This visit was not an ordinary one, as we made it made only a week and a half after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Israel was not exactly in uproar, but a sense of fatalism and fear of the unknown had permeated society already. Especially amongst our Dutch countrymen living in Israel, a sense of panic had already set in, and the first were leaving. We did of course discuss the situation, but we decided to remain and watch the developments. At that time, no threats were yet made against Israel (although most Israeli's had no doubts about that - they were right), nor were any gas masks distributed yet. However, the setting proved right for an appreciation for Masada and its historical context.(*)
Masada is a natural fortress, located at the top of an isolated plateau on the edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea valley. The flat top of the rock has a rhomboid shape, elongated from north to south. Its height is 440 above the Dead Sea (which means it is still only 50 m above sea level), and it is isolated from its surroundings by deep gorges on all sides. King Herod the Great fled from Jerusalem to Masada with his family in a moment of danger in 40 BC. Later he fortified and furnished the citadel as a refuge fearing, according to Flavius Josephus, "a peril from Jewish people" and one "more serious from Cleopatra of Egypt". Herod added terraced palaces, storage rooms, cisterns and baths. Most of Herodian buildings and fortifications were erected apparently between 37 and 31 BC. After his death in 5 BC, the place seems to have been deserted. Rome entered the scene soon after, and it seems that a garrison was present at Masada from 6 AD onwards. Sixty years later, Masada was drawn into the maelstrom of the Jewish Wars, until its final demise in 73 AD.
The war reaches Masada
After the fall of Jerusalem, the Sicarii leader, Eleazar ben Jair eventually succeeded in escaping the Roman onslaught. Together with a small group of followers, he continued his resistance against the Romans. Others did so, too, and it fell to the new Roman military governor, Lucillus Bassus, to end the resistance once and for all. The main focus of that resistance was formed by the occupants of the former palatial fortresses built by Herod the Great, Masada, Herodion and Macherus, all occupied by Sicarii forces. Bassus took Herodion without bloodshed, but slaughtered all outside the citadel of Macherus (with whom he arranged a deal). After that, his next move was to cut off a force of 3000 refugees from the fortresses and from Jerusalem who had massed in the Forest of Jardes. When the cover of the trees prevented the Romans to flush them out, they cut down the whole forest. No one was left alive, only 12 Roman soldiers were killed. That left Masada as sole point of resistance.
Josephus: Bellum Judaicum (The Jewish
War) Book VII, Chapter 8.1:
Bassus died before he could finish the job, and he was replaced by Flavius Silva. From Masada, the Sicarii still made raids on the surrounding countryside, carrying off supplies. Josephus very clearly describes the wickedness and boldness of the band of robbers, called the Sicarii, who terrorised the countryside, killing or dispersing the inhabitants, abducting the remainder to Masada:
Josephus: Bellum Judaicum (The Jewish
War) Book IV, Chapter 7.2:
They also dispersed them, and cast them out of the city. As for such as could not run away, being women and children, they slew of them above seven hundred. Afterward, when they had carried every thing out of their houses, and had seized upon all the fruits that were in a flourishing condition, they brought them into Masada. And indeed these men laid all the villages that were about the fortress waste, and made the whole country desolate; while there came to them every day, from all parts, not a few men as corrupt as themselves."
It seems quite clear, from this description, that Masada never was 'Israel's Last Stand'. Quite the opposite, Masada was simply a robber's nest, filled with terrorists, opportunists and their wretched victims. And the place was about to be smoked out.
In 74 AD, Silva marched into the scorching desert with Legio X Fretensis, an equal number of Auxiliaries and about as many Jewish prisoners, who were forced to carry all the supplies, water and building material into the desert. Even though it was winter when Silva marched, high temperatures as well as flash floods do still occur today. Flavius Josephus did not relate how many prisoners perished. Like Bassus had done with Macherus and Herodion, Silva was forced to do with Masada; he built a ring of camps and fortifications (see map, top) around the fort. In the camps he housed his total force of about 15.000. Masada, which was easily defended against Roman attack, was held by only 960 souls, and most of them women and children. But with Herod's storehouses full and water in ample supply, the defenders would be able to hold out for a long time, while the Romans were forced to have all their supplies carried by prisoners or mules from a long way off. Silva did not want to wait it out, and started to build a ramp. The only way up to Masada was the 'snakepath', a narrow winding path on the NE side. But the defenders had prepared for attack from that side, and a dozen of 45kg-stones was discovered by modern excavators in 1963-5.
The Romans, denied the possibility of a direct attack, resorted to building a great earthen ramp, leading up the White Cliff on the west side of the plateau. This had a big platform on the top, from where the fired with ballista's on the defenders. Next, a big siege engine was prepared and erected on the platform, with which the Romans could breach the walls. But the Sicarii had prepared an ingenious system with a second wall made of wooden beams filled inbetween with loose earth, which only compacted under the blows of the Roman siege engines. The Romans then set fire to the wood of the wall. Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and for some time it seemed the Roman siege-engines were threatened. But then, the wind changed direction, and soon the wall was fiercely ablaze. It was already late and the Romans decided to let the fires rage overnight, and attack the next day.
