In the Judean Desert in the southern part of Israel, at an altitude of 450 meters above the Dead Sea level, on the ancient roads connecting ancient Moab and Edom with Judea, on an isolated rocky cliff lies the fortress of Masada. Today, this ancient monument, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, is part of the National Parks of Israel.
The mysterious fortress of Masada in the inhospitable desert attracted the imagination of travelers. American theologian and traveler Edward Robinson, along with his translator, traveled to the Middle East to find biblical sites in what was then Palestine. In 1838, with the help of binoculars, Robinson saw from the Dead Sea the oasis of Ein Gedi ruins on top of a steep mountain, in which he recognized the fortress of Masada. Four years later, the American missionary Woolcott appeared on Masada, accompanied by the English artist Tipping. Other expeditions followed.
In the 20th century, Masada became a symbol of Jewish youth during the British mandate in Palestine. They felt free and safe in the desert, discovering its beauty and traces left by a rich history. Thorough archaeological research began in the winter of 1963 and 1964. The international group of volunteers was led by Israeli general, politician, and archaeologist Yigael Yadin. Archaeologists are excavating the Masada Fortress with shorter breaks to this day. Every year new restored and newly opened buildings are added, which lengthen the excursion route.
Historical development of Masada Fortress
Everything that is known about the Masada fortress, in Hebrew Metsada (from the word “Mitsuda” = fortress), is known from two sources: from the work of the Jewish historian Josephus, written by him in Greek at the end of the I century AD, and from archaeological knowledge. Flavius claims that Masada, an isolated rock above the Dead Sea, was first fortified by the high priest Jonathan. It was probably Alexander Yanney (103-73 BC).
The Hasmoneans, the Jewish royal dynasty, built palaces and fortresses on the tops of rocks, away from prying eyes. There they kept their treasures, getting rid of rivals imprisoned in these places. In 43 BC, Herod, the son of the Hasmonean royal steward, took refuge in Masada with his family when he fled from Antigonus, the last descendant of the Hasmoneans. He went to Rome to ask for help against Antigonus, who was supported by the Parthian Empire.
Desert fortresses were important to King Herod. There was a constant threat of rebellion in the empire he ruled, his rival Cleopatra ruled in Egypt, and the situation in his own family was full of intrigue. Herod did not trust anyone and had good reasons for this. During his 36-year reign, Masada, a fortress in a secluded, inaccessible place, was rebuilt into a luxurious impregnable mansion, devoid of everything that related to the comfort of Roman life.
The platform on the top of the mountain in the shape of a ship’s deck has a length of 650 m and a width of 200 m. It was surrounded by a double wall, in which there were about 30 watchtowers. The main condition for survival in this arid wasteland was the reliability of the water supply. Herod cut down 12 giant cisterns in the rock, into which water flowed during the winter rains with the help of ingenious aqueducts. The capacity of these reservoirs was 40 million liters of water.
After Herod’s death in 4 BC, Masada passed to his incompetent son Archelaus, but a few years later the Romans preferred to entrust the administration of Judea to their accusers. There was a Roman garrison in Masada for sixty years. When the Jewish anti-Roman uprising broke out in 66, Masada was attacked by a large group of radical Galilean fanatics, who were also called Sicario. The Zealots took over the weapons from the Romans and went to Jerusalem.
There they defeated the guards, killed the Jewish high priest, and his brother and the leader of the Galilean zealots Menachem declared himself king of Israel. But in Jerusalem, it became an insult. And Menachem went in royal robes to the temple, and they and his companions were killed. A small group escaped to Masada under the leadership of Menachem’s cousin Eleazar ben Yair. Throughout the anti-Roman uprising, the Zealots remained in Masada and raided the area to earn a living.
Although the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 and destroyed the Jewish temple, the Jewish uprising was not over yet. The Romans still had to conquer Herodion, where some of the rebels and the castle of Macherus had taken refuge. Then, in 73 AD, the last rebel stronghold, Masada, appeared. The tenth Roman Legion of 10,000 men headed for the fort in the spring of 73. The Legion was accompanied by several thousand Jewish slaves captured during the fall of Jerusalem. The Romans built 8 military camps and fortified themselves with a defensive wall.
