All About Masada

November 14, 2011  

Geographic Description:
Masada is located at the top of an isolated rock on the edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea valley, between Sdom and Ein Gedi. The flat top of the rock has a rhomboid shape, elongated from north to south. Its height is 440 above the Dead Sea (50 m above sea level), and it is isolated from its surroundings by deep gorges on all sides. This position forms a natural fortification, and the place is natural to build a fortress. The access in ancient times (as Josephus describes) was by a steep “Snake Path” from the east (from the Dead Sea), “the White Rock” from the west, and two approaches from north and south, all of them rather difficult to climb.

Today there is an easy 10-minute ascent from the west, and the cable-car from the east. The “Snake Path” is still open for tourists wishing to use this ancient trail.

The writings of Josephus are the only significant source of information about Masada. He tells that the place was first fortified by “Johnatan the High Priest”. Historians disagree whether he was referring to Judah the Maccabee or Alexander Yannai. There is no controversy, however, about the Herodian period and the period of the Jewish Revolt.

King Herod in 40 B.C.E fled from Jerusalem to Masada with his family in a moment of danger. Later he fortified and furnished the citadel as a refuge fearing “a peril from Jewish people” and one “more serious from Cleopatra of Egypt”. Most of Herodian buildings and fortifications were erected apparently between 37 and 31 B.C.E.

Roman garrison was probably stationed here 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. After Menahem was murdered in Jerusalem by Jewish rivals, his nephew Eleazar ben Yair escaped to Masada where he became its “tyrant” until its fall in 73 C.E. During there years Masada served as a place of refuge for all who were in danger of capture.

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Masada remained the only point of Jewish resistance. Few surviving Jewish fighters that managed to travel across Judean mountains joined the defenders of Masada, and it became the rebels’ base for raiding operations.

In 72 C.E. the Roman governor Flavius Silva resolved to suppress this outpost of resistance. He marched against Masada at the head of the Tenth Legion, its auxiliary troops, and thousands of Jewish war prisoners, total ten to fifteen thousand people. The troops prepared for a long siege; they established eight camps at the base of the Masada rock and surrounded it with a high wall, leaving no escape for rebels.

Then Romans started to build an assault ramp to the top; thousands of slaves, many of them Jewish, have done that in nine months. After the ramp was complete, the Romans succeeded to move the battering ram up and to direct it against the wall. They broke the stone wall, but the defenders managed to built a wall of earth and wood that was flexible and hard to break. Eventually Romans managed to destroy it by fire, and decided to enter the fortress the next day.

At night Eleazar gathered all the defenders and persuaded them to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of Romans. The people set fire to their personal belongings, and then ten people chosen by a lot killed everyone else and then committed suicide. In the morning Romans entered a silent fortress and found only dead bodies. Two women and five children survived the mass suicide by hiding in a cave; they came out to Romans. Josephus describes all the dramatic details of the last hours of the Masada defenders as told by these survivors.

A Roman garrison was stationed in Masada for some time after the fall.

During Byzantine Period the ruins of Masada served as a retreat for monks; they also built a small church there. During Crusader Period it was inhabited. Later, the place was abandoned and its identity lost.

Archaeology in Masada:
History of exploration. The place of the historic Masada remained unknown till 1838, when by Americans E. Robinson and E. Smith viewed the rock through a telescope from Ein-Gedi, and identified it correctly. The site was first visited by the American missionary S.W Wolcott and the English painter Tipping who was illustrating an English edition of “The Jewish War” by Josephus. Archaeological expeditions from America, France and Germany followed.

In 20th century Masada became a symbol of courage for the emerging modern Jewish state. It was a pilgrimage site for youth movements and Haganah members. In 1949, at the end of War of Independence, the Israel flag was hoisted on Masada’s summit. The site was inspected and explored by Shemariyahu Gutman, and in 1963 full-scale excavations began under the supervision of professor Yigael Yadin, assisted by volunteers from all over the world.

