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Masada (Massada) – The Judean Desert

Masada is the Hebrew word for fortress and is a place of grand majestic beauty that sits atop an isolated flat top rock cliff overlooking the Judean Desert to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. On its eastern side, the rock falls in a sheer 450 meters drop to the Dead Sea and on its western side; it stands about 100 meters above the surrounding terrain. The winding snake paths are very difficult to maneuver to the cliff top but Israel has constructed a cable car that can be taken from the foot of Masada to the top. A tourist center at the foot of Masada features a movie about the story of Masada, a model of the site, and an exhibit of the archeological findings.

To visit Masada is a thrilling and exciting experience and the story behind the fortress along with the archeological remains contribute to preserve its past. In the year 2000, readers of Traveler Magazine rated Masada as the best tourist site of its type in the world and in the year, 2001 UNESCO listed Masada as a World Heritage Site. It has become one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols as the place where the last Jewish stronghold fought against Roman invasion and next to Jerusalem; it is the most popular destination of tourists visiting Israel.

The fortress of Masada was built between 37 and 31 BCE by King Herod and he furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself. It included a casemate wall around the plateau, storehouses, large cisterns ingeniously filled with rainwater, barracks, palaces and an armory.

The architectural feats that were accomplished at Masada have left their mark in history. King Herod’s northern palace was built on three rock terraces overlooking the gorge below. King Herod was Jewish by faith but Arab by birth and his loyalty to the Romans and their Empire are evident in the structures. Near the palace is a large Roman style bathhouse with a colorful mosaic floor and walls decorated with murals representing his connection to the Romans. Other buildings such as the luxurious western palace, the mikveh a Jewish ritual bath, storerooms, watchtowers, and a synagogue relate to his Jewish faith. Artifacts such as storage containers, decorated pottery, scrolls, and coins have been discovered at Masada. The beautiful embossments and murals that were discovered on the walls of the buildings have been restored by Italian experts for preservation. Masada is the largest most complete Roman fortress that remains today.

The fortress of Masada has been reconstructed in an effort to pay homage to the site and its heroic inhabitants. Though more than two thousand years have passed since the fall of the Masada, the regional climate and its remoteness have helped to preserve the remains of this extraordinary site and its historic story.

The only written source about Masada is found in Josephus Flavius writings. Young Flavius was a leader at the outbreak of the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome in 66 CE when he was appointed governor of Galilee and thereby calling himself Josephus Flavius, he became a Roman citizen and a successful historian.

Masada’s story is one of perseverance of power, of ambitions and tragedy, and of faith and surrender in a place where battles were waged with rocks and flaming arrows against the determination of human spirits that refused to give-up. The story reveals the courage of the defenders and their battle against the Roman armies.

Josephus shares in his writings, that some 75 years after Herod’s death, at the beginning of the Revolt of the Jews against the Romans in 66 CE. A group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE these rebels were joined by other zealots and their families fleeing from Jerusalem. There this group of Jewish people held out for three years while raiding and harassing the Romans.

In 73 CE, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion, auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada, laid siege to it by building a circumvallation wall. Then Romans constructed a rampart of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth against the western approaches of the fortress. In the spring of 74 CE, the Romans moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the wall of the fortress.

Once it was apparent by the Jews inside that the Tenth Legion’s battering rams and catapults would succeed in breaching Masada’s walls, their leader Elazar ben Yair decided that all the Jewish defenders should commit suicide. Two women recount to Josephus the end, “The defenders were almost one thousand men, women and children led by ben Yair, They burnt down the fortress and killed each other then the zealots cast lots to choose 10 men to kill the remainder and then chose among themselves the one man who would kill the survivors.”

Elazar’s final speech was clearly a master oration for the fight for freedom, “Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice .We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”

The story of Masada survived in the writings of Josephus but not until recent years have Jews read his works, for well over fifteen hundred years Masada’s story was a forgotten episode in Jewish history. In the 1920’s, a Hebrew writer Isaac Lamdan wrote a poetic history of the anguished Jewish fight against a world full of enemies called “Masada”. This same poem is attributed to inspiring the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The heroic story of Masada with its dramatic end attracted many to the Judean desert searching in an attempt to locate the remains of the fortress. The site was identified in 1842 but only in the mid 1960’s were intensive excavations made with help from hundreds of volunteers from Israel and around the world.

Masada is a gigantic symbol in the desert; a symbol of Jewish resolve and faith to stand and fight for freedom in their own land.