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Masada

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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 at 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 fortified hill.

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 significant resistance.

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 archeological research.

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.

roman siege engine

An example of a Roman siege engine at the base of the seige ramp.

siege ramp

Roman seige ramp with path to Masada

roman camp

Fragments of frescoes show roman wall art of the period

mosaic floor

Fragments of a mosaic floor still survives today.

columbarium

A columbarium or pigeon cote, each compartment was a bird house. The pigeons were used for food, the guano for fertilizer.

hypocaust

Roman central heating - a hypocaust. Warm air under the floors heated the house.

hypocaust

The path down to one of the cisterns.

small cistern

This is one of the smaller cisterns which held Masada's water supply.

view

A room with a view, of the Dead Sea.

view from Masada

view of the desert and Dead Sea from Masada.

roman camp from Masada

One of the Roman camps surrounding Masada.

roman camp

Another of the Roman camps from Masada.

cliff

The cliff on which Herod's Palace was built.

path to Herod's Palace

The path down to Herod's Palace.

Herod's Palace

Herod's Palace, under reconstruction.

architectural detail

Roman ornamentation at Herod's Palace.

cliff

The cliff.

bird

An inquisitive bird.

israeli settler, armed

An armed Israeli settler at Masada.

snake path

The winding path up the other side, under the cable car.

cable car

A cable car coming down.

Links to the rest of the Israel section of this website:

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Patti

This page was updated on 17 December 2007.

Contact me at: patti.primeau@sympatico.ca

This site was updated using Nvu and Style Master.

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