Masada

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The remains of one of the Roman camps set up during the siege of Masada.
In this view of Masada, the enormous dirt ramp built by the Romans up the side of the mountain is clearly visible to the right.

MASADA mə sā’ də (מְצָדָה, Μασάδα, Strabo Μοασάδα. Meaning prob. mountain fortress, Mesad).

The site has been identified by E. Smith and E. Robinson with a rock called by the local inhabitants es-Sebbe.

Masada is a natural fortress in the eastern Judean Desert on the western shore of the Dead Sea, located some fifty m. S of Khirbet Qumran. The upper plateau of the boat-shaped rock covers twenty acres and rises abruptly, almost perpendicularly 440 yards above its surroundings.

The natural advantages of this remote mountain were first recognized by Jonathan the high priest who fortified it (Jos. War, VII. viii. 3). Josephus meant prob. Alexander Jannaeus, a Hasmonaean ruler of Judea (103-76 b.c.) as indicated now by the excavations.

The prominent role of Masada in the history of Judea coincides with the decline of the Hasmonaean dynasty. As from 42 b.c. Masada played an important role in the struggle between the house of Antipater, the father of Herod and the legitimate ruling dynasty. The same year Masada fell to Herod’s followers but remained besieged by the Hasmonaeans for some years, who were conscious of its importance (Jos. War I. vii. 7-9; Antiq. xiv, 6).

Herod kept his family at Masada during the years of his struggle for power in Judea. Only in 39-38 b.c. did he succeed in moving his family to the more secure Samaria (Jos. War I. XIII. 7-9; I. xv. 1, 3, 4; Antiq. XIV. xiii. 8, 9).

After having established his rule in Judea (37 b.c.) Herod began a large scale building scheme of fortresses in Judea to secure his rule internally as well as against any external threat (Jos. War VII. xiii. 7, 8).

Masada prob. was rebuilt around 35 b.c. Herod built there, according to Josephus’ detailed account, casemate walls strengthened with towers, the Palace, cisterns and store rooms (Jos. War I. xv. 1, 3, 4).

Following Herod’s death (4 b.c.) and the exile of his son Archaelaus (a.d. 6), a small Rom. garrison seems to have been established at Masada.

At the beginning of the first war against the Romans, sixty years later, Masada was taken by a group of Zealots (Jos. War II. xvii. 2). Herod’s armories there were broken into and large quantities of weapons were taken to Jerusalem and distributed to the insurgents (Jos. War II. xvii. 8).

For the six following years the community on Masada seems to practice a normal way of life without being seriously involved in the war with the Romans.

This almost impregnable fortress, however, did not escape the fate that fell upon other parts of the country. Two years after the fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70) this last stronghold to survive the war with the Romans had to defend itself against a vast Rom. army. The Tenth legion (Fretensis) with numerous auxiliary forces led by the governor Flavius Silva had been moved to Masada. Eight camps and a circumvallation wall were put up around the fortress. Access to the fortifications of Masada for heavy siege machines was provided by an extensive rampart erected on the western side of the rock (Jos. War VII. viii. 5).

Masada was besieged and attacked for seven months during the autumn of a.d. 72 and the winter and spring of a.d. 73. It was then that the Romans succeeded in creating a breach in the wall. Several attempts by the defenders to check the breach failed and hopes to survive the Rom. attack consequently faded (Jos. War VII. viii. 5). Their leader Elazar Ben Yai’r persuaded his 960 followers—men, women and children—to take their own lives, and to die as free men rather than to be enslaved by the Romans. When the Romans entered the fortress the next day they encountered only seven survivors—two women and five children. All the others took their own lives after having burned their belongings (Jos. War VII. ix. 1, 2).

Masada remained deserted until modern times except for a short interval during the 5th and 6th cent., when a small community of monks settled there and erected a small church and some cells.

Many explorers and scholars have been attracted to this site ever since it was identified almost a cent. and a half ago. Their careful descriptions and observations are of great importance to any further study.

The large-scale excavations that began in 1963 were preceded by two rather small but very important projects. A study of the Rom. camps and siege works was carried out in 1932 by Schulten and Lammerer. A survey and a small-scale excavation were carried out by an expedition headed by Profs. Avi-Yonah, Avigad and Aharoni of the Heb. University during three weeks in 1955 and 1956.

Extensive excavations were undertaken for twelve months in 1963-1965. The work was led by Prof. Y. Yadin under the auspices of the Heb. University, the Israel Exploration Society and the Department of Antiquities of the State of Israel.

Herod’s palaces, store rooms, fortifications and elaborate water supply arrangements known already from Josephus’ writings, besides a well-appointed bath house, were brought to light. The architectural and ornamented elements from this period uncovered at Masada are of the greatest importance for the understanding of the transitional period in architecture and art lying between the Hel. and the Rom. period.

The zealots and their families settled mainly in the casemate walls. The community’s daily life is well attested. Household installations and utensils as well as pieces of furniture and attire were unearthed. A synagogue and some ritual baths also were found. The extremely dry climate helped to preserve organic materials, above all parchment and papyrus. In addition to this, several hundreds ostraca inscribed in Heb. and Aram. as well as some Gr. and Lat. were found.

The scrolls identified so far include fragments of Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Ezekiel and Psalms, as well as apocryphal texts in Heb., namely Ecclesiasticus, a fragment of the Book of Jubilees and a sectarian text comprising vv. from “The Heavenly Sabbath Sacrifices” of a Qumran type.

The uniformity of these fragments found among the burned debris (a.d. 73) with the scrolls found at Qumran point to the connections that must have existed between the Masada community and the Judean desert sect.

Conspicuous remains of the Rom. siege works are scattered around Masada and serve as a reminder of an outstanding ch. in the history of the Jewish people.

Bibliography

A. Schulten, “Masada, die Burg des Herodes und die römischen Lager,” ZDPV, 56 (1933), 1-185; M. Avi-Yonah, M. Avigad, Y. Aharoni et al., “The Archaeological Survey of Masada” 1955-1956, IEJ 7, 1 (1957), 1-60; Y. Yadin, “The Excavations of Masada 1963-64 Preliminary Report,” IEJ 15 (1965); Y. Yadin, “The Ben-Sira Scroll from Masada,” Jerusalem (1965); Y. Yadin, “Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand” (1966).