Masada, a Mystical Mountain Top with a Heroic History

Magic Carpet Journals takes you to King Herod’s Mountain Fortress Masada, for a fascinating adventure.

Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George.

There are two ways to get to the top of Masada. For the adventurous and fit a climb to the top at dawn is an exciting thing to do. For the rest of us an aerial ride on a cable car is thrilling too. The view as one ascends to the top is spectacular. The desert spreads out below in undulating dunes of sand and rock. The Dead Sea looks like a mirage sitting there tempting those, parched by the desert sun, to come to its shores. The Sea and distant mountains had a hazy look about them as I gazed in wonder at the spectacle that was unfolding before my eyes. The cable car deposited us sixty feet below the summit of the mountain. From this point on the walk is not difficult. Masada is an isolated mountain, with a large, flat plateau atop rugged cliffs, ranging from 1,200 – 1,300 ft high on all but one side. At only one spot the desert rises to 250 ft. from the top of Masada.

The view from the top of Masada, looking out onto the Dead Sea
The view from the top of Masada, looking out onto the Dead Sea

Once up at the top, the spell of the place takes over. As we walked through the partially restored ruins on this plateau, Ruth, our guide told us the story as it has been passed down through history. The conclusion came from the writings of an ancient historian, Josephus Flavius in his work Jewish Wars. Whether fact or fiction the tale of Masada is intriguing.

A mosaic from a passageway in the Western Palace, Masada Israel
A mosaic from a passageway in the Western Palace

Herod, a Jewish nobleman, sought refuge for himself, his family and private army, here in 40 BC. He had been a supporter of the Roman faction in a local civil war between the pro-Romans and the pro-Parthians. When the Parthians appointed a King of Jerusalem, Herod was afraid of retaliation, therefore made his escape to Masada. Leaving his family there in the care of some of his army, Herod traveled through Egypt to Rome. Upon his arrival in Rome the Roman Senate named him King of Judea. He returned to Jerusalem accompanied by two Roman legions to gain control of the land. Always fearful of being overthrown by a revolt or conquest by Cleopatra, King Herod built a mountaintop fortress at Masada. This fortress was equipped and stocked with all the necessities to maintain Herod, his family and an army over a prolonged siege. Massive storehouses, fortifications and two palaces were put into place to provide Herod with a safe and comfortable retreat in case of a lengthy war. It was never needed by Herod for that purpose. When he died in 4 BC, Masada became part of the inheritance of his son, Archelaus. Archelaus soon lost the throne and the country came under direct Roman rule. Masada became home to a small Roman garrison who maintained it as a Roman outpost.

The Roman ridge on White Spur as seen from the top of Masada
The Roman ridge on White Spur as seen from the top of Masada

A Jewish revolt against Roman rule took place in 66 AD. A band of Jewish zealots overpowered the Roman garrison and took control of Masada. Strategically situated within striking distance of the Roman forces in the interior of the country, and with the cliffs for a near perfect natural defense, the zealots soon became a thorn in the side of the Romans. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the survivors of Jerusalem joined those in Masada. Masada became the last pocket of resistance to the Roman rule. For two more years they continued to defy the Romans. The Romans in desperation sent the Tenth Roman Legion, with 10,000 troops and several thousand Jewish slaves, to crush their resistance.

One of King Herod's bath houses
Pathway to Masada
The upper pathway at Masada

Masada proved a difficult task for the Romans. Impossible to scale without attack from above, the Romans spent at least a year, settled in eight base camps strung out in the desert, around the bottom of the cliffs. They chose a ridge, called the White Spur, which ran towards the cliffs. The large contingent of labour built a ramp from the desert floor to the side of the cliff, by piling earth on the ridge. Thus, they raised a solid platform 300 feet high. They then fortified the sides with wooden scaffolding and put stones on top of it. Their ramp in place the Romans moved into position with catapults, arrow launchers and a giant battering ram.

As we walked around the plateau, I saw the parts of double walls that once completely surrounded the perimeter of the plateau. Partitioned, these walls provided living quarters for some of the zealot families. Herod’s Western Palace was the largest building at Masada. A large mosaic still exists in a passage in the dwelling area. Some damage to the edge of the mosaic occurred while the zealots used the building as living quarters. Parts of another palace, the Northern Palace can be seen at Masada. Ingeniously built on the “prow” of the plateau, it cascaded down over three levels of rock abutments. It was Herod’s personal palace.

View from Masada. Photo by Robert Scheer
Five Million Dollars was being spent in restoration of Masada
Five Million Dollars was being spent in restoration of Masada

Perhaps the most surprising feature of this desert stronghold is the swimming pool, here where one would expect water could not be wasted. Also, we walked through a Roman style bath house, with a cold bath for quick dips, a warmed room and a large hot room. The hot room had been heated by a furnace located outside the walls. Hot air was forced into a space beneath the floor, which sat on 200 clay pedestals. The floor no longer exists, but the clay pedestals sit there for all to see. Two ritual immersion pools or mikveh, where Jews were required to periodically take a ritual purification, were found at Masada. This required trapped rain water or stream water freely flowing into the baths or mikveh for purification purposes. For the zealots to have been able to fulfill those requirements required ingenuity. Herod had 1,500,000 cu. ft. of water storage space. Cisterns were carved into the rock on the side of the cliff and also on the summit. With this storage there was ample water for drinking, the baths, the swimming pool and also irrigation. One really has to see the pools and baths to believe they could have existed in the days of King Herod, approximately two thousand years ago.

One of King Herod's bath houses
One of King Herod’s bath houses
The hole in the wall, Masada
The hole in the wall, Masada

Again, we come to the wall overlooking the Roman encampment. Looking over the wall it is still easy to see where the Roman camps were set up on the desert below. The ramp is also still in place. There are hundreds of rounded stones, about the size of grapefruit, on the plateau, near the western wall. These show the ferocity of the Roman attack. With their armament in place the Romans began their assault on the wall with their battering ram. The zealots threw large boulders down on their attackers. Hoping to force the zealots to move back from the walls, the Romans set fire to the wall. By the end of the day, the wall had been breached, however the winds turned the fire around and turned the wall into a mass of flames. The zealots knew their capture would be inevitable come morning.

I saw the hole in the wall where the Romans broke through. However, when dawn came and the Romans climbed through that hole, they were in for a shock. They were met only by a haunting silence. The entire population of Masada, 960 people died during that fateful night. After a seven year stand against Roman tyranny, the defenders of Masada chose to die rather than submit to capture and enslavement.

Two sacred places exist on Masada. The Synagogue was found to have worn Scriptures buried there, which helped with its identification. Today, it is again used when some Jewish boys choose to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah there. Over four hundred years after the zealots were at Masada, Byzantine monks set up a small chapel on the plateau. They were the last inhabitants of Masada.

The story of Masada inspires Israeli youth. One of Israel’s elite armored units take their oath of allegiance to the State of Israel at the top of Masada. “Masada shall not fall again,” is the proud statement of Jews of today, who are justly proud of the heroism of their tragic forebears. They are a people who are determined to live peacefully and free in their ancient homeland.

Looking out from Masada to the Dead Sea

Story and Photos by M. Maxine George

Last Updated January 26, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster/Editor

For further information about Masada contact:
Israel Government Tourist Office
180 Bloor St., Suite 700, Toronto, Ont. Canada
Telephone: (416) 964-3784
Fax: (416) 964-2420

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