Masada (derived from the Hebrew, Metzuda, meaning “citadel” or “stronghold”) is a mountain top desert fortress, built between 37-31 CE by King Herod atop an isolated rock plateau in the Eastern Judean dessert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Masada became famous when during the Great Jewish Revolt (end of the Second Temple Period, 66-73 CE) a siege of the fortress by Roman troops led to a mass suicide of the site‘s Jewish defenders.
After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, almost 1000 Jews fleeing Jerusalem found refuge in the fortress of Masada. They lived there unchallenged for 3 years, modifying the original facilities built by Herod – palaces, bathhouses, water cisterns, homes, and defensive structures – and building two ritual baths and a synagogue.
In 72-73 CE the Roman Governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Roman Legion. He established army camps at the base of Masada and surrounded the mountain with a wall to prevent any attempts of escape. The siege of Masada lasted several months, during which the Romans built a rampart up the western side of the mountain to ease their access to the fortress.
When all hopes of salvation were lost, the Jews on Masada chose to die rather than live as slaves under Rome. Nine hundred and sixty men, women, and children took their own lives. Only a few women and children survived by hiding in covered cisterns. Before the suicide, the residents burned all the buildings on Masada except the storehouses, to demonstrate to the Romans that they did not die because they lacked food. This all took place on the 15th day of Nissan, the first day of Passover, in 73 CE, the night before the Roman Tenth Legion took Masada.
Elazar Ben Yair’s Last Address at Masada
“Since we long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time has now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice. We were the very first that revolted from them, and we are the last that fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God hath granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom, which hath not been the case of others, who are conquered unexpectedly. It is very plain that we shall be taken within a day’s time; but it is an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they pray to take us alive. Nor can we propose to ourselves any more to fight them, and beat them. Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted slavery, and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom as an excellent funeral monument for us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I as well assure that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fail of our wealth also, and let us spare nothing but our store of food, for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for that of necessaries, but that, according to our original resolution we have preferred death before slavery. Come! While our hands are free and can hold a sword, let them do a noble service! Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children.” (Josephus Flavius, The Wars of the Jews, 7,8)
History of Exploration
Since the Romans conquered Masada, the only inhabitants of the site were a group of Byzantine monks in the 5th or 6th century CE. After this, history seemed to have forgotten about Masada. The heroic tale of the Jews under siege does not appear in Jewish sources such as the Mishnah, the Talmud or the Midrash. In fact, the only written account of the events at Masada appears in The Wars of the Jews by Josephus Flavius, a 1st century Jewish-Roman historian. Hundreds of years passed and the episode of Masada and its location were forgotten.
In 1838, two American travelers spotted the fortress through a telescope from EinGedi and identified it correctly as Masada. From then on, throughout the 19th century, Masada attracted both tourists and explorers from America, France, and Germany.
Various explorers continued to tour Masada until in 1963 when the first complete, full-scale archaeological excavations survey took place under the leadership of professor Yigael Yadin.
|1. Small bathhouse
2. Herod’s palace-villa
4. Apartment building
5. Snake-path gate
7. Zealots’ living Quarters
|8. Underground cistern
9. Southern bastion
10. Western palace
11. Throne room
12. West gate
14. Large bathhouse
King Herod’s residential palace stood on the northern edge of the cliff, separated from the fortress by a wall.
The storehouse complex consisted of long halls opening onto a central corridor. Many broken storage jars, which once contained quantities of oil, wine, grains and other foods, were found here.
The large bathhouse served the guests and senior officials of Masada. It consisted of a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and several rooms, all with mosaic or tiled floors and some with frescoed walls. The largest of the rooms was the hot room (caldarium). Its suspended floor was supported by rows of low pillars, making it possible to blow hot air from the furnace outside, under the floor and through clay pipes along the walls, to heat the room to the desired temperature.
The Message of Masada
Professor Yigael Yadin writes:
Upon the steps leading to the cold-water pool and on the ground nearby were the remains of three skeletons. One was that of a man of about twenty . . . Next to it we found hundreds of silvered scales of armour, scores of arrows, fragments of a prayer shawl (talith), and also an ostracon (an inscribed potsherd) with Hebrew letters.
Not far off, also on the steps, was the skeleton of a young woman, with her scalp preserved intact because of the extreme dryness of the atmosphere. Her dark hair, beautifully plaited, looked as if it had just been freshly coiffured. Next to it the plaster was stained with what looked like blood. By her side were delicately fashioned lady‘s sandals, styled in the traditional pattern of the period. The third skeleton was that of a child. There could be no doubt that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada . . .
It is thanks to Ben Ya‘ir and his comrades, to their heroic stand, to their choice of death over slavery, and to the burning of their humble chattels as a final act of defiance to the enemy, that they elevated Masada to an undying symbol of desperate courage, a symbol which has stirred hearts throughout the last nineteen centuries. It is this which moved scholars and laymen to make the ascent to Masada. It is this which moved the modern Hebrew poet to cry “Masada shall not fall again!” It is this which has drawn the Jewish youth of our generation in their thousands to climb to its summit in a solemn pilgrimage. And it is this which brings the recruits of the armored units of the Defense Forces of modern Israel to swear the oath of allegiance on Masada‘s heights. ‘Masada shall not fall again!‘”
Lots cast by the defenders of Masada. These shards, each inscribed with a different name, all written by the same hand, may have been the lots cast to choose those men who would slay all the rest of the community.
The shard second from the right in the second row bears the name Ben Ya‘ir, the commander of this extraordinary band of men, women and children.
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