Highway 90 follows the Great Rift Valley from Jerusalem down to Masada alongside what’s left of the Dead Sea, making it the lowest road on earth. On the right, sheer cliffs hide the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. On the left, over-extraction from the River Jordan upstream and mineral harvesting from the inland lake itself means that the shoreline is receding, by two kilometres in some places since the 1980s, revealing cracked mud, salt flats and dead beaches. Signs warn drivers over and over again to beware of sinkholes: more than six thousand have appeared, mostly in the last decade, destroying resorts, farms and some of the road itself.
As you drive south, between the natural northern basin and the artificial evaporation pools that have replaced its southern counterpart, the landscape to the right opens up. Sandy scrub runs across to more distant hills. One stands apart in front of the main range, a haven of solid rock rising 450 metres out of the desert plain. A single winding path leads to the flat diamond-shaped top, 600 by 300 metres at its widest, and still only 58 metres above sea level. The climb is worth it for the views alone, into the canyons of the Judean Hills and across to the Dead Sea.
Masada, which means ‘fortress’ in Hebrew, was first occupied in the second century bce by the Hasmonean kings of Judea, and a century later under Herod the Great became an important royal stronghold and retreat. Herod built two grand palaces on the summit, and a defensive circuit wall with 27 towers. Mediterranean mod cons were the rule, especially in the luxurious Northern Palace with its three tiers of sea-view terraces sweeping down the slope. An elaborate system of aqueducts and cisterns reveals the extraordinary lengths to which the king went to bring fresh water for his baths, gardens and swimming pools to the desert cliff-top. But Masada’s fame comes from a later episode, when this remote site saw the last stand of Jewish rebels against the power of Rome.
In 6 ce, a little more than a decade after Herod’s death, Judea was annexed as a Roman province. Caesarea became the political capital of the region, but a cohort of Roman troops was stationed in the Antonia fortress at Jerusalem, where Roman officials also now appointed the Jewish high priest. Tensions ran high for decades, with constant low-level resistance to Roman rule. In 66 ce things came to a head when the governor himself plundered the great Jewish temple, and responded to peaceful protests by sacking the city and massacring more than three thousand Jews. Rebel Jewish leaders roused the population to revolt, occupied the Antonia, and established a provisional government in Jerusalem. The Romans efficiently quelled the rebellion across the rest of the province and besieged Jerusalem, crucifying Jewish prisoners in different postures in full view of their comrades. The Romans eventually took the city in 70 ce, destroyed the temple and paraded its Torah and Menorah through the streets of Rome.
In Judea, three Jewish redoubts remained. Herodium and Machaerus were reduced in 71 and 72 ce respectively; only Masada seemed impregnable. It was here in 73 or 74 ce, according to the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, that 967 men, women and children held out against a prolonged siege by a Roman legion about eight times their number. The Romans camped around the base of the rock while they built a ramp up a natural slope on the landward side. When they finally broke through the rebels’ defences, the Jews chose death over slavery. The men burned their possessions, killed their families and then drew lots for the right to be killed by their comrades until the last man standing killed himself. According to Josephus, the Romans walked into ‘a terrible desolation’. Just two women and five children survived to tell the tale.
The events at Masada became one of the great legends of 20th-century Zionism. In 1927 Yitzhak Lamdan, a Ukrainian immigrant to Palestine, published an epic poem in Hebrew called Masada. It took the mountain as a symbol of Zion, the land of Israel, the last refuge for Jews fleeing antisemitism in Eastern Europe. Their greatest hope and dream, according to the poem, is that ‘Masada shall not fall again.’ In the 1930s Jewish youth movements began to make pilgrimages to the site, a highlight of the group treks across the desert characteristic of Zionist education. In the early 1940s some Zionist leaders responded to rumours of a planned attack on Palestine by Rommel’s Afrika Korps by discussing a Masada Plan, which was to involve a last stand at Mount Carmel and if necessary collective suicide; memories differ as to how seriously this was taken. After the state of Israel was established in 1948, inductions into the Armoured Corps of the Israeli Defence Forces took place on the mountain.
It may seem a strange story to celebrate: a complete military failure, involving massive loss of life as well as death by suicide, which is especially problematic from a Jewish point of view, although as the men killed each other in turn, there was technically only one suicide. But as Jodi Magness explains in Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, there were good reasons for the young country to think of the site as ‘a symbol of Jewish heroism, the Zionist enterprise, and the state of Israel’. ‘The notion that heroic Jewish freedom fighters held out against the mighty Roman Empire to the bitter end countered the image of millions of passive European Jews starving to death or being gassed in Nazi concentration camps,’ she writes. After 1948, ‘Masada became a metaphor for the state of Israel: isolated, besieged and surrounded by enemies on all sides.’
