An ancient fort created in the 2nd century BCE and later expanded by the Roman King Herod into a larger citadel with palaces, defensive towers, and an aquaduct system to supply water. Masada was virtually impregnable, as it rested on 7 hectares of space on a mesa that towered 434 m above the dead sea. After Herod died, the Jewish Zealots (no, that's not a slur, that was the actual name of the sect) managed to take the Romans by suprise and made the fort their own.

Things stayed that way until about 70CE, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, and were in the process of annihilating the remaining Hebrew resistance. The Romans managed to gain control of all Judea except for the garrison of 1000 men at Masada, which was proving to be a tough nut to crack. The only access to the fort at the time was along a winding trail on the side of the rock face, where any would-be attackers would be exposed to rocks, hot oil, and YHWH knows what else thrown down from above.

In the end, the Romans took a brute-force approach, and constructed a huge earthen ramp that led from the valley floor to the top of the mesa. Knowing their number was up, the Zealots took their own lives rather than become prisoners of the Romans. Only two women and five children who hid in the water tower survived to tell the tale.

Masada was later re-ocupied by Jews in the 2nd century CE, and later was the site of a Byzantine Church, which was abandoned in the 6th century. In the 20th century, the remains of Masada were surveyed and restored somewhat, and the locale is now a popular Israeli tourist attraction.

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(Hebrew meaning fortress)

A group of ancient ruins built on a desert mountaintop thirty miles (48.3 km) southeast of Jerusalem. It was the scene of the last stand made by Jewish Zealots, a group of about 1,000,including women and children in their revolt against Roman rule. The Romans responded by besieging the fortress.

Located at the top of an isolated rock on the edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea valley, Masada is 440 feet (434 m) above the Dead Sea and it is isolated from its surroundings by deep gorges on all sides forming a a natural fortification. Josephus describes it as a steep "Snake Path" from the east (from the Dead Sea), "the White Rock" from the west, and the two approaches from north and south, and all of them difficult to climb.

Josephus, or Josephus, Flavius (37-ca. 100 CE), the Roman name of Joseph Ben-Matityahu was a Jewish military leader that was captured by Romans during the Jewish Revolt. He later became a historian.and his works constitute the best available source for the study of Jewish life of that period. Though he is to some extent considered a traitor of Jewish people, there is no disputing the Herodian period and that of the Jewish Revolt . However, there is some controversy as to the objectivity of his works. Josephus describes all the dramatic details of the last hours of the Masada as told by the remaining two women and five children who survived a mass suicide by hiding in a cave.

Two fortified palaces were built there in the first century BCE by the Judean king Herod the Great. There he withstood a two year Roman siege by ingeniously constructing one of the the most stragically important buildings in the northern part of Masada - the highest point of the rock where it was daringly built on the very edge of the precipice.

"This Northern Palace or, more correctly, royal villa, commanded a magnificent view of the surroundings as far as Ein-Gedi. It was built in three tiers, only the upper one containing the living quarters and the lower ones designed for pleasure. The walls and ceilings were decorated with frescoes, and some of them were discovered at the lower terrace in a well-preserved state. The frescoes imitated stone and marble covering, and even Josephus believed that the walls were marble covered. "

One of Herod's initial undertakings was an intricate water supply system, a drainage system to carry rainwater from the two wadis west of Masada to a group of cisterns in the northwestern slope of the rock. This was of critical importance considering the arid climate. To fortify defenses he constructed a casement wall, a double wall with the inner space divided into seventy rooms, thirty towers and four gates.

Fleeing from Jerusalem to Masada with his family in a moment of danger, King Herod fortified and furnished the citadel as a refuge fearing "a peril from Jewish people" and one "more serious from Cleopatra of Egypt".

By the fourth centrury BCE Masada was captured at Herod's death, and turned into a Roman garrison most likely from from 6 to 66 C.E., when, at the outbreak of the Jewish War, Menahem, son of Judah the Galilean, captured Masada at the head of a band of Zealots . Jewish rivals murdered Menahem in Jerusalem and his nephew Eleazar ben Yair escaped to Masada until its fall in 73 C.E. During their years there, Masada served as a place of refuge and remained the only point of Jewish resistance becoming the rebels' base for raiding operations. Flavius Silva a Roman governor decided to squlech this rebellion and marched against Masada. All told ten to fifteen thousand people including the Tenth Legion, its auxiliary troops, and thousands of Jewish war prisoners troops prepared for a long battle by establishing eight camps at the base of the Masada rock. and surrounding it with a high wall, leaving no escape for the rebels. Amazingly within nine months of their arrival and with thousands of slaves, many of them Jewish, the Romans cunningly constructed an assault ramp. They then attacked the fortress by moving a battering ram up the ramp crushing the casement wall. As an innovative countermeasure the rebels assembled a wall of earth and wood that was flexible enough to make it difficult for the ram to break. The Romans eventually destroyed this wall by fire and made plans to seize Masada the next day.

The Zealot's leader Eleazar Ben Yair gathered all the defenders and persuaded them to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of Romans. Recorded by Josepus in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus are the speeches given by Eleazar:

Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans,
nor to any other than God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind,
the time is now come to make that resolution true in practice.

Perhaps the Zealots were unconvinced and as a religious tactic Elezar points out that they as a Jewish people are chosing between being Jewish or death. Leading them deeper into the idea of a mass suicide he continues:

Let our wives die before they have been abused,
and our children before they have tasted slavery,
and after we have slain them, let us bestow that
glorious benefit upon one another mutually,
and preserve ourselves in freedom.

Elazar lastly attacks the group as lacking bravery convincing them that this is a necessary act. The people of Masada had a choice, they could let the Romans win, or they could take the victory away from them and die by each others hands.

