Stories from Palestine

The history of Masada desert fortress

March 27, 2022 Kristel Season 5 Episode 11
Stories from Palestine
The history of Masada desert fortress
Show Notes Transcript

Masada comes from the Hebrew word Metzad and this means fortress. It is basically a fortress that was built on top of a rock plateau. It is located very close to the Dead Sea and it is a bit south of the Westbank, so it is not accessible to Palestinians from the Westbank currently.

The fortress was built in the time of Herod the Great who prepared it to be able to withstand a long siege. The rock plateau had palaces, water cisterns, storage halls, workshops, residencies for generals and barracks for soldiers and even a Roman bathhouse.

The most famous story about Masada is that of the Roman siege in 73 AD when a group of Jewish Zealots who rebelled against the Romans, had taken the mount and decided that in case the Romans would take Masada, they would commit suicide.

This story is only known from one written account, by the Jewish apologist Flavius Josephus.

New research has shown that the ramp that the Romans started building, never reached the top of Masada. This really challenges the common understanding of HOW the Roman siege of Masada ended. Nevertheless, this is the story that is told by tour guides to the large amounts of visitors that visit Masada.

If you want to watch the film 'Avenge but one of my two eyes" by Avi Moghrabi who made parallels between the bravery of the Jewish Zealots who are praised by the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian freedom fighters who are put aside as terrorists, then go to this YouTube link:

Connect to Stories from Palestine on social media, follow the YouTube channel, do a small donation to keep the podcasting going and sign up for the mailinglist. All links can be found in the linktree:


A couple of weeks ago, I asked on social media what topic I should prepare. And the obvious answer was from the listeners to talk about the Mount of olives. So I did an episode about the Mount of olives. And yesterday, I received a nice photo of a tourist in Jerusalem who was using the podcast episode as an audio tour while visiting the churches on the Mount of olives.

So that was super nice for me to see how the podcast is really used and appreciated. One of the other favorite topics that I suggested was Masada and that's what today's episode is about. Masada comes from the Hebrew word Metzad and this means fortress. Masada is basically a fortress that was built on top of a rock plateau.

It is located very close to the dead sea and it is a bit south of the west bank. So it is not accessible for Palestinians from the west bank, currently. When you drive on route 90, that goes along the dead sea, and you're coming from Jericho to the south, then you will have to cross a checkpoint, a military checkpoint. By the way, in Arabic Masada is called Kasr es-Sebeh.

When you reach to Masada, what you see is a large isolated rock plateau that you can either climb by following the path that curves up like a snake to the top and it's therefore called the snake path. Or you can take the cable car and that will bring you up to the top in probably less than two minutes.

The top of this rock formation is almost flat. And if you would see it from the sky, then you would see that it is in a sort of diamond shape. So in the middle, it is wider and then it narrows down to the edges. And the first person to use this mountain as a fortification to protect the south Eastern border of the Hasmonean kingdom was Alexander Janneus.

And we're speaking about the first century before Christ and in that time the region was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty for about a hundred years. So let's do a little bit of history of that time to understand more about the origins of Masada as a fortification. Palestine had been ruled by the Greeks. That was after Alexander the Great had conquered the region. And Alexander

the great was very famous. He conquered a lot of territory, but he also died very young and his army generals immediately started to fight to take over the power. The territory that Alexander had taken was then divided and it was divided between two army generals, Ptolemy and Seleucis. And Palestine was first part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

And then later it became under the rule of the Seleucids. Now the Jewish people who lived in that region, they collided with the rulers because mainly of the fact that the Jews worshiped only one God and the Greeks, they had multiple gods. They had lots of different temples where they honored all these different gods.

And the Jews, they had a lot of different rituals. They had their own very strict rules, dietary rules, different habits. So all those different habits really set them aside from the Greek speaking community that lived in Palestine. And the Greeks were really on a mission to hellenize the area. And what is that hellenize? And hellenization was a process to try and make the whole empire Greek-speaking. Appreciating the Greek culture. Everybody should go to theater plays and poetry readings in Greek and adopt the Greek way of life. The Greek way of eating the Greek way of worshiping the Greek gods.

And because the Jewish people did not want to submit to that. They were seen as a difficult group and they faced discrimination.

Now the worst of the Hellenistic rulers was called Antiochus the fourth who called himself Epiphanus which means that he saw himself as a manifestation of God as a glorious person. And when he came to Jerusalem, he went to the temple of the Jews and he defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar to worship the Greek God Zeus. And you know, the pig is viewed by the Jewish people as an unclean animal. So this led to a revolt against the Greek rulers and out of this revolt, the Hasmonean dynasty managed to rule the province of Judah, and it became an independent kingdom for about 100 years.

