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Masada

Masada is a mountain top fortress located in Israel on the western shore of the Dead Sea. The name Masada is derived from the Hebrew word "metzude", which means "the mountain castle" or the "stronghold". At Masada's top are the remains of elaborate buildings built by Herod the Great during his reign in the first century BC.  Masada is a symbol of freedom and courage to Jews because of its history, specifically the events of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the first century AD recorded by Josephus, when the Zealots held out against Rome for three years at Masada before choosing mass suicide over surrender. Today, Masada is a popular tourist attraction because of its intriguing structures, beautiful view, and mysterious history.

Masada is situated on the top of an isolated rock on the edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea Valley, about 25 km south of En Gedi.  It is directly opposite Mt. Moab in Jordan.  As a result of its location, the climate at Masada is extremely dry, which has well preserved some of the artifacts.  Masada is a diamond shaped plateau and is 1,900 feet long and 650 feet wide, covering a total of 23 acres.  Masada rises 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea.  The top of Masada can only be reached by two natural approaches: a "snake path" on the east face and the "White Rock" path on the west face.

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The only significant historical sources of information about Masada are the writings of Josephus: The Jewish Wars, written between 75-79 AD, and The Jewish Antiquities, written in 93-94 AD.  Josephus relates that Masada was first fortified by the high priest Jonathan.  The identity of Jonathan has been attributed to either the brother of Judah Maccabee, living in the mid second century BC, or more likely to Alexander Jannaeus, living in 103-76 BC.  The only archaeological evidence from this period are some coins dating back to Alexander Jannaeus and plaster from some of the cisterns that dates to this time.

The second occupant of Masada was Herod the Great.  In 40 BC Herod fled from Jerusalem to Masada with his family in order to escape from Mattathias Antigonus, who had been made king by the Parthians.  Herod left his family, his brother Joseph, and 800 men at Masada to defend it against a siege made by Antigonus.  According to Josephus, the defenders almost died of dehydration but were saved by a sudden rainstorm that filled the creeks and pits on the summit of the rock.  Upon Herod’s return from Rome, he raised the siege and rescued his family.Masada

After this incident, Herod transformed Masada into a luxurious fortress.  According to Josephus, "Herod furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself, suspecting a twofold of danger: peril on the one hand from the Jewish people, lest they should depose him and restore their former dynasty to power; the greater and more serious from Cleopatra, queen of Egypt".  Herod’s construction of this fort apparently took place between 37 and 31 BC.  The buildings erected included two beautiful palaces, Roman style bathhouses, administrative buildings, villas, and defensive structures.  Masada’s summit was enclosed within a casemate wall that was about 13,000 m long, and which contained 30 defensive towers, 70 rooms, and four decorated gates.  Herod’s most remarkable construction project was the advanced water system built to sustain the needs of the fortress.  Twelve cisterns, each with a capacity of up to 140,000 cubic feet, were cut into the rock.  Two dams held rainwater from the two wadis west of Masada, and open plastered channels carried water from these dams to the cisterns.  Josephus described Masada’s water supply as "in quantity no less than that of those who had springs at their disposal".

After Herod’s death in 4 BC, a Roman garrison most likely occupied Masada until 66 AD.  During the first Jewish Revolt, Manahem, son of Judah the Galilean, led a group of Zealots in an attack that captured Masada.  During the Jewish Revolt, Masada served as a refuge for the Zealots and other Jews and their families until its fall in 74 AD.  The Zealots reused Herod’s buildings, modifying them to set up the facilities they needed to serve the nearly 1,000 people that lived on the rock.  Two ritual baths and a synagogue were constructed.  This synagogue is the oldest synagogue discovered in Israel and the only one dating from the Second Temple period.

In 70 AD, the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt, conquering Jerusalem and destroying the temple.  It took three more years to destroy the last Jewish resistance at Masada.  Roman General Flavius Silva marched on Masada with 10,000 soldiers.  Silva surrounded the base of the rock with a siege wall to prevent any attempts of escape.  In addition, eight base camps were established for the army.  Silva’s army then constructed a gigantic assault ramp on the western face of the rock, which came to 150 m below the casemate wall.  On top of this ramp, a siege tower was erected from which the fortress was attacked with flaming torches, missile-throwing machines called ballistae, and a battering ram.

Josephus described the dramatic last hours of Masada, including Eleazar’s speech to the Jewish defenders and the mass suicide of 960 men, women, and children.  By lot  ten men were chosen to kill all the others. Then among those ten, one was chosen to kill the other nine, set fire to the palace, and then kill himself.  This tragic tale was preserved and told to Josephus by two women who survived by hiding with five children in the underground aqueducts.

The only other inhabitants of Masada were a group of Byzantine monks that established themselves there in the fifth or sixth century AD.  After this, the location of Masada was forgotten, and it was not correctly identified until 1838 by two American travelers.  Various explorers continued to make discoveries at Masada until the 1960s, when the first complete, organized archaeological expedition took place under the leadership of Yigael Yadin and the direction of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Israel Exploration Society, and the Department of Antiquity of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The symbol of the Jewish freedom fighters with their families choosing death over enslavement to the Romans continues today to be a legend very much alive in the identity of the Jews.  Israeli school children learn about and visit the site as part of their curriculum.  Until recently, new members of the Israeli Defense Force were sworn in atop Masada.  Today the beautiful remains of the Herodian structures and the haunting ruins of the Roman camps and siege ramps, as well as the symbol of fierce determination and courage embodied in the slogan "never again", draw tourists to Masada’s mighty form.

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Bibliography:

Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11.  (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1971), pp.   1078-1091.

Netzer, Ehud. "The Last Days and Hours at Masada."  Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 17.6. 1991, pp. 20-32.

Pearlman, Moshe. The Zealots of Masada. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967).

Yadin, Yigael. Masada. (New York: Random House, 1966).

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Edited by Dana Thompson
Written by Robin Trautman
Research by Darlene Duncan
May 8, 1999.


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The arial image of Masada is from D. Binder, The Second Temple Synagogues: Masada <http://www.smu.edu/~dbinder/masada.html> [accessed: 9/16/99]. Used by permission.

The image of the Roman Path is from the home page of TAGAR at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee.<http://www.uwm.edu/StudentOrg/TAGAR/masada2.gif> Used by permission.

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