The name connotes exactly what one pictures in one’s mind: a fortress on the top of a desert mountain. Masada rests on an isolated flattop rock is visible to the west of the highway and is famous as one of the desert escapes of King Herod and the last stand of the less than 1,000 Jewish rebels in the Great Revolt against Rome. This was the first site in Israel to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001.
Masada was built in the 1st century BC by Herod the Great – the King of the Jews by the grace of Rome at the time. It was an palatial stronghold where Herod escaped hostile threats such as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. The fortress was later the site of the dramatic last stand of Jewish rebels against Rome. With Herod’s death in 4 BC and the exile of his son, Archelaus, 10 years later, the central part of the country came under direct Roman control. Decades of oppression and misrule precipitated the Great Revolt of the Jews in 66 AD. After the Roman reconquest of the country and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Masada became the last refuge for almost 1,000 men, women and children.
The Romans sent thousands of troops to lay siege to Masada and crush the rebellion. They stationed eight camps at the foot of the mountain and lay wait for the Jews. According to 1st century BC Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, despite the Jews’ defense, the Romans succeeded in constructing a massive earth assault ramp from the high western plateau to the summit of the mountain. Seeing that the battle was lost, the rebel leader, Elazar Ben Yair, assembled his warriors and exhorted them to “at once choose death with honor, and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children” rather than face the brutal consequences of capture. Having killed each of their own families, the men then drew lots to select 10 executioners for the rest. The 10 similarly chose the last man who would killo them all and afterwards take his own life. Note that this account has been suspect in the eyes of some historians because Josephus had gone over to the Romans during the revolt.
The message of the Jews’ last stand on Masada was not lost on Jews fighting for independence in the 1930s and 1940s and “Masada shall not fall again!” became a key rallying cry. Today, Masada is an important symbolic image of Jewish independence and self determination.
To visit the site, we took a cable car up Masada (in lieu of the Snake Path which is a one hour steep walk alterative). The entire mountaintop is less than 20 acres and is surrounded by a 4,250 foot long double wall that includes living quarters and guardrooms. The Northern Palace is a three-tiered structure that appears to hand off the highest and most northerly point of the mountain. The lowest level is adorned with frescoes and a bathhouse. When you look down from atop, you can clearly see the Roman camps and the Dead Sea. The synagogue is one the most interesting buildings and contains stone benches and a man-made pit. It was likely here that the leaders of the revolt against Rome made their fateful decision. At an opening in the walls on the western edge is where the Roman legionnaires broke into Masada. The original wedge shape ramp can is still seen below though the upper ramp has since collapsed.
We entered through a new visitor center which gives a short movie on Masada, a model, some discovered artifacts, a photo gallery of the archaeological dig, and plain clothes security men armed with fully automatic weapons!