And this Hasmonean dynasty was finished by the time that the Romans entered the scene, they had a lot of problems among themselves, the Hasmoneans about who was going to be the next Hasmonean ruler. And then eventually the Romans decided that they day wanted Herod the Great to become their client king. So then the Herodian dynasty replaced the Hasmonean dynasty. And that meant that the Masada fortification that was originally started under the Hasmoneans, under Janneus, now became in the hands of king Herod the Great. And we've heard about Herod the Great in other episodes because he was a very powerful man at that time. And he was the ruler of Judah in the time that Jesus was born. He was a very suspicious man. He was always afraid to lose his power. So he built a lot of fortifications around Palestine and the most well-known of those fortifications is Masada. And I think the second most known is the Herodion which is close to Bethlehem. And I should definitely do another episode about the Herodion. 

But what Herod the Great did with this rock plateau is really amazing. And actually as are all his buildings, because definitely Herod the Great was a great builder. And that's probably the only great thing about him, because otherwise he was quite a vicious ruler and he even killed several of his own family members, including his own wife and some of his own children, because he was always so afraid that he would be betrayed.

So. What did he do with Masada? He had the whole area, the whole rock plateau, which is about 18 acres, which is eight hectares or in local terms, 80 dunums, he had it surrounded by a wall. The wall was in total 1300 meters, long 1300 meters is about 4.300 feet. And the wall was about four meters high, that's 13 feet high, and then every 75 meters he would build a tower.

So there was a total of 37 towers. Imagine you have a huge kind of a Mount with on the top of the rock, a flat plateau, and that is completely surrounded by walls and towers. Now the plateau itself is about 440 meters above sea level, and it is surrounded by a deep gorge. So there is no way that any soldier is going to get on top of there without being seen.

It was very hard to conquer this fortification. The only way would be to surround it, to besiege it and to starve all the soldiers and the people that were on top of the mount. But of course Herod the great realized that. So what did he do?

He built a huge storeroom complex with 29 long halls where he could store grain and wheat and dried nuts and dried fruits and maybe pickled food and salted food. Anything that you can keep in high temperatures, because obviously in that time they didn't have fridges. And he also had huge cisterns dug to collect rainwater because that is really important that you have a supply of water.

And the water was not only used for drinking. Imagine Herod the Great, had to retreat on the Masada fortification to withstand his enemies. Well, then he also needed to have some comfort and he wanted to have his warm bath and his scrub. So he built a Roman bath, including the complete hypocaust system, the under ground heating system. So there wasn't actual Roman bath house on top of Masada. And of course Herod the Great built a palace for himself because if he was going to stay there, he wasn't going to stay in a small residency. He built it not just on top of the rock plateau, he built it on top of the Northern part of the plateau on the edge, continuing it down over two levels over the end of the cliff. So it is also called sometimes the hanging palace, because literally it seems to hang on the cliff. It's a bit like the prow of a ship and on the prow of the ship on the front side, you can see a beautiful palace. Of the palace itself there are some remains, we can see some columns and we can see some of the decorative program, but the whole palace itself is not there in its original shape. There was another palace, which was more to the west of the rock plateau, which was actually the largest structure on the mount it was about 3,700 square meters. And if you look at the ruins of that palace today, when you visit, you can still see some beautiful mosaic pieces of the throne room and some of the corridor that led to the bathroom.

Other than the water cisterns and the storage rooms and the bath house. There were also residential buildings for the officers who lived there, and there were barracks for the soldiers. And they found, for example, workshops for leather tanning and other structures that were probably used as workshops.

And all of these buildings had to be built with stones and the stones were quarried from a quarry on top of the plateau. So when you visit today, you can see that stone quarry. It looks like a deep pit from where they used to take out the stones to build all these structures and it could have potentially then been used to store something, maybe water or food, although it's not plastered, so maybe not water, but maybe horse food, because there were also horse stables. And I assume that they used donkeys to go up the snake path with supplies. Cause at that time there was not the cable car yet. So maybe they had some food for the animals stored in the quarry.

Another smart invention of those days that Herod the Great used was the columbarium. I spoke about this in the episode of Tell Marisha/Beit Guvrin, it's actually a tower with lots of small nesting spaces for pigeons. And these pigeons were then used for their eggs and of course for their meat. And in some cases, their feces were also used as fertilizer.