Patriotic interest in Masada peaked in the early 1960s when Yigael Yadin, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, directed excavations on the mountain involving thousands of Israeli and foreign volunteers. Yadin had served with the Zionist paramilitary group Haganah during the British Mandate, and then as the IDF’s chief of staff, before starting an academic career. Army engineers helped build a camp for the volunteers next to one of the old Roman siege camps, as well as a cable-way to carry heavy equipment to the top of the mountain. The dig itself was not run as a military campaign: in the popular account of the excavations he published in 1966, Yadin explained that since they were not soldiers he let the volunteers choose whether they ‘bathed or went dirty’.
In his book Yadin argued that the archaeology confirmed the story Josephus told, perhaps even down to the lots the men cast to determine the order of their deaths: 11 bits of broken pot were discovered with what look like nicknames written neatly on them in the same hand. Remarkably, these included one marked ‘Ben Yair’, almost certainly the man Josephus tells us led the rebels at Masada, Eleazar Ben Yair. The crucial point Yadin wanted to make was that it was ‘thanks to Ben Yair and his comrades, to their heroic stand, to their choice of death over slavery, and the burning of their humble chattels as a final act of defiance to the enemy, that they elevated Masada to an undying symbol of desperate courage.’ Stamps were issued to celebrate the excavations, Yadin’s book was a huge success and his version of events became the standard story.
The magic started to fade almost immediately. This was in part Yadin’s own doing. Called back to military service in 1967, he played a central role in planning the Six Day War. One consequence of Israel’s victory in that conflict was that older and more storied sites of Jewish historical memory came under Israeli control, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs at Hebron and the Old City of Jerusalem itself. At the same time, the idea of Israel as a small band of brave pioneers gave way to a more bombastic national ideology. On the other hand, a widespread perception that the country had failed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War underlined the vulnerability of the young state, with the notion of conquest by overwhelming foreign force one that came uncomfortably close to home. The armoured units began to take their oaths elsewhere, and over the following decades Yadin’s version of the Masada myth was picked apart.
One difficulty was his interpretation of the archaeological remains. Even he didn’t insist that the potsherds really were suicide lots: the inscribed fragments were found among more than 250 others, suggesting that they were just storage tags. But he did suggest, for instance, that a group of ‘about 25’ skeletons found in a cave on the side of the mountain had been thrown there by Roman soldiers after the suicide. The relatively small number of bones found in the cave already suggests optimistic accounting, but even more troublesome are the pig bones reportedly found with them, an indication that these may not have been pious, kosher Jews at all, but later Roman or Byzantine inhabitants of the site.
A bigger problem was that the ancient story itself was more complicated than Yadin allowed. Josephus tells us that shortly after the Jewish revolt broke out in the summer of 66 ce, a particularly belligerent group of rebels, the so-called Sikarioi or assassins (literally ‘dagger men’), seized Masada from its Roman garrison. Once on the mountain they did nothing more to assist the rebellion, but occupied themselves instead with a series of violent raids on neighbouring Jewish communities. These included an infamous massacre in the winter of 67/68 ce at the oasis of Ein Gedi, 20 km to the north along the shore of the Dead Sea: waiting until Passover, when many people would be away, they attacked the town, robbed the houses, seized the crops and killed more than seven hundred women and children as they attempted to flee. Even after the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus says, the Sikarioi concentrated their attacks on Jews who had submitted to Rome.
Yadin left this violence against other Jews out of his account, invented attacks on Roman targets and followed earlier commentators in relabelling the Sikarioi as ‘Zealots’, a term usually used in antiquity for a less extreme rebel faction. Magness explains that Yadin’s wording was probably influenced by the activities in the Mandate Period of the Brit Habriyonim, the Strongmen Alliance, who portrayed themselves as modern-day Sikarioi, and unlike Yadin’s Haganah, believed in executing Jews who collaborated with the British. But his use of the term also made it easier for people to think of the Masada rebels as men of principle.
Yadin may in fact have been right to challenge Josephus’ negative account of the rebels. Originally a commander on the Jewish side, Josephus reneged on a suicide pact with fellow rebels, instead surrendering to the Roman commander Vespasian; he was later freed by the personal favour of Vespasian, by now emperor, and then moved to Rome and became a Roman citizen. His historical work on The Jewish War, written in the late 70s and early 80s ce, was in part a defence of Roman behaviour in the region and a warning against further rebellion. But it was also an attempt to exculpate the Jews as a whole from responsibility for the revolt, pinning it instead on a small group of extremists. Josephus does emphasise the bravery of the men who defended Masada, but as Magness points out, this only makes Rome’s victory over them more impressive.
