As tourists board the tram that will take them to the heights of the historical ruins at Masada, they have stories swirling around in their heads of the ancient ruler, King Herod the Great, as well as those of the courageous group of Jewish rebels who followed him some 70 years later; intrigued, their imaginations are buttressed by the imposing fortress that looms above them, becoming more striking with each passing moment.
The fascinating history of this impressive site is rife with representation- some say a grand symbol of staunch resistance against a fierce enemy; not much unlike that of the modern day struggles of the Jewish people of Israel. It is perhaps because of this, that so many flock to the ruins of the great fortress; the very act of being within its walls, a tremendous inspiration to cultural identity, a well as a bolster for the continuing struggle of humanity against oppression.
Masada, second only to Jerusalem as the most popular tourist destination in Israel is situated at the plateau of a majestic cliff on the Eastern edge of the Judean Desert, and overlooks a spectacular vista of the Dead Sea.
The lofty heights of the rocky cliffs hold court over a surrounding natural landscape of wild desert beauty; to the West is the Judean Desert, with rolling hills and terraces, and to the East, a savage terrain that blends seamlessly into the brilliant hues of the Dead Sea. To the South, precipitous erosion stretches far to the Western wall of the Syrian-African valley, and to the North, more rolling hills and the stark splendor of the desert.
Because of its remote locale, as well as the rough climate, the area is mostly civilization free and the Masada ruins have remained untouched for more than 13 centuries following the dissolution of the byzantine Monastic settlement of the 6th century, until it was re-discovered 1828.
Thus the Masada site today remains very much intact; a state that has been well preserved for over a millennia, only mildly disturbed by the lowland visitor and cable car facilities that have been developed to facilitate visitation through minimal intrusion by tourists. Having been named a national park by the Israeli government, the area and the ruins are perhaps as well protected as the boarders of the ever-threatened country itself.
A History to be reckoned with
The work of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian from the 1st century CE is the only known record of the history of Masada. Beyond that, excavations and discovery did not begin until 1963 and would continue until 1965.
According to the writings of Josephus, the site was fortified by the high priest Jonathan, though, since there were two high priests that went by that name, it is not certain to which he referred.
Through excavations, there have been discovered a number of coins from Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, during the early years of the Hasmonaean period (103-40 BCE). There is also evidence of settlers during the Chalcolithic period, as well as the Early Iron Age.
The most significant historical remains, however, are those of the palace and fortress built by Herod the Great who ruled from 37 to 4 BCE, and who selected the nearly impenetrable site to protect himself and his family from both external, as well as internal enemies.
Built with classical roman architecture, the buildings were luxurious, yet formidable.
Later, some 70 years after the end of Herod’s reign, there began a Jewish revolt in 66 CE. The group of Zealots captured and held Masada and many Jews settled there after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70 CE.
Not long after, however, the Roman Governor Flavius Silva began a long siege to recapture Masada and put an end to the last bastion of Jewish resistance. The Jews, led by Eleazar ben Yair, held tight until 73 when the Romans were able to succeed in breaching the walls.
Seeing no hope against a sentence of death or slavery, the Jewish rebels took refuge, and held tight to their freedom and dignity, by ending their own lives.
Said Elazar ben Yair in his speech to the remaining rebels, “Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”
David Ben-Sira knows every trail and every stone in Israel. A passionate traveller, full time tour guide at Kenes Tours and part time history teacher. Favorite hero – Indiana Jones.