Masada is located in southern Israel at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a rhombus-shaped, rocky plateau situated atop a 1,300 foot mountain. It has various meanings and uses to various people.
Originally, it was a fortress. Although the dates are somewhat murky, it is believed that it was constructed by the Hasmoneans, an ancient people who ruled Judea and the surrounding region in the Second Century BCE. Later, around 35 BCE, King Herod had it fortified as his sanctuary of last resort in the event of an insurrection by the Jews under his rule. The surrounding terrain makes an approach by ground extremely difficult and renders it almost impregnable (more on that later). For example, the only approach is along a winding, narrow pathway, aptly named “the snake.” In fact, it is so narrow that an invading force using it to approach the summit would have to do so single file, which would make it extremely vulnerable to the defenders at the top. However, as we shall see, the Romans were able to capture it after a long siege through an ingenious feat of engineering.
Secondly, the Israeli military uses it as a venue for swearing-in new troops after they have completed their basic training. As part of the ceremony, the soldiers climb up the mountain at night by foot along the “snake road” and are sworn in by torchlight.
Thirdly, it is a popular venue for tourists, who flock there despite the intense heat most of the year to commemorate their heroic ancestors’ last stand and experience a sense of Jewish history. Most visitors access it by cable car, although the hardy ones can still climb “the snake.”
Finally, for many Jews the very name “Masada” has become an inspirational symbol, roughly equivalent to the Alamo for Americans, of Jews who never gave up but, instead, fought to the “last man” against an overwhelming force. For example, many believe it provided inspiration to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during their ill-fated uprising against the Nazis during WWII.
The Roman siege of Masada occurred from 73-74 CE at the culmination of the First Jewish-Roman War. Many of the events are in dispute, which is not unusual for an era in which stories were related verbally rather than in writing. Probably, the most reliable account is that of Flavius Josephus, a former Jewish rebel leader who had defected to the Romans and become a Roman citizen. Josephus was also a friend of Roman Emporers Vespasian and Titus, which no doubt kept him in favor. He became a renowned scholar and historian who chronicled events of the first century on behalf of the Romans. His chronicle of Masada is based on the testimony of two female survivors. Their story is also related in the novel and TV movie, “The Dovekeepers.”
1. In 66 CE, during the First Jewish-Roman War (aka the Great Jewish Revolt), a little fewer than 1,000 Jewish extremists, aka Sicariis, overpowered the Roman soldiers in Masada and took refuge there.
2. In 72 CE the Roman Governor of Judea, Flavius Silva, arrived with approximately 15,000 Roman troops, plus an untold number of slaves, and laid siege to Masada.
3. After several months, they broke the siege due to a brilliant feat of engineering. First, they constructed a circumvallation wall (a wall commonly constructed by besiegers to protect them from attacks by the defenders) and a siege ramp along the Western Wall. They constructed a massive battering ram which they managed to slide up the ramp to the wall after which they used the ram to batter down the wall.
4. Once the Romans breached the wall on April 16, 73 CE it was all over quickly. However, to their surprise and dismay they found that virtually all of the defenders were dead. They had chosen death over surrender. However, this was not a mass suicide. In order to avoid suicide, which is forbidden in the Jewish religion, their leader Eleazar ben Ya’ir, had arranged for them to kill each other voluntarily. He ordered two women to remain alive to tell the story, which they did. (Some historical accounts state that a few others ignored the agreement to allow themselves to be killed and were also found by the Romans.)
5. The siege was over, but the legend had begun.
Masada. For most Jews, the very name conjures up powerful emotions – courage, pride, valor, fight for what you believe in, never give up even against seemingly hopeless odds. Some historians dismiss Masada as merely a case of extreme Jewish radicals choosing death over compromise and surrender. For most Israelis and Jews around the world, however, the siege of Masada and its aftermath are viewed as an inspiration and a symbol of extreme heroism and willingness to fight to the “last man.” Not only has it become a rallying cry, like “Remember the Alamo” in the Mexican War, “Remember the Maine” in the Spanish-American War, and “Remember Pearl Harbor” in WWII for Americans, it has come to symbolize the national identity of Israel, itself.