Unfortunately for the heroic version of the story, the character of the rebels may not be the only thing Josephus fabricated. Parts of his story of their final hours are quite implausible: having broken through the rebels’ defences, the Romans conveniently withdraw for a few hours, giving the rebels time to agree on a plan, listen to two long speeches, destroy their possessions, murder their families and engage in a complex cascade of killings. Other parts are incompatible with the archaeological remains: the rebels are supposed to have piled up all their possessions except their food and burned them, but in fact there were many separate fires, including of food. And tales of heroic suicides under siege or attack are so common in ancient literature that some scholars suspect that the mass suicide was invented by Josephus himself.
Magness prudently refuses to take a firm view on whether the mass suicide at Masada really happened. Despite the title, and its short length, her book covers far more than just Masada, providing an introduction to the geography, history and archaeology of Israel from the building of the First Temple at Jerusalem in the tenth century bce through the Babylonian conquest and exile in the sixth century bce to the final Roman destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 ce. Along the way she explores the origins of Judaism as a polytheistic religion whose members worshipped the deity they considered the most powerful rather than the only god, the rule of the Hasmonean kings of Judea who engaged in extensive territorial annexation and widespread forced conversions, and the career of Herod the Great, a half-Jewish Roman client king who built multiple temples to different gods at home and abroad, and murdered his own sons, though he probably didn’t order a ‘massacre of the innocents’ at Bethlehem as reported in Matthew. There’s also a useful gazetteer of other archaeological sites from these eras, including Caesarea and Jerusalem, though Masada naturally gets star billing.
Magness vividly describes the archaeological evidence for life on the mountaintop. The rebels lived in rough huts and small, subdivided spaces formed from the Herodian walls and buildings, and subsisted for the most part on bread, bean paste and lentil stew. They converted the rooms of Herod’s palaces into functional spaces, including a smithy and a bakery, as well as turning a room in the circuit wall into a synagogue. They were stubborn – a divorce certificate written at Masada in 71 ce shows that they were still using the ‘revolutionary’ calendar starting from the first year of the revolt even after the destruction of the Temple – and they were optimistic enough about the future to bother with such niceties as legal divorce. They were also sticklers for Jewish purity laws, installing ritual baths across the plateau, but in other respects the crowded living conditions were distinctly unsanitary: archaeologists have found lice in combs and clothing, and beetles, moths and other pests in the food supplies, ‘with the dates and figs containing large numbers of charred larvae and adult insects’. Finally, Magness describes the Roman siege itself, with appropriate brevity: although modern accounts often have it lasting months or even years, the archaeological evidence suggests that the stones that made up the ramp to the walls of the rebel settlement could have been collected by the Romans in a matter of weeks.
One important question remains: why did the Romans besiege Masada at all? Magness presents it as part of a general mopping-up campaign after the revolt, but committing an entire Roman legion to snuff out a few hundred fanatics in a blasted desert holdout seems like overkill. In 1976 Edward Luttwak in The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire tried to explain it as a lesson to others contemplating revolt: ‘the Romans would pursue rebellion even to mountain tops in remote deserts to destroy its last vestiges regardless of cost.’ If so, other historians have pointed out, it is strange that not a single surviving Roman inscription or other document mentions the episode.
The site’s current excavator, Guy Stiebel, has a different theory, based on the high value of the balsam plant, which was commercially processed at only two ancient oases, Jericho and Ein Gedi. As well as being prized for its scent and as a salve for wounds, balsam was exported throughout the known world to treat ailments from cataracts to coughs to snakebites. After 70 ce production was brought under Roman management (the actual recipe remained a secret), and although the raid and massacre at Ein Gedi was several years in the past, the continued threat posed by the Sikarioi to the perfume trade is more than enough to explain Rome’s actions.
It would have been good to hear more about Stiebel’s new excavations, which began in 2017, presumably just too late to be included in Magness’s book. In the first two years, they have revealed the extent of Herod’s irrigated gardens, his vine-growing and perhaps even wine production, as well as tracing the location of the rebels’ crops on the plateau. And whereas Magness’s account ends with the Jewish encampment, Stiebel’s excavations have also investigated later habitation at Masada. After a few decades of Roman occupation, and centuries of abandonment, the mountain was inhabited between the fifth and the seventh centuries by Christian monks, who built a monastery and a church and recycled the old cisterns. The traces of their habitation include the most notorious new discovery, made in February 2018 on the wall of a hermit’s cave, a bright red Aramaic inscription commemorating ‘Lord Jesus’.
Yadin died in 1984, but Masada is still one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel, catering largely to school parties, diaspora Jews and other curious visitors. Few now walk up the old snaking path but are instead carried in a cable car; a large café awaits at the top. Masada’s continuing popularity led in 2001 to its recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site, ‘a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty’. Tell that to the women of Ein Gedi.