Now the irony is that Herod the Great never really spent time here. He once sent his mother Cyprus and his sister and his fiance Mariamne to Massada for safety when he was attacked by the Parthians. And the Parthians were from Persia, they had made an alliance with the Greek king Antigonus and Herod had his family located on Masada at that time with 800 soldiers to protect them. The Parthians came to Masada and they besieged Masada, they lay siege around it.

And the only one water reservoir at that time was nearing its end. And if there was no more water, then they would not be able to survive, but to their great luck, it started raining and the reservoir filled up and eventually the Parthians were defeated and Herod's family was saved. But the most famous and the most well-known story about Masada has nothing to do with Herod the Great. He's famous for the construction of the fortification and for the buildings on top of it.

But the story that made Masada famous happened more than 70 years after his death. And I need to make a disclaimer from the beginning because this story is only found in one source. It is not found in any other written source than the book called Jewish War, which was written by Flavius Josephus. And before we talk about the story, we need to establish who Flavius Josephus was.

His name when he was born, was Joseph Ben Mathias. And he was born in an aristocratic Jewish family in Jerusalem. He was a very smart boy and he was very religious. He was not really against the Roman rule, like many other Jews were, actually he quite admired the Romans. He had been to Rome before and he had seen their buildings and their structures, so he was quite admiring the Romans, but he was drawn into the Jewish rebellion against the Romans by other religious Jews. And he even was appointed as a commander to defend a city in the Galilee district. And when the Romans eventually took that city, Josephus and his men were hiding in a cave. And the men with whom he was hiding, decided that it would be better to kill each other than to be taken by the Romans.

And so they cast lots in order to decide the order in which they would kill each other. And Josephus was the last one that remained to kill the very last guy, but he didn't want to do it. He did not want to commit suicide. And he persuaded the other guy to surrender to the Romans.

So then they were taken prisoner, they were taken to Rome and he appeared before the Roman general Vespasian. And then he kind of set up an act as if he was some sort of prophet who could predict the future. And he told Vespasian that he predicted that one day Vespasian would become the new emperor.

And of course he said that to try and get Vespasian's favor to be treated well, which they actually did. And then in 69 AD, after emperor Nero had died, the troops proclaimed Vespasian the new emperor. So it seemed that the prophecy had come true and Flavius Josephus was released. He adopted this Latin name, Flavius Josephus, Flavius is the family name of Vespasian, so he named himself after Vespasian's family name. And then he ended up living in Rome and in Rome he wrote several large history works on the history of the Jewish people. And some of his writings have been disputed by historians, especially when it's obvious that he describes locations and history that he never witnessed and where he sometimes obviously makes mistakes in his writings.

And this is especially also the case in the story that he wrote about Masada. It's a great story. It's told by many tour guides as if it is the truth as if those are historical facts, but Flavius Josephus was never in Masada.

He's never been there. He wasn't there when this story happened and it seems very unlikely that he had direct access to sources that could tell him the details of what had happened. He did however, have an agenda. He had his own agenda, which was to make the Jewish people look better in the eyes of the Romans.

And it seems that with this story, he was trying to make a point. He wanted to prove that there were only a small number of fanatic Jews, the Zealots, who were ready to kill themselves in their rebellion against the Romans, but that these were just a small group of crazy people and that they did not represent the general Jewish population.

So what is the story?

The story is that there was a group of Jewish rebels, quite radical rebels called the Sicarii and Sicari means dagger. They were men who would carry small daggers and then they would carry out stabbings in the city against the Roman soldiers. 

And these had managed to conquer Masada. They conquered the fortification from the Romans. They moved up to live on the rock plateau and they remained there for several years. The Romans were first busy killing the Jewish revolution in other cities, they went city by city, fortification by fortification, and they kept Masada until the end, because it was the toughest stronghold to deal with.

In the meantime, according to Josephus, these Sicarii who lived on Masada, these Jewish rebels, they would carry out raids on communities around Masada to supply themselves with food. And they would even go to Jewish communities like the one in Ein Gedi and they robbed with violence, the people who live there, the Jewish inhabitants and even killed some people.

And so that is how Josephus describes them, how awful these people really were. So the Roman governor Lucius Flavius Silva decided that he had to end this rebellion and he besieged Masada and the Jewish rebels in the year 73 AD. 

What did he do? He set up eight fortified camps around the whole rock plateau. And he connected all of these camps with a wall. And you can now still see some of the remains of these military camps and of this wall from the top of Masada, if you look down. He brought the very well-trained 10th Legion of the Roman army.

And according to Josephus, they filled up an area with stones and rocks and dirt to create a ramp. So that they could roll an iron sheathed siege tower with catapults and a battering ram up to the top to breach the wall on the top of Masada. According to Josephus they did manage to breach the first wall, but then they found that the zealots from the other side had built another wooden wall right behind it.

