Published: July 23rd 2010July 23rd 2010
23 July 2010
2229 (GMT +3)
Jerusalem, Israel And he who was last of all, took a view of all the other bodies lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain, should want his assistance to be quite dispatched; and when he perceived that they were all slain, he set fire to the palace, and with the force of his own hand ran his sword entirely through himself, and fell down dead near to his own relations.
And so met (the Romans) with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action that was.
-Titus Flavius Josephus: The Jewish War
(c. 75 AD)
There is nothing that brings out Jewish and Israeli national sentiment like the story - the mythos - of Masada. Masada is a hilltop fortress about an hour south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea. It was fortified and provisioned by
Herod the Great in about 36 BC in the event that he ever faced a threat to his rule and had to get out of town in a hurry. During the Jewish revolt against Rome between 66 AD and 73 AD, Masada was occupied by a group of Jewish rebels known as the Zealots. The Romans laid siege to the fortress, and eventually breached the defensive wall, but upon entry found that all the Jews had committed suicide, save for two women and some children who hid in a cistern. Masada is for Israelis what Thermopylae is for Greeks, or the Alamo for Texans, though unlike the latter two, Masada was not a defeat that rallied the Jews and led to an overwhelming victory against their foes. Instead, the events culminating with Masada were some of the darkest times in Jewish history, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, and the scattering of the tribes of Israel throughout the world (something that is remembered during the aforementioned Tisha B’Av
day of fasting). Indeed, it would be nearly 1,900 years - with the founding of the modern state of Israel - before the story of Masada became national mythos.
Climb to Masada
Coming from the west, the Roman rampart is still visible leading up the mountain.
I had the opportunity today to hike up and tour the Masada fortress, and then go for a dip in the nearby Dead Sea. Normally I’m not a big fan of large, organized tours, but I made an exception in this case, and I think it was well worth it. This trip was organized through the university. The Story
The Jewish Zealots were a radical political movement founded with the goal of expelling the Romans from the land of Judea, which had been a Roman province since the mid 1st Century BC. (Note that one of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot.)
Judea had long been a trouble spot for the Romans, and armed rebellions had to be put down from time to time. One of the more notable instances - as we have already discussed - was the revolt in 4 BC after the death of Herod the Great, in which the Roman general tasked with quelling the rebellion crucified 2,000 men in a single day. No doubt Pontius Pilate had these fears not far from mind when the Jewish mob brought Jesus before him, claiming that he was one who preached rebellion against
Rome. Pilate had a fine line to walk between keeping the mob in check while stifling any kind of popular movement (messianic or otherwise) that might threaten Roman authority.
Trouble flared up again in 66 AD when the Zealots began another revolt against Rome in Jerusalem. By this time, though, the Romans had had just about enough of their Jewish subjects. The Roman general Titus - son of the emperor Vespasian and future emperor himself - was tasked with putting down the rebellion. In 70 AD, Titus captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and banished all of its Jewish residents. (Note also that many historians believe that, in the Gospels, when Jesus describes all the bad things to come, he is describing the destruction of the Temple. See Mark, chapter 13.)
A small number of rebels - a little over 900 - fled to the Masada fortress in the Judean desert, which had been occupied by a related group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii
since the start of the revolt. There they holed up as the Roman legions established several camps surrounding the Masada plateau and laid siege to the fortress.
If the story of Masada represents
The black lines were painted during the archeological excavations to show what was above and what was below ground when the dig began.
Jewish resilience and heroism, it also displays Roman persistence and ingenuity. How do you penetrate a fortress built on top of a mountain in the desert? In order to breach the fortress walls, they built a massive ramp of stone and earth on the western side of the plateau. Once it was high enough to reach the wall, they constructed a siege tower to provide cover for the battering ram. Eventually, in 73 AD, they breached the wall.
As the situation started to look more and more hopeless for the Zealots atop Masada, they decided that death was preferable to the capture, execution or slavery that certainly waited for them on the other side of their failing wall. So, a plot was devised wherein the Jews of Masada would kill themselves before being captured.
Jewish law forbids suicide. So, the Zealots came up with a system to circumvent this. Each man was responsible for killing his family, wives and children. Afterwards, lots were drawn and ten were selected to kill the remaining men. After this was accomplished, from the remaining ten, one had the task of dispatching the other nine, and making sure that no one was left
Many of these ruins can be seen surrounding the Masada fortress.
alive. Thus, only one was burdened with the sin of suicide.
Our only written documentation of the events at Masada comes from a Jewish-Roman historian whose Latin name was Titus Flavius Josephus. According to Josephus, when the Romans finally breached the wall, they were prepared for a serious fight. As they entered the silence of the fortress, and witnessed the depth of the Zealot’s determination, they were in awe.
