One trip to Masada is never enough! Witness the number of people who go back time and time again….seemingly to observe the same scenery yet hearing new voices from history on each visit.
Golden Age of Jewish History
Masada’s big moment, part of the Second Temple period, 166 BC to 70 AD, is often considered a golden age in the history of the Jewish people. During the heady years of the Maccabees, AKA Hasmonaeans which ended in 37 BC, the Jews achieved a kind of religious and political independence that harkened back to the times of King David and King Solomon. Even after Rome entered the picture and installed Herod’s family at the helm, the Jews still had a quasi self-rule in religious matters that kept their age-old traditions intact.
A Fortress Here – A Fortress There
The fortresses erected by the Hasmonaean and Herodian rulers became important Palestinian defense positions in the areas where they were located. Some protected royal palaces, and others served as prisons for political prisoners, such as Machaerous where John the Baptist was held and subsequently, beheaded. Several controlled the main thoroughfares of Palestine, namely the fortresses of Hyrcania, Alexandrium and, of course, Masada.
A Ship-Shaped Plateau
Masada….even to non Jews the name evokes a kind of majestic, mysterious heroism, especially in those who have had the privilege of standing atop that oddly ship-shaped plateau overlooking the Dead Sea and surrounding Judean Desert. Masada’s exotic, striking spirit combines history, geology, and archaeology with a unique story of human courage. All from an era when time rolled over from BC to AD and the Jews, while waiting for their Messiah and missing Him, struggled with Rome, themselves and a new Gospel message.
Hide and Seek For Centuries
The scenery from atop the fortress can only be described as stupendous and unspoiled. The Dead Sea shimmers in the distance and the Judean Desert remains unchanged from the time when David hid from Saul, and Bedouins and Nabateans traveled through searching for water…. only to find the undrinkable Salt Sea until they stumbled on the oasis of En Gedi. In 1838, two determined American explorers, peering through a telescope from that very oasis, recognized the boat shaped rock of Masada. Their incredible discovery brought the centuries of searches for this enigmatic fortress, the subject of legends, folklore and history, into the domain of archaeologists.
Herod And Cleopatra
In 40 BC, Herod, who ruled the Jews under the authority of Rome, discovered Masada when he was in need of a place of refuge. Apparently, Herod’s first and foremost nemesis was none other than Cleopatra of Marc Antony fame, and he needed a fail-safe sanctuary from her. Realizing its strategic potential and invincibility due to steep cliffs on all sides, he went on to transform the plateau into a fortress with spa-like amenities including three palaces, Roman bathhouses, storehouses and a unique water system that not only provided water for desert survival but also filled three swimming pools.
David And Saul
Earlier residents of the highland were none other than David as he fled from King Saul’s increasing anger and insanity. 1st Samuel 23, 1st Chronicles 12 and Psalm 31 are accounts of David, around 1000 BC, hiding in the desert on a mountain which the Hebrew text calls Metsudut, another name for fortress and possibly the ancient name of Masada.
Rome And Jewish Zealots
During the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, rebels and Zealots fled to Masada for a last stand against the 10th Roman legion led by Flavious Silva. It is that account of 1000 Jewish men and women withstanding the assaults of a much larger force for three years that defines Masada today. Consider this, the Roman forces had to bring in supplies for 10,000 men, plus camp followers, from as far as the Jerusalem highlands, and water from En Gedi….over 10 miles away, all the while baking in the desert sun with no shelter. The Zealots, however, with access to storehouses full of Herodian supplies fit for a king….wine, olive oil, grain, an unending supply of water and shelters already in place, could have stayed on the mountaintop forever.
Only A Ramp Will Do
Their only undoing was Flavious Silva’s tactical decision to build an earthen ramp to overcome the soaring cliffs protecting Masada. Bringing in Jewish slaves to build the ramp, he determined correctly that the Zealots would not rain down arrows on their brethren, so the Romans were able to roll a battering ram up the newly built ramp and breach the walls of Masada. What they found as they entered the compound was total devastation. The Zealots, determining that death for all was better than Roman slavery, killed each other until only one was left and he committed suicide.
A Slogan and An Echo
Today Masada symbolizes the determination of the Jewish people to be free in their own land. The line “Masada shall not fall again” from Isaac Lamdan’s epic poem entitled Masada, became a slogan and metaphor for those fighting to establish a Jewish state in the early Zionist years and continues to inspire Israelis today. The magic and mystery of Masada is like that of Pompeii….you stand among real moments in time, amid verifiable evidence of Masada’s history. Your imagination runs wild as you view mosaics and structures from thousands of years ago, preserved in the dry, arid climate of the lowest place on earth. Among the ruins are ancient echoes….listen as Flavious Silva, played by Peter O’Toole in the 80’s television series, Masada, laments the cost of a horrific struggle…. ‘A victory? What have we won? We’ve won a rock in the middle of a wasteland, on the shores of a poisoned sea.’