So they started throwing their burning torches against the wooden wall. But at that moment, the wind changed direction and the flames started coming back to the siege tower that was also made of wood. So for a moment, it looked like the siege tower would set fire and the Jews thought that God had delivered them from their enemy, but then the wind changed again and the fire burnt down the wall of the Jewish Zealots.

Now here Josephus says that the Romans decided to take a break, to retreat for the rest of the night and to come back the next morning to take Masada. And here he describes how the leader of the Jewish Zealots, his name was Eliazar Ben Yair, gave two passionate speeches to persuade the people on Masada to not surrender, to not get captured by the Romans, but instead of being taken by the Romans, it would be better to kill each other, to commit suicide rather than giving in.

And his words were literally, according to Josephus, "let us not receive punishment from the Romans, but from God himself." So the story goes that they burned all their possessions and then each father killed his own family. And by lot 10 men were selected to kill all the other men. And then one was selected to kill the remaining nine and the last one stabbed himself and died. And this happened on Passover in 74 AD and according to Josephus 960 people died. The only survivors were two women and five children who had been hiding in one of the water cisterns. 

According to historians today, there are several flaws in the description of Masada from the way we know it from the archaeological remains today, and that is because he was never there. And he told the story from his own imagination.

It is also very unlikely that the Romans would have retreated after the second wall fell down. And even if they did retreat, it doesn't seem very likely that there was time for such lengthy speeches as Josephus wrote down in his account to convince all of those 960 people of committing suicide. 

And also if Josephus had really spoken to the two women that survived, would they really have remembered all these words of those really long speeches with all these details, to tell that to Josephus to write it down. It kind of seems that he made up the words of those speeches himself. And scholars think that Josephus may have had access to some of the Roman accounts, when he lived in Rome, and that he may even have spoken to the general Flavius Silva, but he may have mixed some of his personal experiences in the Galilee, remember when they were in the cave, when all men started to commit suicide, with this story. And his main aim seems to have been, that he wanted to describe this revolt is being carried out by a minority of very violent revolutionaries so he could excuse the normal Jewish people. And Flavius Josephus is often labeled as a Jewish apologist. 

A very interesting research done in 2016, concluded that the ramp that Josephus describes in his story was never completed.

And that means that if the ramp never reached the top of Masada, that the ramp could not have been used to capture the fortress. So this really challenges the common understanding of how the Roman siege of Masada ended. And really, I don't have answers to that. You can come up with any kind of scenario.

Maybe they did eventually capitulate, maybe they died of hunger and thirst. Maybe some of them committed suicide and others surrendered. We will never know.

But if you go to Masada, the vast majority of tour guides will tell you this story as if it is a historical fact. It's also interesting to know that for about 30 years after the Jewish revolt the Romans remained around Masada to guard it, to make sure that any remaining rebel would not go back on that fortification. , In later time during the Byzantine time, which is around the fifth, sixth century after Christ, Masada, the mountain plateau, the rock plateau was used by monks, to retreat, Christian monks. Under the leadership of Euthymius they built a church and a number of hermit cells where they lived separately during the week and then they would have a communal day on Sunday. It was very common in those days for monks to retreat in the wilderness. And so here we also see some remains of monastic life. 

The story of Masada became one of the foundation myths of the Israeli Zionists. They emphasize the bravery of the Jewish Zealots, the ones who were ready to kill themselves for their aim, for their patriotism, their national aspirations. And for a long time, Masada was a place that all Israeli soldiers would visit, and where army inaugurations took place. But in recent years, that mentality shifted a little bit. And the idea of committing suicide now became understood more as giving up fighting and as being a coward. So they stopped doing that.

And in this respect, I can highly recommend you to watch a film from the year 2005 called "Avenge but one of my two eyes", it was made by the Israeli filmmaker, Avi Moghrabi. And in this film, he uses scenes from the Jewish tourists who are being fed with tales of their ancestors, heroic struggles, such as the one at Masada. And he uses scenes of Palestinians, being humiliated by the Israeli occupation authorities, who are trying to resist their oppression.

So he basically highlights the hypocrisy of Israelis who celebrate ancient tales for the struggle for freedom while they condemn the same acts of Palestinians in their struggle for freedom. If you want to watch this film, it is available on YouTube and I will post a link in the show notes. 

And of course I have some photos that I made during my last visit to Masada that I will share on social media. So if you want to follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, you can go to the show notes, follow the link tree, and you can reach all social media there. 

That's my story for today. I hope you enjoyed it.