(Israel Twitter)Masada, מצדה, pronounced Metzada, from מצודה, metzuda, "fortress, is the name for a site of ancient palaces and fortifications in the South District of Israel on top of an isolated rock plateau, or horst, on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. After the First Jewish-Roman War a siege of the fortress by troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels. It is located about 20 km east of Arad.
The cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 1,300 feet (400 m) high and the cliffs on the west are about 300 feet (90 m) high; the natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult. The top of the plateau is flat and rhomboid-shaped, about 1,800 feet (550 m) by 900 feet (275 m). There was a casemate wall around the top of the plateau totaling 4,300 feet (1.3 km) long and 12 feet (3.7 m) thick, with many towers, and the fortress included storehouses, barracks, an armory, the palace, and cisterns that were refilled by rainwater. Three narrow, winding paths led from below up to fortified gates.
According to Josephus, a 1st-century CE Jewish Roman historian, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. In 66 CE, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. After the destruction of the Second Temple, additional members of the Sicarii and their families fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop, using it as a base for harassing the Romans.
The works of Josephus are the sole record of events that took place during the siege. According to modern interpretations of Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist splinter group of the Zealots who were equally antagonistic to both Romans and other Jewish groups. The Zealots (according to Josephus), in contrast to the Sicarii, carried the main burden of the rebellion, which opposed Roman rule of Judea (as the Roman province of Iudaea, its Latinized name).
The Sicarii on Masada were commanded by Elazar ben Ya'ir (who may have been the same person as Eleazar ben Simon), and in 70 CE they were joined by additional Sicarii and their families that were expelled from Jerusalem by the Jewish population with whom the Sicarii were in conflict shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
Account of the siege
The account of the siege of Masada was related to Josephus by two women who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, and repeated Eleazar ben Ya'ir's exhortations to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans. Because Judaism strongly discourages suicide, Josephus reported that the defenders had drawn lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one to actually take his own life. Josephus says that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs to show that the defenders retained the ability to live, and so chose their own death over slavery, but archaeological excavations have shown that storerooms which contained their provisions were also burnt, though whether this was by Romans, by Jews, or natural fire spreading is unclear. Josephus also reported that the Romans found arms sufficient for ten thousand men as well as iron, brass and lead. Historians also point out the parallels between the incidents at Jotapata and Masada such as Eleazar's second speech corresponding to the speech which Josephus himself delivered at Jotapata under similar circumstances and the transference of the lottery motif from the former to the latter. Though whether Josephus added Eleazar's speech in his own name at Jotapata or vice versa is also unclear.
The site of Masada was identified in 1842 and extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by an expedition led by Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin. While a hike up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain (access via the Dead Sea Highway) is considered part of the "Masada experience," a cable car operates at the site for those who wish to avoid the physical exertion. Due to the remoteness from human habitation and its arid environment, the site has remained largely untouched by humans or nature during the past two millennia. The Roman ramp still stands on the western side and can be climbed on foot. Many of the ancient buildings have been restored from their remains, as have the wall-paintings of Herod's two main palaces, and the Roman-style bathhouses that he built. The synagogue, storehouses, and houses of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored. The meter-high circumvallation wall that the Romans built around Masada can be seen, together with eleven barracks for the Roman soldiers just outside this wall. Water cisterns two-thirds of the way up the cliff drain the nearby wadis by an elaborate system of channels, which explains how the rebels managed to have enough water for such a long time.
Inside the synagogue, an ostracon bearing the inscription me'aser cohen (tithe for the priest) was found, as were fragments of two scrolls; parts of Deuteronomy 33-34 and parts of Ezekiel 35-38 (including the vision of the "dry bones"), found hidden in pits dug under the floor of a small room built inside the synagogue. In other loci fragments were found of the books of Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms, and Sirach, as well as of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.
The remnants of a Byzantine church dating from the 5th and 6th centuries, have also been excavated on the top of Masada.
Cable car heading down from Masada
The Masada story was the inspiration for the "Masada plan" devised by the British during the Mandate era. The plan was to man defensive positions on Mount Carmel with Palmach fighters, in order to stop Erwin Rommel's expected drive through the region in 1942. The plan was abandoned following Rommel's defeat at El Alamein.
The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony of soldiers who have completed their Tironut (IDF basic training) on top of Masada. The ceremony ends with the declaration: "Masada shall not fall again." The soldiers climb the Snake Path at night and are sworn in with torches lighting the background.
Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. An audio-visual light show is presented nightly on the western side of the mountain (access by car from the Arad road or by foot, down the mountain via the Roman ramp path).
In 2007, a new museum opened at the site in which archeological findings are displayed in a theatrical setting.
A 2,000-year-old seed discovered during archaeological excavations in the early 1960s has been successfully germinated to become a date plant, the oldest known such germination.