The first Israeli surveys of Masada were done in 1955-56. In 1963-65 Yigael Yadin conducted a full-scale excavation of the site, with assistance of hundreds of volunteers from Israel and abroad. They uncovered almost all the territory, and also restored many buildings. Yadin’s book “Masada” tells the fascinating story of the excavations (I hardly refrained from typing in the whole book).

Finds from pre-Herodian time. Remains of a Chalcolithic settlement (4th millennium BCE), including plants, cloth and potsherds, were found in a small cave on the lower part of a southern cliff. Tens of coins from the reign of Alexander Yannai were also discovered, which makes likely that he was “Jonathan the High Priest”, the founder of Masada.

The Herodian Period. One of Herod’s first undertakings was an intricate water supply system, that was of crucial importance in the arid climate of Masada. It consisted of 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. 12 huge cisterns could hold together about 40 thousand cu.m. of water.

The entire summit of Masada was enclosed by Herod with a casemate wall – a double wall with the inner space divided into rooms. Its circumference of 1400 m. corresponds exactly to “7 stadio” in Josephus’ description. About 70 rooms, 30 towers and four gates were found in the wall.

Herod constructed the most important buildings in the northern part of Masada – the highest point of the rock. Josephus gives a detailed account of a royal palace situated beneath the walls of the fortress on the western side facing north. Up to 1950s this was believed to be a large building on the western side of the site, but Israeli explorers discovered that the palace was actually located on the north where it was daringly constructed on the very edge of the precipice. The northern edge of the Masada rock is only two to three meters wide, and Herod’s engineers had to fashion some kind of artificial platform with the aid of powerful supporting walls.

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.

The excavation team sought for the best way to protect the uncovered frescoes from ravages of nature (and human vandalism too). After an advice of restoration experts from Italy the paintings were detached from the walls, scrape off most of the original plaster, apply instead new and strengthened backing, place each one in a special frame and put in place. For more than 30 years the frescoes could be seen at the site, remaining in a good condition. Lately their state began to deteriorate, and restoration works were renewed. In April 1999 I saw most of the wall of the lower terrace covered with scaffolds.

In addition, Herod constructed a main official palace in the western side, known as a western palace. It contained scores of rooms and installations, and was a self-sufficient unit. Its large reception hall had a magnificient richly colored mosaic pavement with circles and border ornaments of plant and geometric designs. The mosaic survived in rather good condition till our days. This palace is the largest building found on the site.

South of the Northern Palace was a large bath house built in traditional Roman style, with four rooms and a court. The largest room, the caldarium (hot room) had a hypocaust (heating room) beneath it, and its floor stood on about 200 tiny brick columns, that were found well preserved. The walls were faced with perforated clay pipes through which an adjacent furnace drove hot air; several pipes have survived.

The public storerooms, situated east and south of the bathhouse, consisted of long narrow rooms build of large stone slabs. Before the excavations the storerooms could be distinguished from the air, but on the ground they looked much as a huge pile of debris. The roofs and most of walls had long fallen in, the result of both the intended destruction by Zealots and the series of later earthquakes. The ordinary way to restore such a place would be to roll all the stones away and down the slopes, and then start digging. The excavation team decided instead to restore the walls of the storehouses, and only then to dig. The excavators picked all the scattered stones and used them to restore the wall, not hoping to place stones into their original places. However, when no slabs remained on the ground, the restored walls of all the storerooms turned out to be the same height.

The original floor of the storerooms was found to be covered with a thick layer of ashes and charred beams – the clear evidence of the destruction done by Zealots, to prevent the supplies from falling into the hands of Romans. The restoration experts managed to glue most of the vessel pieces together, and could tell what exactly was held there. Each storeroom held, exclusively, its own type of vessels: oil jars, wine jars, jars for flour; everything seemed to have been held in an exemplar order. A few storerooms were found completely empty – and this may be an evidence that Zealots had intentionally left supplies there intact, to show Romans that they had not died just through lack of food.

