*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Situated on steep cliffs some 1,300 feet above the Judean Desert about 2.5 miles southwest of the Dead Sea, Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with stunning panoramic views of eastern Israel. Historically, the isolated fortress serves as a controversial reminder of the Jewish Revolt, which came to an end on April 16, 73 when Roman soldiers broke through the gate at Masada. What they allegedly found within made the site the stuff of legend.
The history of Masada begins, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, approximately two centuries before when “Jonathan the high priest” (likely a regional king named Alexander Jannaeus) built a rudimentary castle on the site. Spread out atop a plateau, the location is accessible only by three narrow trails up the mountain and has excellent long-range visibility, providing inhabitants advance warning of and easier defense from advancing armies.
Sometime around 40 BCE, the Roman-allied King Herod moved his family to the hilltop fortress, believing they would be safe from his enemy Antigonus’ armies. When he died more than three decades later, Masada was a well-developed outpost: a mile-long wall with 27 guard stations protected a large palace complex. Within these defenses, a sophisticated system for rainwater collection filled cisterns with plenty of drinkable water and extensive storage existed for food and weapons — those inside could literally survive for months in the event of a siege.
In the year 66, more than a century after Herod began formal construction at Masada, the First Jewish-Roman War broke out. This “Great Revolt” in Judea pitted Jewish rebels against the unsuspecting imperial soldiers — for the most part, the region was considered a backwater, leaving the Romans somewhat unprepared when residents attacked the garrisons. When a group of revolutionaries known as the Sicarii arrived at Masada, they quickly dispatched the troops on hand and settled in.
Over the course of six years, the population at the hideaway grew steadily. Jews fleeing the violence in Jerusalem begged to be given refuge at Masada, pushing the population near 1,000 by the time Lucius Flavius Silva arrived with the 9,000-strong Legion X Fretensis late in 72.
For approximately three months, the Roman Army worked diligently to lay down the necessary components for a successful siege. Josephus describes a long effort to use local rock construct a wall to block new arrivals and prevent escape, followed by the building of a ramp for the soldiers to assault Masada in greater numbers. Moving up along the northwestern face of the fortress, the Romans marched across the 30-foot ramp to the walls.
Knowing Masada was the last stronghold of Jewish resistance made it that much more important to Flavius Silva and his men. On April 16, 73, a committed group of soldiers hammered the gates with a battering ram, finally forcing a breakthrough. Once inside, Josephus writes, the Romans made a gruesome discovery: 960 men, women and children were dead as fires designed to destroy everything but the food storehouses raged throughout the fortress.
Seven survivors — two women and five children — described how Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the leader of the Sicarii sect at Masada, proposed the idea of an organized mass fratricide to avoid capture. Knowing Judaism labeled suicide a heinous crime against God, Eleazer encouraged his followers to draw lots, with each individual killing the one before and then falling to the sword of the next person in line. In this way, only the last man standing would be forced to die at his own hand. This demonstration of dedication to the Jewish faith, Eleazer is reported to have said, would show being dead was far more satisfying than being forced into Roman slavery.
For almost 1,800 years, Masada sat quietly in the desert. Though referred to in Book 7 of Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews, the site was lost to history until 1842. Due to the dry air, the Masada remained relatively well preserved for archaeologists, providing a rich number of artifacts for those opting to study it. Hidden within the temple, researchers found fragments of the Jewish Bible and stunning artwork dating to Herod’s time.
By the time the discovery was made, however, the story of Masada had become deeply woven into the narrative of Jewish history, but not without disagreement: though some saw the story for its patriotic overtones, others with a more conservative interpretation of Jewish law dismissed the deaths as needless and unheroic. But for two dozen bodies found in the area — many of them suspected to be Roman — no evidence of the hundreds of bodies left behind when the siege came to a close exists.
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