That night, their situation becoming hopeless, the defenders took council. Their fates clear, either death or slavery, they decided to make an end. Josephus tells us that Eleazar ben Jair convinced his fellow Sicarii that all was lost and that there was nothing left but to kill their loved ones. Josephus relates Eleazar's thrilling speech, which convinced all doubters, but we may well doubt that the historian knew the exact words, and made most if not all of it up himself. Thinking about all their murderous acts, why should we now believe in sudden noble motives of these fanatics? Yet Josephus suddenly seems to have pity on them:
Josephus: Bellum Judaicum (The Jewish
War) Book VII, Chapter 9.1:
terrorists suddenly turn into heroes? Or was it because
Josephus himself, during the final hours of the siege of
Jotapata, failed to do the 'honorable thing' and managed
to convince his fellows to back down? We will never know.
"Yet was there an ancient woman, and another who was of kin to Eleazar, and superior to most women in prudence and learning, with five children, who had concealed themselves in caverns under ground, and had carried water thither for their drink, and were hidden there when the rest were intent upon the slaughter of one another."
morning the Romans began their attack, and were greeted
by an eerie silence. When no-one was to be found, the
Legionaries started to search the smoking buildings,
attemptin to lure out the defenders whom they assumed
must be hiding somewhere. When they raised a shout, the
survivors emerged and told the stunned Roman what had
happened. Masada had fallen. Josephus tells us how the
Romans admired the courage of the defenders, but I have
some doubts about that. No glory, no spoils - I bet most
Legionairies must have felt pretty pissed off when they
Masada was not involved in the terrible and atrocious Bar Kochba revolt (130-6 AD), which was in effect a guerrilla war which cost about 600.000 lives. Again, the last rebels did not surrender their last stronghold (Bethar), but died of starvation. Hadrian then attempted to destroy Judaism, but dispersing the Jews and forbidding their traditions and religion, even though these measures were softened later. Long after the Roman army had gone (and I doubt they stayed long), Masada was used during the 4th c. by Byzantine monks as a Christian monastery. They stayed until the 5th c., after which Masada was forgotten. It was not until 1807 that it was heard of again, when the German explorer Seetzen saw it from his ship on the Dead Sea (but misidentified it). Masada now is a monument for the Jewish state of Israel and especially its armed forces, who use it as a national symbol of Jewish resistance and heroism.
We'd been staying in Jerusalem for five days when we finally had the chance to go to Masada. As I wrote at the top of the page, this was about three weeks after Saddam Hussein attacked and occupied Kuwayt, so the mood in the country was not a good one. All Palestinian shops in the Old Town were closed, and there was a lot of Police and Military green on the streets. The days of the Intifadah were not far behind, but in those days, the suicide bombings were still a long way off. Naturally, bombs were already a common thing in Israel, but these were constricted to packages left in awkward places before killing civilians. It did not come as a big surprise, then, to learn that bus 966 was leaving the bus station with a big delay.
Leaving Jerusalem, the route went through a landscape which turned desolate at a fast pace. Just outside the city, the Judean Desert begins, with it's pale grey and brown colors and rocky gentle sloping hills. It stayed that way all the way to Jericho, where the scene altered quickly. The Dead Sea landscape is one of the blue water to one side, and steep, dramatic rock to the other. Beautiful, but hot - we were very thankful for the air-conditioned bus.
Menno and I went all the way to the south, the girls got off at En Gedi for a salty swim in the Dead Sea (and got lost for their trouble..). The road descended for another 14 km to 400 metres below sea level, but the temperature rose to a 40 degrees! That was quite an unpleasant surprise when we stepped outside.. Past the Youth Hostel, we could see the serpentines of the Snake Path winding upwards. We were in for a hot hike.
It took us 45 minutes to reach the summit, which surprised us a bit - apparently, we had done well in the very dry heat. Apart from two Americans, it seemed every other tourist took the cable car to the top! But we were rewarded - we got a discount at the entrance.. From above, the Dead Sea looked even a more brilliant blue, but it was also very clear that is was not as large as it had been some years ago. Agriculture took its toll, and less water entered the lowest lake on earth. Very clear as well, were the remains of the Roman siege camps - preserved for more than 19 centuries by the dry heat and the absence of people. These camps still surround the plateau on all sides and with the great siege ramp, which was ascending the rocks from the west, they witnessed the tragic and violent past.
The summit, simmering in the heat and from time to time shuddering under the sound of low-flying aircraft (not too far away, there's a war on..), offered a wide view of scenery and ruins. The walls were 'reconstructed' by Israeli archaeologists, thus conserving the remains and giving tourists a better understanding them at the same stroke. A black line showed the original height.
Apart from the wind, silence reigned on the plateau. Eagles and crows, soaring high overhead in the updraft, really added to the atmosphere of desolation and loneliness expressed by the ruins. The views were breathtaking. Only the oppressive heat made a long stay impossible. After wandering about the plateau, we took the cable car back down.
The visit was a great experience. Although even back then (I was 26) I had my doubts about the symbolism of this place, I have by now come to realise that appearances may deceive. That knowledge arrived late, partly from studying Josephus, partly by judging the actions of the modern State of Israel. I was raised in a Christian family, and Israel was held in high esteem. Of course, that was long before the First Intifadah, and much has changed since that time. The modern State of Israel no longer is the safe refuge for the Jewish survivors of Hitler's Holocaust, because it has long since lost its innocence. Too many unforgivable acts have been carried out against the Arab population, no doubt in the name of safety policies, but uncaring nonetheless. It seems fitting that, in retrospect, Masada must also be looked at differently - no longer the last stand of heroes, but the last fanatic act of a band of terrorists.
(*): Oddly enough, as I'm writing the lasts words of this travel account, US military personnel arrested Saddam Hussein, huddling in a hole under a floor in his home-town Tikrit... It seems the circle is closed (Sunday, December 14th, 2003).
VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2011. All rights reserved