Period of the Zealots. The luxurious palaces and small number of dwelling rooms in the Herodian buildings could not be easily adapted for dwellings for the Zealots and were used as command posts and public buildings. Their decorative architectural parts were dismantled for building materials and furniture. The rooms and courts of the small palaces were partitioned to serve as dwellings for large numbers of Zealot families. One of the examples of a striking contrast between the Herodian luxury and the poverty of Zealots. The corner of a beautiful Herodian mosaic in the Western palace was covered by an edge of a rude stone stove or cupboard. The restorators didn’t remove this humble construction, to leave the evidence of that contrast.

Most of the Zealots were housed in the double wall and in shacks of mud and small stones adjoining the wall and buildings. In rooms that had not been burnt remains of their daily life were strewn of floors: clothing, leather, baskets, glass, stone and bronze objects; some rooms looked as if they had just been abandoned. In the sector of the wall close to the assault ramp there were found hundreds of Roman ballistic stones the size of grapefruit.

Two mikveh were found in the northern and the southern corners of Masada. First tree adjacent pools were found, with a water conduit bringing rainwater into them, at the southern end of Masada. This structure seemed very likely to be a mikve, filled with a natural water, as prescribed by the Halakhic rules. When the news about the find were announced, the orthodox Talmudic scholars became especially interested – no mikve had so far been discovered belonging to the very period when these Halakhic rules were written. Two Rabbis, both very respected specialists, arrived to Masada and climbed the hard Snake path under the broiling sun – especially to visit the find. They went into the pools and started to check their measures. The archaeologists hold their breath – and at the end of a thorough study the Rabbis announced that it was indeed the mikve excellently meeting all the standards.

In the north-western corner of Masada a synagogue was discovered, at that time the earliest known one, and the only one from the time of the Second Temple. It is a rectangular building, oriented toward Jerusalem, with four tiers of plastered benches along the walls and two rows of columns in the center. In a corner was a room for ritual objects. The building was constructed by Zealots, on the base of the earlier Herodian construction. It is possible that the building served as a synagogue also in Herodian period; he had enough Jewish family members to care for their place of worship.

More than 700 ostraca were found, mostly written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Some of them were found near the storerooms, and may have been connected with the Zealot’s rationing system during the siege. Eleven small ostraca were found, different from all other found, each inscribed apparently by the same hand, with a single name; one of the names is “Ben Yair”. It is probable that those were the ostraca used in the casting of the lots between Ben Yair and the surviving ten people, after all the others had been killed, as Josephus describes.

Parts of 14 biblical, apocryphal and sectarian scrolls found at Masada are the first scrolls discovered outside of caves in a dated archaeological stratum. The biblical scrolls are mostly identical with Masoretic texts but some show slight variations. One important find was a sectarian document identical with one found in Qumran, and using a 364-day calendar used also by a Dead Sea Sect. This was a proof that the Dead Sea Scrolls were dated correctly. Another important scroll was the original of “The wisdom of Ben-Sira”, an apocryph of the 2nd century; its Greek translation was knows as “Ecclesiasticus”. Since this text was not included in the Tanakh, the original Hebrew text was lost; excerpts from it were found only in 1896 in the Cairo Geniza. The find in Masada had opened a new chapter in the research of that book.

Finds from the Bysantine Period. A small Bysantine chapel was found on the site, constructed by monks in 5th century CE. Once its floor had been covered by mosaic; most of it had been robbed before the excavations. However, in a small chamber, where the floor was covered with high piles of debris, a beautiful section of a mosaic floor was uncovered. Nearby a Bysantine workshop for mosaic was found, containing a number of long and thin stones, from which the little stones for mosaic were cut.

The monks apparently dwelt in nearby caves and in several stone cells constructed at the site. Before the monks came to Masada, series of earthquakes struck the area, and the cells were built over the ruins of damaged buildings.

Getting There:
The access to Masada from the east is by Road 90 going from Sdom to Jericho along the Dead Sea. Some 18 km south of Ein-Gedi, 25 km north of the Zohar River mouth, the road turns toward Masada (2 km) ending at the parking lot at the foot of the mountain. From there the ascent is either by the cable car, or by walking up the Snake Path – a moderate climb which should take 45-60 minutes.

The western road to Masada (Road 3199) starts in Arad and is 22 km. long. It ends at the western parking lot. It takes 15-20 minutes of easy ascent to get to the top.

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