(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
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.