Masada: Last Stand

Center map

Digesting a heavy historic “story?” of Masada

Sometimes, I come to periods in time where my brain is absolutely off the chains trying to process something historical that I came across. This too was one of those times. The more I learned the more I went down the rabbit hole of confusion about that is Masada. I first learned of the name “Masada” because I ate in 2 different restaurants named Masada and thought nothing of it initially, until 1 time, in the store, I saw a framed news clipping questioning whether or not about 1,000 Jews killed themselves at a place called Masada. I was like “WTF?” When did THIS happen? Where was this? Why?” My brain was off the charts with questions, as I started to read the piece without any proper historical context to the story – you know, my NORMAL flow 😂🤣

Masada National Park
Masada layout

Masada national Park is hot but not humid

Masada National Park
Made it up

Well, some time passed, and by that point I had completely forgotten about this whole topic, until I had an opportunity to go to the place where this Masada story occurred! I read the offer for a tour and saw that name “Masada” but couldn’t remember where I had seen it before. I saw the picture of the location with the Dead Sea in the background, which matched the picture I remembered from the framed news clipping, and I immediately asked to get that tour booked! I almost couldn’t sleep the night before, and didn’t want to spoil the story for myself by getting online and reading about the whole event, which normally spoils any tour I go on if I do so, so, I waited for the tour. I DID however read some stuff that I will address later in the piece, about its credibility. Nonetheless, I suggest that it is always best to hear a guide tell you the story because they convey the story with context and emotion, and if you have any questions, they are there to answer them for you. I booked the tour, and on the bus ride, the guide began to take us through the story by telling us about the surrounding desert areas. I wanted to know, since our path along the Dead Sea, what this huge mountain situated to the west of the Dead Sea was. It has this holy light coming from the sky surrounding it. It was pretty cool! As we got closer to the mountain, I wrote some of my Israeli buddies about the tour, and they answered “oh good, you’re going to hike up the Masada?! Perfect! Enjoy. You can’t take a car to the top, you know this, right?”  HIKE? Hell Nooo I was not in any mood to hike, and as I was thinking that, the tour guide pointed to the mountain and said “THAT is where we are going”. I looked at that huge mountain and said aloud “NO! Not today… it is 45 degrees Celsius outside (112 degrees Fahrenheit)!” Couldn’t I just get the mobile version?? We were now at the Judaean Desert, and I was not trying to get out of that air-conditioned bus to get into 44 degrees Celsius weather! People laughed, I was mostly serious, at the point. 😒🤣

Masada National Park
Masada mesa panoramic

The “Masada” was that huge, 400-meter mountain we were going to, and we were going to summit the mesa, to see an ancient fortress, also named the Masada. Masada, or Metsada, means “strong support” in Hebrew, so, it was certainly a fit name for the scene. I was really excited and pumped, so, I just decided that I couldn’t turn back now, and I would just have to slug it out with the weather. I stepped out of the bus and immediately started to SWEAT! Pouring sweating. Everyone was sweating. Uhhh like BAD and I had already drunk half of the water I brought before we even started to make it to the visitor center. It was going to be a LONG day… and you can’t get the bus up to the top? Uhhh Well I was completely relieved when I saw, in the corner, a cable car going up the mountain! A cable car!! Brilliant!  We get to the top, I was suddenly NOT sweating. I was thinking I was bugging out or something. I mean, I drank the night before so now that was coming out of my pores! Not good, but up top, I stopped sweating completely. Something was completely odd there, we were in the desert and it as 44 Celsius, but now the air is not moist, it was dry air. This was actually perfect now, I could enjoy that tour, all I needed to do was put on some sun tan lotion… oh wait, I had none! UHHHH

Masada National Park
This area couldn’t be restored

The ‘Roman*’ King of Judea???

Masada National Park
The Northern Palace structure facing out on Judea and Dead Sea

The story goes like this, there was a kingdom right there in the Judaean desert where the Dead Sea is. From 37 to 4 Before Common Era, there was a “King of Judea*”, who ruled the “Herodian kingdom”, named Herod the Great, born in Palestine. People hearing to story of Herod seem to think he is Roman but he was NOT Roman, he was Arab and his father converted to Judaism, thus Herod was practicing Judaism. He was, however, an appointee by the Roman Empire, to rule over Judea, which is why people mistakenly think he was a Roman. He built 3 fortified palaces/castles up on Masada (fortresses in case of revolts), along with aqueducts, theaters, the infamous Second Temple in Jerusalem, and more. Some sources will say 2 palaces but including his own, there were 3 (Western, Northern and Herod’s). He did so many things in the “style” of the Romans, that is why people swear he was Roman. That connection with Rome come from his father’s business ties to the Roman Empire, so much so that Julius Caesar himself know the family personally. That’s because Caesar gave Herod’s father a favorable position in Palestine, made him an honorary Roman citizen too, after the Romans invaded Palestine back in 63 Before Common Era. Herod’s father was in heavy support of this occupation of his people’s own land, and his family was rewarded in return, so, the privilege increased from there. Shortly after, Roman general Mark Anthony made Herod governor of Galilee, which was 10 years before Heron would be put into the King’s position. Before his Kingship, a civil war broke out in Palestine and Herod scattered quickly to Rome, where he was crowed “King of Judea”, and was granted an army to go back and clear out anyone who opposed him back in Judea. He ruled as King of Judea for 32 years! That bit of history is why many mistakenly think Herod is actually of Roman heritage. Herod is a very important figure as he is actually the ruler of Judea in the Book of Mathew, a savage tyrant in the New Testament. These stories are backed by his return to Judea with that full army to overthrow the king of Judea at that time. He was very distrustful of everyone, especially of Jewish descendants. He built those 2 palaces on top of Masada in case anyone tried to revolt and did manage to get the upper hand on him, where he could barricade himself and be able to defend. For a look of how the mesa was organized originally, you can click here for the map.

Storied past
True or false in 2020?

Modern Conflict Time!

Masada National Park
A lot of Masada had to be restored, of course, so you’ll see mixtures like this

Now, here is a bit of conflict in the story of Herod. It turned out that spot on Masada, which he took over as a strategic point and has his name all over it in the history books and tagged it as “first”, was first occupied by a Jewish group known as the “Hasmoneans”. This would mean that Jewish people proved the land FIRST, which would be in the years 140 to 37 Before Common Era. This very claim came from 1 key person, the ONLY person to record any of the Masada information at the time, an ancient Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius. The Hasmoneans absolutely controlled this area of Judea until it was taken over by Romans! The Romans slowly but surely made their control throughout the time that the Hasmoneans were in rule, it’s just that the Romans were pulling the strings behind the scenes with Hasmonean kings still ruling up until the time of Herod the Great, when he overthrew the last Hasmonean king and just took the throne with Roman Empire backing. He was officially the new puppet of the Roman Empire, so he would receive any support he needed to expand the Empire’s control. The true nature of Herod is in question as that same historian Josephus first wrote completely favorably about Herod initially, then made him the worst possible personality in his later works. I think the latter is the most important as it was the most recent account of Herod, as people do change, Herod changed for the worst, especially with any types suppression of Jews voicing discontent with his ways, from embedding spies to using his personal army to cause physical harm to any Jews who expressed worry. He suppressed Jewish culture while at the same time he overly promoted the Roman culture, overtaxing Jews and then financing all of those fancy architecture, and even the famous Second Temple in Jerusalem, along with his lavish lifestyle, which infuriated Jews under his rule. None of this sat well with Jews, who were now planning on overthrowing Herod, in the back of their minds, they just needed the numbers in terms of support.

Masada National Park
Area leading to zealots’ synagogue

By the time it was 66 Anno Domini, a couple of important moves were made. A leader by the name of Menahem rose to power and would lead huge strategic strikes against the Romans in Jerusalem’s area, destroy Roman camps, Roman structures like that infamous Second Temple (remember the controversial one that Herod made earlier which really pissed off Jews?), taking the Governor’s palace there and executing the high priest, giving Jews hope for removing Romans from the area, what we called, today, the “Great Jewish Revolt”. The revolt was squashed by the Romans, most notably led by the son of the high priest that Menahem had executed, Eleasar, and that put 967 Jewish “Zealots” on the run, who mostly went to Masada, or some were killed, and Menahem, who was caught in a different area, Ophla, was publicly murdered. The zealots failed to get more recruits, as many Jews did not join these rebels, so the little who did combine did manage to make it back to Masada. After Menahem’s death, the extremist group the Sicarii lead the grouping of all Jewish rebels to successfully wrestle control away from the Romans, right up there on top of Masada. As a result of the Great Jewish Revolt, the Romans also threw Jewish groups out of Jerusalem, so this gave Jews the opportunity to bond and build there up on Masada, using the location as a central base for future attacks on anyone who didn’t support their views. By 70 Anno Domini, Jerusalem had fallen and was destroyed, which gained even more Jewish rebel support for Masada. Jerusalem’s destruction also marked a major loss for the Romans, and now they were coming for the rebels who were camped at Masada. 72 Anno Domini, led by Flavius Silva, 8000+ Roman soldiers set up multiple settlements to surround the huge mountain of Masada. Side note, back then, if you were a prisoner of war, you HAD to fight in the army of whomever captured you. So, if you put the numbers together, Romans used Jews they captured to fight AGAINST the rebels too, so that means 15,000 Roman-led combatants vs 967 Jewish rebels! The Romans didn’t know how to pierce Masada though. That cable car that I loved so much, on my tour, wasn’t there. All that was there was “the snake”, the winding road all they way up to Masada. Clearly the Romans couldn’t and wouldn’t successfully pierce the mountain using this route. So, they made the surrounding camps, and they made a RAMP towards the side of the mountain*!

