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Masada Israel
Monday 13 August1990
Masada
Herodian Palace and Refugium
Good access for the disabled Paid access to the monument
Roman name: -
Roman Province: Judaea
Country: Israel
Province: Judea
Nearest town: Hebron
Nearest village: En-Gedi

Masada
Map of Masada and surrounding camps.

Masada
Map of Masada and surrounding camps.

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
Masada , just west of the Dead Sea.

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

Masada seen from the northMasada 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.

Arriving at Masada - which of these desolate table mountains is Masada anyway?
Arriving at Masada - which of these desolate table mountains is Masada anyway?
About an hour's climb ahead..
About an hour's climb ahead..
Same spot, looking back to the Dead Sea and Jordan. To the left lies Camp B.
Same spot, looking back to the Dead Sea and Jordan. To the left lies Camp B.
The real Lords of Masada - the crows, ever present despite the strong winds.
The real Lords of Masada - the crows, ever present despite the strong winds.
Camps C (left) and B (right) as seen from the top of the plateau.
Camps C (left) and B (right) as seen from the top of the plateau.
Close-up of camp C.
Close-up of camp C.

Flavius Josephus: Bellum Judaicum (The Jewish War) Book VII, Chapter 8.1:
"When Bassus was dead in Judea, Flavius Silva succeeded him as procurator there; who, when he saw that all the rest of the country was subdued in this war, and that there was but one only strong hold that was still in rebellion, he got all his army together that lay in different places, and made an expedition against it. This fortress was called Masada. It was one Eleazar, a potent man, and the commander of these Sicarii, that had seized upon it."

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:

Flavius Josephus: Bellum Judaicum (The Jewish War) Book IV, Chapter 7.2:
"And now a fourth misfortune arose, in order to bring our nation to destruction. There was a fortress of very great strength not far from Jerusalem, which had been built by our ancient kings, both as a repository for their effects in the hazards of war, and for the preservation of their bodies at the same time. It was called Masada. Those that were called Sicarii had taken possession of it formerly, but at this time they overran the neighboring countries, aiming only to procure to themselves necessaries; for the fear they were then in prevented their further ravages. But when once they were informed that the Roman army lay still, and that the Jews were divided between sedition and tyranny, they boldly undertook greater matters; and at the feast of unleavened bread, which the Jews celebrate in memory of their deliverance from the Egyptian bondage, when they were sent back into the country of their forefathers, they came down by night, without being discovered by those that could have prevented them, and overran a certain small city called Engaddi:--in which expedition they prevented those citizens that could have stopped them, before they could arm themselves, and fight them.

Spread showing camps C (left), B (middle) and A (right) as seen from the top of the plateau, with the siege wall in front of them.
Spread showing camps C (left), B (middle) and A (right) as seen from the top of the plateau, with the siege wall in front of them.
Air shot showing the palaces of Herodes the Great on the northern cliff, with the Roman east camps.
Air shot showing the palaces of Herodes the Great on the northern cliff, with the Roman east camps.
Spread showing camps F (left) and E (right) on top of the escarpment, with the siege wall in front of them.
Spread showing camps F (left) and E (right) on top of the escarpment, with the siege wall in front of them.
The Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea.
The big reservoir, too bad it's been dry for about 1900 years now..
The big reservoir, too bad it's been dry for about 1900 years now..

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."

Camp F, main base of Legio X Fretensis.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 Roman siege tower.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:

Flavius Josephus: Bellum Judaicum (The Jewish War) Book VII, Chapter 9.1:
"Yet at the same time did they complete what they had resolved on, as if they had been executed by the hands of strangers; and they had nothing else for their comfort but the necessity they were in of doing this execution, to avoid that prospect they had of the miseries they were to suffer from their enemies. Nor was there at length any one of these men found that scrupled to act their part in this terrible execution, but every one of them despatched his dearest relations. Miserable men indeed were they! whose distress forced them to slay their own wives and children with their own hands, as the lightest of those evils that were before them. So they being not able to bear the grief they were under for what they had done any longer, and esteeming it an injury to those they had slain, to live even the shortest space of time after them, they presently laid all they had upon a heap, and set fire to it."

Did the 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.
The drama comes to a close. Drawing lots, ten men remained to kill those who had already taken the lives of their families, and one of them then killed the other nine. The last man torched the palace, their material goods (except for the food supplies, to make a point) and, before first light, killed himself. But some survived:

"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."

Next 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 left Masada.
Flavius Silva left a garrison (poor sods) and marched away. The dead were disposed of, though some were left where they had fallen. Others were deposited long after in a cave, but hundreds are still unaccounted for.

Camp D, seen from the top.
Camp D, seen from the top.
Camps F (main camp-right) and E (left) and the siege wall in front of them.
Camps F (main camp-right) and E (left) and the siege wall in front of them.
The Roman siege ramp, of which some today think most is natural.
The Roman siege ramp, of which some today think most is natural.
Camp G, guarding the Masada Valley.
Camp G, guarding the Masada Valley.
Aerial picture from the south. Camp H is visible in the lower right corner.
Aerial picture from the south. Camp H is visible in the lower right corner.

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.

The visit

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.

The Masada cable car.
The Masada cable car.
A panoramic view across the Masada Plateau. At left, near the flag, is the Snake Path gate. Panning right, you come across building nr. 12 (buildings of the Herodian Royal family) and right next to it, building nr. 11, a villa at the highest point of Masada. The large, partly roofed ruin to the extreme right is the Western Palace. At the right edge of the picture are the walls of the Byzantine church.
A panoramic view across the Masada Plateau. At left, near the flag, is the Snake Path gate. Panning right, you come across building nr. 12 (buildings of the Herodian Royal family) and right next to it, building nr. 11, a villa at the highest point of Masada. The large, partly roofed ruin to the extreme right is the Western Palace. At the right edge of the picture are the walls of the Byzantine church.
Masada was guarded.
Masada was guarded.

My bus ticketLeaving 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.

Ticket of the Masada Cable Car.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).

Bibliography

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