Suitcase and World: Masada.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Masada is a rugged natural fortress, located at the top of an isolated rock on the edge of the Judean Desert and overlooking the Dead Sea. It is isolated from its surroundings by deep gorges on all sides. This position forms a natural fortification.

It is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army, in 73 A.D. It was built as a palace complex, in the classic style of the early Roman Empire, by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, (reigned 37 – 4 B.C.). The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.

Masada has quite a storied history, known principally from the work of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century AD, and from the excavations of 1963-65.

According to Josephus, the site was first fortified by the High Priest Jonathan. There were two High Priests of this name in the 2nd century BC and it is not certain which one he was referring to.

Turn the pages of the history book to time of Herod Great (37-4 BC). It was Herod who chose the virtually impregnable site of Masada to build a refuge for himself and his family at a period when he felt himself threatened both internally by the Jews of his kingdom and externally by Cleopatra, who wanted to add Judaea to her Egyptian kingdom. At first the buildings were relatively modest, though conforming with classical Roman architectural forms. They were progressively enlarged and lavishly decorated, to include the Western Palace, three small palaces, an administrative building, a barracks, three columbaria (also used as watchtowers), several large cisterns, and a swimming pool. These buildings are scattered all over the hilltop, without any apparent overall plan.

In the mid 20's BC, the site was further enlarged - a Northern Palace was added as was the large bath-house, for the use of the king and his family and guests. Also close to the palace was a large storage complex composed of eighteen long store-rooms. This group, together with an administrative building, are located at the highest point of the hilltop and constitute a defensible acropolis or citadel.

The Western Palace was considerably enlarged at this time. A series of very large cisterns was dug and new access paths were laid out. By contrast with the early period, the new works carried out in this period appear to have been carried out in accordance with a plan. They are integrated into two complexes, one around the Northern Palace and the other around the Western Palace. The architecture is also different in that it is in the full Roman style and tradition.

In the final phase, dated to around 15 BC, the most important new construction was the casemate wall, 1290m long, which surrounds the entire summit. In addition, some small modifications and additions were made to the northern complex.

Ruins at Masada (Image by James L. Stanfield at
Over the centuries, additional structures were added to the site, including a garrison installed by the Romans and a modest chapel built by a small community of Christian monks established themselves on the hilltop following a powerful earthquake.

After taking Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Roman forces besieged Masada where Judean rebels, called Zealots, who openly challenged Roman rule had holed up. Some 15,000 Roman forces attacked the mountain citadel for nearly two years before breaking through. The Zealots who chose mass suicide rather than slavery when the Roman besiegers broke through their defenses and as a result of this single event, Masada holds emblematic value for the Jewish people.

During the Zealot Period, about 1,000 people lived at Masada. The most important new feature from this time was the synagogue, a square building from the Herodian period that was probably used as a stable. Three rows of benches, characteristic of early synagogues, were built round the walls, and the genizah (depository for superseded scrolls) under the floor of the back room. Seven or eight ritual baths (mikveh ) were identified, including one large stepped immersion pool to the south of the Western Palace.

During the Byzantine Period the ruins of Masada served as a retreat for monks; they also built a small church there. During the Crusader Period it was inhabited. Later, the place was abandoned and its identity lost. Masada sat deserted until archaeological excavations were begun in the 1960's.

Masada (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill)
Access to Masada was not easy. In ancient times, as described by Josephus, the way up 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. Let's see which way I go up....thinking cable car as I am getting lazy in my old age :-)

Masada is an archaeological site of great significance. The remains of Herod's palaces are outstanding and very intact examples of this type of architecture.  The untouched siegeworks are the finest and most complete anywhere in the Roman world.
The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the site constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day and for this and its history, Masada was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. It is also designated as a National Park by Israel.

I've heard a lot of about Masada growing up and I've just finished reading a bit about it.  I'm ready to see it with my own eyes!