Josephus also wrote that the Zealots did not destroy their provisions, as they did not want the Romans to think that they had committed suicide due to lack of food and water.
Thus ended the siege of Masada. With the Temple destroyed, the Jews were sent into exile, and the Romans changed the name of the land from Judea to Philistina
, after the ancient Philistines, so as to remove Jewish references. I'll let you draw your own conclusions here. The Tour
Our tour was scheduled to depart Jerusalem at 03freaking00, which in Israeli time is 03freaking27. Now, I’m not normally excited about getting up at this time of day, but this was the schedule we had. It was about a two hour drive to Masada,
Believed to be the oldest synagogue in the world. Notice again the black lines.
and we approached it from the west.
Now, as much as I was less than enthusiastic about the hour of our departure, I must admit that we arrived at a very opportune time, just at daybreak. The sun was not quite up when we arrived, but it was light enough to see the Dead Sea to the east. If you have not had the experience of seeing a sunrise over the Dead Sea, you should check it out. It is not quite the Grand Canyon, but it will do.
Our guide introduced himself as Mickey - an older guy and, like most Israelis, former IDF. After a brief introduction we made our way up the western side of the plateau, following in the footsteps of the Romans, on the rampart they built. Altogether the climb was maybe fifteen minutes and not too terribly difficult.
Once on top, we worked our way around the perimeter clockwise. All that is left on top now are ruins, due largely to nearly 2,000 years of earthquakes and erosion. In fact, the Roman rampart is now much shorter due to these effects. Nevertheless, you can still see where it came up to
Inside the Bathhouse
Hot water would be pumbed under this floor to create heat for the sauna.
the top, and the spot where they breached the wall, even though the wall is no longer there.
Most of the major archeological excavations at the site occurred in the late 1960s under the direction of archeologist Yigael Yadin. So, as you walk through the ruins you will see black paint lines that run parallel to the ground. Everything below the line was dug out during these excavations.
Among the remains atop Masada are a synagogue - the oldest in the world - Herod’s palaces, storerooms, bath houses, and a swimming pool. Herod may have been a bit crazy, but he had a mind for grand architectural designs and good living. To get water to Masada, which is in the middle of the desert by the way, he built an aqueduct from a mountain nearly 30 miles away. One might say that he was a crazy genius.
Needless to say, the views from the top are remarkable, particularly to the north and the east, where there are some good views of the Dead Sea. All around you can also see the remains of the Roman encampments, although they do not look like much from the ground anymore.
Herod's palaces on the north side of the plateau.
Descending from Masada, we took the ‘Snake Path’ which, conveniently snakes
down the eastern side of the mountain. It is also from the eastern side that the cable car runs, for those who are not quite so adventurous. The path is a mixture of trail and stairs, and quickly turns your legs to rubber, an all too familiar feeling. Depending on your pace it takes between forty and fifty minutes.
Once at ground level again, it seemed apparent that the eastern side of Masada is the normal entry for visitors. There is a large information center, as well as the entrance for the cable car. We rested here for a brief time before boarding the bus and heading north to a place called Ein Gedi, where there is beach access to the Dead Sea.
Certainly we are all familiar with the Dead Sea, the fact that it is the lowest place on earth (422 meters below sea level), and the high mineral content which allows one to float without any effort whatsoever.
We spent about an hour here, and it is true that you float without even trying. It really is quite remarkable. However, there are
Leading down the east side of the plateau.
some things to remember. I wouldn’t say that you swim in the Dead Sea so much as you float. You really want to try to avoid splashing the water, because if it gets in your eyes it burns. It burns us, precious.
Also, once you’re in, make sure you don’t rub your eyes. Think about eating really spicy hot wings and then rubbing your eyes. It’s the same effect. Along the same lines, if you have any open cuts, you may want to avoid contact with the water, as that will burn as well. Getting a splash of the water in your mouth is not dangerous, but it is quite unpleasant. I can now speak from personal experience on all of the above recommendations. You will also want to take advantage of the showers nearby afterwards, as you will be covered in a film of salt.
With these universal precautions, a float in the Dead Sea is an experience not to be missed.
After about an hour here, we made our way back to Jerusalem, north along the sea. Going this way cut our time in half, to just over an hour, arriving back at school at about
The beginning of the Snake Path, from the top.
The Masada mythos played heavily in the formation of the Israeli identity in the early years of the Jewish state. For many years new IDF soldiers, having recently completed their basic training, would hike to the top of Masada via the Snake Path. Once on top, by torch light, they would conduct their swearing-in ceremony. At the end, the entire class would shout the line that had become the Israeli rallying cry: ‘Masada shall not fall again.’
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, in obedience to their laws we lie.
Remember the Alamo.
There are more photos below