It's hard to write about Masada. It's such a tourist trap. When I was there you could get on top of the fortress via a ski lift built in Switzerland. Masada. A fortress built on an elongated teardrop mesa on the west side of the southern Dead Sea. In the Negev. The wilderness of southern Judea. The desert. Why would anybody want to build a ski lift there?
Not a nice place. I swam in the Dead Sea. People go there for the mineral baths. People will bathe in any old stink hole if someone says it's therapeutic. It's like being a fleshy cork. The water really wants to push you up. It has no time for blobs of flesh and bone bobbing on its surface. And so it pushes you up, as if to say, I have enough to deal with with all this salt in my water. Every day the sun dries up some more of the water and what do I get? More salt! I don't need anything else!
And off I go and to my towel and dry off and feel the crust of salt on my body. So be it. It's therapeutic, I hear.
To the north is Jericho, of Joshua fame. You can still see the ruins of Iron Age walls, maybe those same walls Joshua brought down with shouts, drums, and the wail of horns. Or just Iron Age walls. It's not like they don't have a lot of them.
Inland, to the west and a little ways up into the Judean hills, but still within sight of the Dead Sea, are caves. Caves in the limestone hills where shepherd boys once found millennia old jars containing scrolls of ancient texts, some of leather, some of copper. The Dead Sea scrolls. Some of the oldest writing in the world. At least the oldest writing in Judeo-Christian texts. These ended up in antiquities shops in east Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which were not Israeli territory yet. Someone spotted them and realized what they were. Catholic scholars got them. They conducted excavations on the plain below the caves and found ruins of some kind. Being monastic Catholic types, they decided that they were celibate monasteries which spent their days in prayer, discipline, and copying sacred texts. After all, if all you have is a hammer. They were puzzled to find the skeletal remains of women in the cemetery. What were they doing there?
And back further south, along the west side of the Dead Sea, along the mud flats, and salt flats, and stinking and evaporating mineral pools, there is Masada.
What's Masada? Well, to know that you must know about King Herod. Herod the Great, that is. Of Biblical fame. He's mostly known for his part in the Nativity story. How he heard from the wise men the Messiah, the King of the Jews, had been born and a star led them to Jerusalem. The wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia and divined the birth of a great leader and savior to the west. They followed the astrological sign to Jerusalem and naturally visited the greatest person there, Herod. The king.
Well, Herod was nothing if he wasn't devious. "Follow this star," he said. "And let me know that I might worship him as well."
We know the outcome. Herod killed all the young children of Bethlehem. He had a bad habit of eliminating competition. But he also had bad spin.
Yes, Herod was a monster. He killed his own wives and children. He ruled ruthlessly. He also was a great builder. He built Caesarea Philippi, a city to the north. And Caesarea on the Mediterranean, a completely new city where one had not been before. It had market places, an amphitheater, and a port built where one had never been before. That meant engineering and innovation, lots of it. Usually ports are built in natural harbors. They take advantage of the coastline, the rivers, and the sea's ebb and flow. Here there was nothing. Just straight coast and sea. The currents in the eastern Mediterranean flow from south to north. From Egypt below to Asia Minor above. So the port was built as a wall shooting away from the coast and then turning north and almost pinching another wall at a gap for passage on the north end. It limited silting up from the sand flowing up from the Nile. Two statues guarded it. Mind the gap. The walls were made of stone and hydraulic concrete. It hardened under water. Like I said, engineering.
Both Caesareas were built in honor of his patron, Caesar of Rome. It doesn't hurt to suck up to your benefactor. Rome didn't care what Herod did, built, or how many babies, wives, or children get killed. As long as there was no trouble and taxes flowed. Though one emperor is reported to have said he'd rather be Herod's pig than his son. Ouch.
And so we come back to Masada. Masada was Herod's insurance against trouble. Herod was not a Jew, after all. Oh, he built a lavish temple for them in Jerusalem, the third temple. Or second, depending on whom you ask. A marvel of engineering. But they still hated him as a cursed Idumean, the usurper placed over their heads by the monster, Rome. Herod, like all despot strongmen, was inches from insurrection. Spin left, a monster. Spin right, a builder. Either way, in peril.
Masada was built as a fortress palace that Herod could flee to in the event of a revolt by his subjects, an overthrow by his enemies, or betrayal by his Roman overlords. He had a lot to worry about. Spin.