General Flavius Silva knew that a prolonged siege would not make sense against well-equipped Zealots. He found a weak spot on the western side of the mountain and ordered a ramp 100 m high, protected by wooden scaffolding, to be built there. A platform 25 m high was built on the ramp, and a 30-meter wooden siege tower, upholstered in iron, was placed on it. The stone walls were smashed with a rammer, but the Zealots quickly repaired the damaged wall from wooden beams that were torn from the roofs of buildings.
Such a wall could not be broken, but the Romans set it on fire. The victory was for them. There is only one mention of these events in the work of Josephus. According to this Jewish historian, who lived in Rome at the time of the creation of the literary work, the Romans held the final conquest of the fortress of Masada the next day. However, when they entered the fort in the morning, they saw that their victory was empty. The defenders killed their loved ones, then chose ten people by lot to kill them all, then they cast lots among themselves. Except for 5 children and 2 women who hid in the tank, no one was left alive. Today, historians doubt the veracity of this information.
In Herod’s time, the only narrow road leading to Masada, winding along the mountainside like a snake, is still called the “Snake Path”. The current tourists have an advantage, they will be taken to the top of the mountain by a cable car with a capacity for 80 people, with the possibility of a return trip. However, Israeli families and young people like to perform on the “Snake Trail” in the morning, when it’s still cold because visiting Masada is both a dream and a duty for Israelis. The young State of Israel, after its appearance, created a national myth from the history of Masada fanatics, making them heroes against all odds, brave warriors who chose death rather than slavery. Although today this myth has been overcome and people openly talk about the historical aspects of ancient events, Masada remains a national symbol.
Entrance to Masada
After getting off the cable car, the entrance to Masada is made through the gates of the Snake Trail and where a large area will be opened, dotted with the remains of buildings and partially restored walls. When archaeologists arrived in Masada in the 1960s, they found almost ruins where earthquakes were most frequent, regrouping dilapidated buildings into piles of stones. A black stripe on all the walls indicates how well the building has been preserved. Everything above the black line has been carefully reconstructed. The building block from which King Herod built Masada was mined here.
In the time of King Herod, buildings were not boring stone buildings. They were plastered and shone with colors. The interior walls were painted with frescoes, and the floors were decorated with mosaics, but Herod did not allow images of people or animals following Jewish law. Through the buildings that housed the guards and military leaders, you can get to the giant warehouses that store so many supplies that Masada could not starve to death. In 16 giant rooms, different types of food were stored separately.
The personal palace of King Herod
On the northern slope of the mountain, the relief decreases sharply. It was here that King Herod built his palace, built on three levels on a steep sloping cliff. The winds blow from the north, which makes staying in the hot desert quite pleasant. The courtyard was decorated with frescoes, the stone columns were plastered to give the impression that they were carved from one piece, and painted to look like marble. A hidden spiral staircase led through the palace. Today, only ruins remain, but one can imagine the splendor that contrasted sharply with the inhospitable wasteland surrounding Masada.
In addition to the Northern Palace, which served Herod and his family, there was another large palace in Masada, now called the Western Palace, which served administrative purposes and where the throne room was located. It was here that the most beautiful mosaics were found. The comfort of Masada was complemented by such achievements of the then civilization as Roman baths, which served to cleanse the body and spirit. There were various outbuildings in the fortress, including towers in which pigeons were kept. Their meat was a welcome addition to their diet, their manure served as fertilizer for flower beds, and it is believed that they were also used for messaging.
When the Jewish rebels invaded Masada in 66, they paid little attention to aesthetics and more to survival. Masada fortress did not shine after 60 years of Roman troops, as in the time of Herod. The Zealots neglected mosaic floors, and frescoes subordinated everything to an urgent need and blocked the royal chambers with rough artificial walls to get more space for large families. But there was not enough space, so they also used a double casemate wall for living, inside which they arranged their dwellings. Archaeologists, while examining the wall, came across a space in one place that was much wider than other parts of the wall. Around the large room, there were stone benches, the space of which was once supported by columns.