with Herod the Great. He is famous for the construction of the fortification and the buildings on it. But the story that made Masada famous happened more than 70 years after his death.

Flavius Joseph the writer of the Masada story

And I need to make disclaimer from the beginning because this story is only found in ONE source. It is not found in any other written source than the book called Jewish War written by Flavius Josephus. And before we talk about the story we need to establish who Flavius Josephus was.

His name at birth was Joseph Ben Matthias. He was born in an aristocratic Jewish family, in Jerusalem. He was very smart and very religious. He was not really against the Roman rule, actually he quite admired the Romans, but he was drawn into the Jewish rebellion against the Romans and he even was appointed as a commander to defend a city in the Galilee district. When the Romans took the city him and his men were hiding in a cave and the men whom he was with decided that they rather die than live in captivity of their oppressors so they cast lots in order to decide the order in which they would kill each other and Josephus was the last one that remained to kill the last guy but he did not want to and he persuaded him to surrender to the Romans. They were then taken to Rome where he appeared before the Roman general Vespasian and he kind of set up an act as if he was a prophet and he predicted to Vespasian that he one day Vespasian would become the new emperor. And of course he said that to try and get Vespasian’s favor to be treated well.

And in 69 AD after emperor Nero had died, the troops proclaimed Vespasian the new emperor so it seemed that the prophecy had come true and Flavius Josephus was released. He adopted the Latin name Flavius Josephus (Flavius was the family name of Vespasian) and he ended up living in Rome where he wrote several large history works on the history of the Jewish people.

Some of his writings have been disputed by historians, especially when it is obvious that he describes locations and history that he never witnessed and where there are obviously mistakes in his writings. That is especially also the case in the story that he wrote about Masada. It’s a great story. It is told by many tour guides as if it is the truth. As if those are all historical facts. But Flavius Josephus never was at Masada. He was not there when this story happened. And it seems very unlikely that he had direct access to sources that could tell him details of what happened. He DID, however, have his own agenda, which was to make the Jewish people look better in the eyes of the Romans. And it seems that with this story he was trying to make a point, that there was a small number of fanatic Jews, the zealots, who were ready to kill themselves in their rebellion against the Romans, but that these were just a small group of crazy people and they did not represent the general Jewish population.

The story of Masada

A group of Jewish rebels, well, quite radical ones, called the sicarii, the ones that carried small daggers and would carry out stabbings in the city against the Roman soldiers, had managed to conquer Masada from the Romans. They moved up to live on the rock plateau and they remained there for several years. While the Romans were killing the Jewish revolution city by city and fortification by fortification they kept Masada as the last stronghold to deal with.

In the meantime, according to Josephus, these Sicarii would carry out raids on communities around Masada to supply themselves with food. And even Jewish communities like the one in Ein Gedi would be robbed with violence and the Jewish inhabitants would be killed. That’s how awful they were according to Josephus.

The Roman governor Lucius Flavius Silva decided to besiege Masada and the Jewish rebels in 73 AD. He set up 8 fortified camps around the whole rock plateau. He connected all the camps with a wall. You can still see some of the remains of the military camps and the wall from the top of Masada. He brought the very well trained 10th legion of the Roman army. According to Josephus they filled up an area with stones and rocks and dirt to create a ramp. And they rolled an iron sheathed siege tower with catapults and a battering ram to breach the wall on the top of Masada.

According to Josephus they managed to breach the first wall. But then they found that these zealots, the sicarii, had built another wooden wall behind it. So they threw burning torches against the wooden wall. But at that moment the wind changed direction and the flames came back to the siege tower of the Romans and for a moment the Jews thought that God had delivered them from their enemy. But then the wind changed again and the fire burnt down the wall of the Jewish zealots.

This is part of the Roman ramp

The Masada suicide

Now here Josephus says the Romans decided to take a break and continue the next morning to take Masada. He describes how the Jewish leader Eleazar Ben Ya’ir then gave two passionate speeches to persuade the people on Masada to not surrender and get captured by the Romans but to kill each other, to commit suicide, rather than giving in. His words were: Let us not receive punishment from the Romans but from God Himself.

They burnt all their possessions and then each father killed his own family. And by lot ten men were selected to kill all the other men and then one was selected to kill the remaining nine. And the last one stabbed himself to die. This happened on Passover in 74 AD and according to Josephus 960 people died.

The only survivors were two women and five children who had been hiding in the water cistern.

Flavius Josephus the Jewish apologist

According to historians today there are several flaws in his description of Masada the way we know it from the archaeological remains. It is also very unlikely that the Romans would have retreated after the second wall fell down and even if they did it doesn’t seem likely that there was time for such lengthy speeches as Josephus wrote down in his account, to convince all those 960 people of committing suicide. And also, if he spoke to the women who were the only survivors, would they really have remembered the words of these lengthy speeches with all the details, to tell that to Josephus? It seems that he made up the words of those speeches himself.

Scholars think that Josephus had access to some of the Roman accounts when he lived in Rome and he may have spoken to Flavius Silva, the Roman governor, but he may have mixed some of his personal experiences in the Galilee, from when they committed suicide in the cave, with this story. And his main aim seems to have been to describe the revolt as being carried out by a minority of violent revolutionaries to excuse the Jewish people. Flavius Josephus is often labeled as Jewish apologist.

The ramp of Masada

And very interesting is that in 2016 researchers concluded that the ramp that Josephus describes in his story was never completed. That means that if the ramp never reached the top of Masada, that the ramp could not have been used to capture the fortress. So this really challenges the common understanding of HOW the Roman siege of Masada ended. And really, I don’t have an answer to that. You can come up with your own scenarios. Did they eventually capitulate? Did they die of hunger and thirst? Did some of them commit suicide and others surrender?

Also interesting to know is that for about 30 years after the Jewish revolt the Romans remained around Masada to guard it and to make sure that any remaining rebels would not try to get back on the fortification.

Monks on Masada

During Byzantine time, in the 6th century AD, Masada was used as a place for retreat by Christian monks, under the leadership of Euthymius who created a church and a number of hermit huts or cells on the plateau where they lived separately during the weekdays and then had a communal day on Sunday.

Masada myth

The story of Masada became a foundation myth of Israeli Zionists who emphasized the bravery of the Jewish zealots who were ready to kill themselves for their aim, for their patriotism, for their national aspirations. For a long time Masada was a place that all Israeli soldiers visited and where army inaugurations took place. In recent years the mentality has shifted and the idea of committing suicide has become understood as giving up the fight and being a coward.

In this respect I can highly recommend you to watch the film ‘Avenge, but one of my two eyes’ by Israeli film maker Avi Mograbi. It is a film from the year 2005. In this film Avi uses scenes from the Jewish tourists being fed with tales of their ancestor’s heroic struggles such as at Masada AND scenes from Palestinians being humiliated by the Israeli occupation authorities and trying to resist their oppression. He highlights the hypocrisy of Israelis for celebrating the ancient tales and while they condemn the same acts of the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom.