The Masada Plateau is an isolated mountain that looms 1400 feet over the Dead Sea and salt flats lying below and on the edge of the Wilderness of Judea. Now in ruins, this fortress has seen heavy action in the past including the Maccabeans, King Herod and, most famously, the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD.
In The Beginning
The hilltop was first fortified by Alexander Jannaeus – King of the Maccabeans – from 103-76 BC but only a few coins from this period have been found. In 40 BC Herod, whilst escaping from Antigones, King of Jerusalem, came across the site and took refuge there. He left his family under the protection of his men and safely made his way to Rome where he was nominated by the Senate as King of Judea. He returned to Masada to build massive fortifications, a palace perched on the northern end of the plateau with three tiers, and huge storehouses, all designed as protection from an invasion by Cleopatra. After Herod came his son Archelaus, but Rome took over the city’s rule and it became a small outpost.
In 66 AD, however, the Jewish Revolt broke out and the garrison was over-powered by a group of zealots led by Menachem Ben-Yehuda. After the 70 AD fall of Jerusalem, the survivors bolstered the small group and they held out until 72 AD. The 10,000 strong Tenth Roman Legion, led by Flavius Silva, set out to crush once and for all the Jewish Resistance.
Silva knew that a lengthy siege would be of little effect and decided to build a ramp between the plateau and a nearby spur. The constructed a solid platform up to a height of 300 feet along which they could then move the huge wooden siege engines right up to the fortress wall. Armed with catapults, arrow launchers and a giant battering ram, the Romans finally gained entry.
The 960 zealots, in the meantime, retreated to the inner city fortification and Ben-Yehuda called his men together. Spurred on by Elazar’s Oration, it was decided that just 10 of them would kill the rest of the group. “Let
our wives die un-abused, our children without the knowledge of slavery.” They would set fire to everything but the storehouses to show that they died of their own free will and not through starvation or want. Men, women and children prepared themselves and when only the 10 men were left they lay down arms and one man was chosen to finish the job. He checked that all was done and then committed suicide leaving the Romans empty handed.
Present Day Masada
Looking at the ramp from the fortress itself it is easy to imagine the Romans down below putting all their energies into the siege. Their camps are still visible, as is the ramp – an unbelievable feat of engineering. It is also much easier to reach the top now as a cable car, completed in 1970, alleviates the necessity of climbing the Snake Path, which, described by Josephus, was once the only way to access the mountain.
Today’s Israel sees Masada as an inextricable link to those defenders of long ago. Young recruits to one of the modern-day crack army units take their oath of allegiance on the mountain top, finishing the ceremony with the words “MASADA SHALL NOT FALL AGAIN.”