The dramatic history of the desert fortress of Masad

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
July 14, 2023

On the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert stands the ancient fortress of Masada. With a sheer drop of more than 400 metres to the western shore of the Dead Sea, the view from the top of the plateau would have been breath-taking. Yet, the silence of the ruins belies one of the most interesting episodes in Jewish history.

While the first structures on Masada were apparently built by the Hasmonaean king, Alexander Jannaeus in the early 1 st century BC, most of the structures were constructed by Herod the Great during the latter half of that century. Having conquered Masada in 42 BC, Masada became a safe refuge for Herod and his family during their long struggle for power in Israel. Apart from being a fortress, Masada was also a pleasure palace for Herod. For instance, it was designed along the lines of a Roman villa, and several amphorae found in Masada’s storerooms had Latin inscriptions, indicating that they contained wine imported all the way from Italy. After the death of Herod in 4 BC, Masada became a military outpost, and housed a Roman garrison, presumably of auxiliary forces.

Masada Fortress Reconstruction

An artist’s reconstruction of the desert fortress of Masada. Image source .

In 66 AD, the first Jewish Revolt broke out. The most comprehensive record of this record can be found in Flavius Josephus’ The Jewish War . According to Josephus, a group of Jewish zealots, the Sicarii succeeded in seizing Masada from the Romans in the winter of 66 AD. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Masada was filled up with refugees who escaped and were determined to continue the struggle against the Romans. Hence, Masada became a base for their raiding operations for the following two years. In the winter of 73/74 AD, the governor of Judaea, Flavius Silva, decided to conquer Masada and crush the resistance once and for all.

Due to the desert conditions, the Roman siege installations, i.e. the camps, dike, and ramparts, have been fully preserved, and provide archaeologists with the evidence needed to reconstruct the development of the siege. When the walls of Masada were breached, the Sicarii realised that the fortress would soon fall into the hands of the Romans, and decided to do something quite unthinkable. According to Josephus, one of their leaders, Eleazar spoke thus to the doomed defenders:

Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fall of our wealth also; and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessaries, but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.
(Josephus, The Jewish War, VII, 8.6)

The defenders were persuaded by Eleazar’s speech, and a mass suicide soon followed. (Some maintain that it was not suicide at all, which would have been against their beliefs, but rather they made an agreement to kill each other).

Although one may question the accuracy of Josephus’ account of the siege of Masada (and one rightly should), this story has greater repercussions than one may expect.  The decision taken by the defenders of Masada may be perceived from a symbolic point of view. On the one hand, the decision to commit suicide could be read as a fight to the bitter end against an implacable enemy, and the preferability of death over slavery. Hence, the defenders of Masada are seen as heroes. On the other hand, this decision may be regarded as the destruction brought against innocent people, especially women and children, through the refusal to compromise. Thus, the heroes are now seen as extremists. These different views matter, especially when they pertain to a nation, as the story of Masada has divided the people of Israel regarding their views of the country and its present policies. While the story of Masada is important to the people of Israel in the views it represents, other nations also have their own stories which define/divide the identity of its people. Regardless of the amount of truth in these stories, they will continue to have a place in the hearts of those who believe in them.