Truly, I was greatly mistaken when I thought to be assisting to brave men
who struggled hard for their liberty, and to such as were resolved
either to live with honor, or else to die;
but I find that you are such people as are no better than others,
either in virtue or in courage,
and are afraid of dying.

Their holy city had been destroyed (Jerusalem), many of those who had they same beliefs as they had been killed, and the Romans were going to take away their right to worship. The Romans would feel that they had achieved a victory if they were allowed to take the fortification, the women would be "abused", and the children would be taken into slavery. All of these were things which were probably true, and it was enough for the people of Masada to decide that their best choice would to be to die not by the hands of the Romans, but by the hands of those which were near to them.

The deaths did not come in the way which is traditionally believed. These people did not actually commit suicide. Setting fire to their personal belongings, ten people were chosen by casting lots to kill everyone else. A second lot was drawn to decide which one of the remaining ten would kill the rest and then committ suicide..... The men began by killing the women and children

cut (them) off short, and made haste to do the work,
as full of unconquerable ardour of mind, and moved with a
demonical fury.

In the morning Romans entered the fortress and found only dead bodies. They were greeted with silence. Expecting to find some resistance, they instead found two women and five children who had concealed themselves in caverns (some scholars believe they may have hidden in the cisterns (a part of the water supply system built years before by Herod), under the ground. These women told the Romans the story of what had happened, and it is from this story and the stories of the Roman army that we have the history of Masada as recorded by Josephus.

The Romans kept a garrison at the site for a period of time. Later the ruins became a retreat for monks who built a small church there. After a brief occupancy during the Crusades it was abandoned completly until archeological excavations in the 1960's. Today Masadas is an important Israeli national shrine.


Why Study Masada?:



The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, Flavius Josephus, Trans. By Wm. Whiston. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1960.) P. IX

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Masada," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Masada is one of John Zorn's bands. In it he mixes his Jewish roots with elements of klezmer, Eastern and Middle music with jazz, avant-garde, and classicalfree jazz. The prooject began in September 1993 to celebrate his 40th birthday.

"a mix of straight-ahead jazz, film-noir melodrama, free improvisation, twisted blues, and bittersweet balladry--all colored with a sly Sephardic tinge." - The New Yorker

"Zorn transcends categories; better, he's made a notable career crashing them together and grinding them to dust."
--The New York Times

It includes (or has included at one time or another:
John Zorn on saxaphones
Marc Ribot on guitar,
Dave Douglas on trumpet,
Greg Cohen on bass (notable for work with Tom Waits),
Joey Baron on drums,
John Medeski on keyboards,
and many others too numerous to mention.



Masada 1
Masada 2
Masada 3
Masada 4
Masada 5
Masada 6
Masada 7
Masada 8
Masada 9
Masada 10
Bar Kokhba
Filmworks III
Filmworks VIII
Filmworks IX
Live in Jerusalem
Live in Taipei
Live in Middelheim
Live in Sevilla 2000
Live in NYC 94

The heroic myth of Masada has been something of a mixed blessing in the cultural history of the state of Israel and of the Jewish people in general.

Masada was extensively excavated by eminent archaeologist and former army general, Yigael Yadin, who wrote a popular book about his findings, highly romaticising the last stand at Masada and putting a nationalistic, allegorical spin on the events that took place there and during the Judean revolt in general. At its time of publishing - in the mid-fifties - the attitudes in the country were highly defensive, and with good reason: the nation's population was growing faster than it could really handle, the War of Independance was not very far in the past, and a state of constant military attrition existed between Israel and all of its immediate neighbours.

In addition to the contemporary dangers and hardships, the emergent nation also had to contend with the memory of the Holocaust, which many considered a black mark on the national character of Jews, a manifestation of weakness and cowardice, something to be ashamed of and repress. The myth of Masada came at a time when its combination of staunch nationalism, courageous determination, heroic odds and refusal to surrender made Yadin's readers highly susceptible to his unwitting propaganda.

While it is true that every nation needs its myths, the myth of Masada took root at a time when it was of psychological advantage to the Jewish population of Israel, and was preserved and passed on to an era when it probably did more harm than good. In 1967 Israel won a spectacular victory over its neighbours, more than doubling its territory in just six days and pushing them back for another six years. In this psychological climate, the Masadaic refusal to leave their stringhold was transferred from the idea of statehood and independence in general to the newly concquered terrotories per se. The nascent Israeli right-wing, fueled by religious misconceptions and nationalistic fervor, took that last stand at Masada and ran away with to create what is now the hard core of the Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

The military in particular, perhaps predictably, took to the myth of Masada with great enthusiasm. It was only in the late eighties that the IDF stopped routinely bringing its new recruits to the mountain to be sworn in, when it dawned on them that abject defeat and mass suicide were perhaps not the best symbols for an army to style itself upon. These ceremonies are nowadays held either at the Western Wall or in locations that are of particular significance to the different corps.

Revisionist history has not bypassed Israel, and there are many bright young research students who made their careers upon proving, variously, that the Zealots were nothing but a band of outlaws, that the mass suicide was considerably less than unanimously approved, that Ben Yair's group had no news of the rest of the rebellion and so were unlikely to be aware of theirs being the last stand, etc. The importance of this work is less in the historical and archaelogical detail it illuminates, but in the slow dissolution of the myth of Masada as a sacred text, which it is taught as in the education system, often quoted in the media and is a part of popular culture in general. For a significant and determined minority of Israelis, however, this reeducation has come too late, and they are the biggest force behind the internal opposition to any settlement with the Palestinians active in Israel today.

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