History of Masada

Situated at the edge of the Judaean desert between Sdom and Ein Gedi, Masada holds a commanding position, surrounded by deep gorges, its sheer rock sides falling about four hundred and fifty meters to the desert floor. Today, the plateau is easily reached either by cable car at the east, or a fifteen minute walk up the western slope. In ancient times, however, access was challenging and dangerous, even via the ‘snake path,’ providing a natural defence and making it the perfect place to build a fortress. Our only detailed source of information about Masada comes from the writings of Josephus, a Roman citizen of Jewish origin. Despite questionable affiliations, Josephus was granted his freedom by the Emperor Vespasian and eventually became an advisor to Vespasian’s son, the Emperor Titus.

Photo source: Ancient Origins

Josephus wrote several books attempting to explain Judaism to the Romans and vice versa. Probably his most influential were The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. Notwithstanding his ambivalent role as an eyewitness to history, Josephus’ work cannot be discounted. This was illustrated when archaeologists, from a description by the author, were able to pin point the location of Herod’s tomb close to his palace of Herodium, south of Jerusalem. So even though historians accept that Josephus was writing after he had come under the protection of the Flavian emperors, his accounts are authoritative and, in most cases all we have.

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Photograph: Duby Tal / Albatross / Alamy

Tying the original fortification of Masada to Jonatan the High Priest, Josephus describes how King Herod fled there with his family during the Parthian onslaught of 40BC. Eventually reworking, rebuilding and fortifying the existing structure into two palaces surrounded by a wall twenty feet high and twelve feet wide. At the centre of the western casemate wall stood an opulent mansion which also acted as a working administrative centre and at the northern extremity a luxurious royal residence, distinguished by three cleverly engineered terraces hanging precipitously out over the cliff’s edge. Situated within the walls were water cisterns and storehouses, a synagogue, barracks and an armoury, creating a self-sufficient fortress able to withstand a lengthy siege, which was attested to over half a century after Herod’s death.

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Photograph by Duby Tal, Albatross

It is thought that a Roman garrison was stationed at Masada for about sixty years from AD6, until in AD66, at the outbreak of the Jewish War, a band of Zealots led by Menahem captured the fortress. Masada eventually became a safe harbour for Jewish rebels and, after the Fall of Jerusalem in AD70, was the only remaining pocket of Jewish resistance. Around AD72, a Roman legion led by Flavius Silva, marched on the outpost determined to quash the rebels, who refused to surrender. Laying siege to the fortress, the Romans constructed a ramp, up which they could attack much more easily than any of the existing access routes.

Despite several attempts to rebuff them, the Romans eventually overcame the rebels’ defences. Rather than be taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of Jerusalem and Rome, those within the fortress decided their own fate. After setting fire to their personal belongings it seems, although not completely clear, that after the men had slain their loved ones, ten were chosen to kill those who remained, one of the ten killed the final nine, before he himself committed suicide.

Photograph: Courtesy of Masada National Parks

When the Romans stormed the citadel the next day, they were met with silence and dead bodies. Seven people, two women and five children had survived, hidden in an underground cavern, their tale taken up by Josephus and, eventually shared with the world. The Romans re-occupied the outpost, however after they finally withdrew; Masada was abandoned until the fifth century. Following an earthquake, which destroyed many of the structures, a group of Christian monks established a community there, building a small chapel in the centre of the plateau. After several decades the community was disbanded, leaving the site untouched and lost to time until the mid twentieth century.