Drive south along the coast of the Dead Sea, and you will
come to a huge rock perched on the western cliffs. Masada is one of the
best known archeological sites in Israel, and the basis of one of
Israel's most cherished foundation myths. Zionist historians tell us
that here a brave band of freedom fighters killed themselves and their
families to avoid enslavement by a brutal Roman Empire.
According to the Romanized Jewish Historian Josephus Flavius,
the truth was far different. All of our contemporary information on the
history of Masada comes from Josephus's book The Jewish War.
First fortified by Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) to protect
his eastern border, Masada was taken by Herod the Great in the power
struggle following the murder of his father Antipater in 43 BC. When
the invading Parthians made Antigonus king in 40 BC, he left the women
of his family at Masada for safety with a guard of 800 while he hurried
to Rome to shore up his political support in the capilal. Meanwhile,
back at Masada, a severe shortage of water had forced the defenders to
begin preparations for a breakout. Fortunately, a sudden unexpected
rain storm refilled the cisterns. Shortly afterwards, Herod returned
and again took control.
This episode showed Herod the value of Masada. Between 39-31
he rebuilt the site, intending to use it as a last refuge in the event
that the Jews should turn against him or that Cleopatra should persuade
Mark Antony to have him killed.
From 6 AD the Romans controlled Masada, but in 66 AD Jewish
rebels won it from them by a trick. Menachem understood that the stores
Masada could help his ill-considered uprising against Rome. When he was
assassinated because of his brutality, some of his supporters,
including his relative Eleazar ben Jair, escaped to Masada. They took
no further part in the war against Rome. Instead they supported
themselves by raiding the surrounding villages. The worst incident
occured at Ein Gedi, where they slaughtered some 700 women and
children. The so-called freedom fighters whom modern day Israelis so
honour, were no better than gangsters and thugs, preying on the
helpless townsfolk of the region.
Posing no threat to the Romans, Masada was left until
last. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Lucilius Bassus cleaned up
the few remaining threatening pockets of resistence, leaving Masada to
his successor Flavius Silva. In the winter of 73 AD, Silva finally
turned his attention to the gang of bandits in their hideout atop the
Silva set up his main camp just beside the present
parking lot at the end of route 3199 from Arad. He surrounded Masada
with a series of eight fortified camps linked by a wall. To reach the
defence wall on the summit 150 m above, he constructed a huge ramp to
aid in the construction of a platform of rocks on which was built an
iron-sheathed tower equipped with ballistae on top and a battering-ram
below. The Zealots reinforced their defences but were unable to hold
against the Romans. The wooden wall they built to reinforce the
original rock defences was set on fire and, according to Josephus, the
Romans withdrew in the evening, secure in the knowledge that the next
morning would bring victory.
In the Josephus story, Eleazar, made a long and eloquent
speech whose central theme was that their defeat was a completely
deserved condemnation of the Jewish nation by God. He supposedly
convinced his remaining supporters that it would be better to receive
their punishment directly from God rather than from Romans. Thus his
followers agreed to collective suicide. That night, Passover 74 AD, 960
died for their beliefs.
Silva left a small garrison in the corner of his main
camp and there they remained for some 30 years. His brief and standard
textbook operation was too insignificant to merit mention in Roman
records. The Sicarri were inexperienced fighters and posed no
Although Josephus was not at Masada, he had access to
official reports from the field. He may even have interviewed Flavius
Silva himself, who was in Rome in 81 AD when Josephus was compiling his
account. He is reliable on questions of topography and on the conduct
of the seige. In questions of detail, the second-hand nature of his
information becomes apparent in errors about height of walls, number of
towers, one palace instead of two on the north face, etc.
His account becomes completely unbelievable from the
moment the Romans breach the wall and then retire. Even without a full
moon, the Romans would have continued their attack, as Vespasian did at
Jotapata. They had no need to wait until morning. Thus there would have
been no time for the heroic suicide scenario. Presumably, some of the
rebels killed their families, others fought to death, still others
tried to hide or flee but were killed when they were caught. Josephus,
a Jew himself, probably invented the Eleazar speech to lay the blame
for the war on the Sicarii, a minority group of violent
revolutionaries, and not on the Jewish people as a whole. Using themes
from Graeco-Roman tradition, the suicide of a few was elaborated into
an elaborate mass suicide. The distorted version of the story used as a
foundation myth by Israeli Zionists has today being debunked by modern
In 2001 Masada became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The interpretation center includes a well stocked souvenir
shop. If you are pressed for time, the prices here
are a bit higher for the same merchandise than at other shops, but
the convenience may be worth it to you. If you have time to shop
around, almost everything here is available elsewhere in the Jerusalem
area, for lower prices.
Some views of Masada.
Click with the right mouse button to see the full size photo.
An example of a Roman siege engine at the base of the
Roman seige ramp with path to Masada
Fragments of frescoes show roman wall art of the period
Fragments of a mosaic floor still survives today.
A columbarium or pigeon cote, each compartment was a
bird house. The pigeons were used for food, the guano
Roman central heating - a hypocaust. Warm air under the
floors heated the house.
The path down to one of the cisterns.
This is one of the smaller cisterns which held Masada's
A room with a view, of the Dead Sea.
view of the desert and Dead Sea from Masada.
One of the Roman camps surrounding Masada.
Another of the Roman camps from Masada.
The cliff on which Herod's Palace was built.
The path down to Herod's Palace.
Herod's Palace, under reconstruction.
Roman ornamentation at Herod's Palace.
An inquisitive bird.
An armed Israeli settler at Masada.
The winding path up the other side, under the cable car.
A cable car coming down.
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This page was updated on 17 December 2007.
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