Masada was perfect. It was on a road down from Jerusalem and to the south. It was a convenient stopping place, and eminently defensible, and had been used as one already. It was a mesa with sheer cliffs on all sides. You needed ropes to get up the last 90 feet. So Herod got his Roman trained engineers to build a fortress there. On top of a mesa. Over a desert plain. By a sea of salt. With no water sources for miles. Perfect.
The fortress of Masada had a wall around it. There were fields for growing some food. Several gullies collected the scant winter rains and channeled them to underground cisterns where the water could be stored for the drying times. On the north end of the mesa was the royal section. Here there were Roman style baths with false floors, beneath which the fires burned to heat the water for the playtime of royalty. Romans liked their comfort and the barbarian hordes on their borders wanted to be like them. Until Rome couldn't deliver. And then they attacked. A good lesson for any empire. Any other empire, that is.
On the extreme northern end of the mesa was a set of steps. The natural formation dropped down the cliff, then stopped, then thrust forward again, then stopped, then dropped down then out again then down a cliff to the Dead Sea floor. It made two huge steps in the northern wall. A perfect place for a royal palace.
Two, actually. Roman engineers build massive supports to enlarge the steps to hold the weight of the platforms, floors, and the rooms of a palace or two. All in a waterless desert. It's amazing what you can do with sound engineering, pluck, and an army of slaves. Try it some time.
So Masada was built and staffed and provisioned and standing by always in ready in case the tyrant Herod needed to slink away. The time never came.
Fast forward. Past the reign of King Herod, Tyrant Builder, and through the Roman governors of Judea, like Pontius Pilate, and to the rebellion of 66 AD and the destruction of Herod's great temple in 70 AD. Titus, emperor of Rome, sacked the city and ended the revolt. Except for some rebels who fled Jerusalem along the path to the Dead Sea that justifiably paranoid king Herod had prepared, to a fortress in the wilderness: Masada. The rebels in question were zealots. Not only hostile to occupying Romans, but also to Jews who were not as extreme as they. They were beyond the political party normally known as 'Zealots' in the Bible. They were the Zealots' Zealots. Every society, religion, and country club has them.
And they had to go.
The easiest way to take care of a ragtag bunch of ill prepared rebels on top of a rock which is defensible on all sides is to turn that defensibility against them. Guard the only escape and wait for them to starve. Siege wall 101. But the Romans were in a hurry. They wanted this embarrassment to disappear. So they did what only impatient Romans do. They built a siege ramp against the lowest side of the defensible mesa, which happened to be the west side.
Romans love to have slaves build stuff. And when the ramp was done they built a siege engine. And when the siege engine was done they besieged the fortress. And when the siege was done and the walls breached they found. Nothing. The fortress, Masada, was empty.
The historian, Flavius Josephus, was captured by the Romans in another battle. He managed to escape slavery and become a court historian. Well, another kind of slave. As a court historian for a Roman court, he had to write history that agreed with the court's memory of events. He was no fool. More spin.
According to Josephus' account of the siege of Masada, they all committed mass suicide. Suicide is forbidden in Judaism so they cast lots. The heads of each family killed the rest of their families. These men then came together and the one loser of the lots killed them all. And then himself. And one person, who couldn't go through with it, hid in one of those vast cisterns, so she could tell the story of the heroic struggle and tragic end of the siege of Masada. How very convenient.
Which most certainly did not happen.
Josephus knew how to play to a crowd. And keep his head in the bargain. Reporting that the Romans had besieged a city of men, women, and children and then packed them all away into slavery wouldn't play in Peoria. Never mind that all of Roman society was supported by slavery, looting, and foreign war. It was not a nice thing to talk about in polite society. Especially with a politically charged story like this at the end of an otherwise successful campaign. The truth would never do. So Josephus borrowed a familiar story element. The noble adversary who fights well, sees defeat, and sacrifices himself to the superior forces. Well done. We can applaud your bravery and courage. The gods will welcome you. And revel in the fact that we ultimately triumphed without looking like the monsters that we are. Spin.
Who knows what actually happened on top of that treacherous strategic rock in the salt polluted flats of the Dead Sea? A war, we know that. War is what happens when nothing else is left. But not what history tells us.
The Zionists from Russia and Europe who created the state of Israel in 1948 used Masada as a symbol of the rebirth of Israel. With a rallying cry of ‘Masada shall not fall again!’ they used the ruined fortress as a call to patriotism. Soldiers in training used to hold night vigils there. It still has the power to inspire.
So now, if you go to Masada, by lift or by path, you still have to ascend the last 90 feet by steel stairs. And on to the top. The flat top of Masada. Take from it what you will.