Masada National Park
Western wall where the breach occurred
Masada National Park
Roman activities from the West

Ok, that part is up for debate in modern times too, because a fellow tour person disputed this ramp being this great feat of modern engineering by the Romans. I surely took to the Internet to see if this was true, and apparently that IS a big debate/debunking , as many have claimed that ramp was a natural ramp that was already on the western side of the mountain, which is why the Romans were there in the first place, giving the Romans the access to Masada that they desperately needed! The rebels were led by Eleazar Ben Yair, at the time, who organized them efficiently, but their backs were now to the wall, as they were now trapped up on top of Masada. What we DO know is true is that the Romans did build a wooden tower on top the ramp, which stood 600 meters (just under 2,000+ feet) high by 62 meters (200+ feet) wide. The romans equipped a battering ram to do away with the wall of Masada. Picture that, it also is a major source of debate. That ramp’s towers were destroyed over and over by the rebel defenders but this extension of the ramp would prove to be their most significant engineering breakthrough to literally break through grip of the Jewish rebel forces, on top of Masada. The Romans failed time and time again, previous to the creation of the tower/ramp, and after months of failure, by spring of 73 Anno Domini, the siege wall was completed and the Jews knew that the Romans would now pierce Masada. The Romans knew that the Jews would run out of food and water, at some point, but they didn’t expect that Jews to be so stacked with both that they could last so long up there. Very smart moves by the rebels.  

Masada: Fact or Fiction????

Masada Siege
North Palace down view looking out on Roman camp (the square engraving just above center on the ground)
Masada National Park
Above the lines on the walls are the restored sections

What happened next, after the Romans made it to the top of Masada, is huge source of debate, one that my tour guide would not entertain with the ‘informed’ travlers. Remember, Eleazar Ben Yair was the leader of Masada and was in charge of directing people, and everyone would surely listen to whatever commands Ben Yair asked of the inhabitants of Masada. The debate here is how/why the Jews died up on top of Masada. First, it is said that Ben Yair told everyone to burn everything up there on Masada when the Romans were breaking through. Some argue that the Romans burned everything down, and not the Jews. Well, there is a problem here. Judaism strictly forbids suicide, so, the most credible story that my guide and many other lead with is that Ben Yair required the inhabitants of Masada to evade capture or killing by the Romans by killing each other, in a way that would be a “mass suicide” except it’s not suicide because you would NOT be killing oneself, instead you’d be killing your ‘assigned’ Jewish neighbor, until someone else eventually killed you. The last man standing has to kill himself, only 1 person would be breaking Judaism laws under this theory. The Jews did not want to be enslaved nor give the Romans victory by allowing themselves to be killed by the Romans. Josephus recorded this story, but historians argue support of Josephus’ stories don’t add up. For instance, Josephus’ account for how many palaces/castles were up on Masada was revealed to not be accurate, because he said only 1 existed up there; however, 2 were found in later excavations. In fact, the whole story of what happened at Masada was told by Josephus and 2 surviving, Jewish women (+ 5 children, who were instructed to hide out in the cisterns up on top of Masada by Ben Yair). IMO, I want to believe that they instructed the neighbor to kill the next neighbor, not self-suicide. Suicide makes no sense for proud, God worshiping people!  But it the controversy does not stop there.

H”istory is Written by Victor”

Masada National Park
Masada example of a residence with baths

Again, that is a MAJOR source of debate because the historical evidence contradicts what Josephus said. Another interesting fact about Mr Flavius Josephus was that he was a Roman commander who led wars against the rebels, previously. Hmmm If you want to read the full account from Josephus, you can read his writings in “THE WARS OF THE JEWS”. Well, “History is Written by Victor” is a famous line also quoted by Winston Churchill, although he did not make it up, the history books are loaded with “stories” normally created by whomever won the right to print it first. Remember, that commander who lead the Roman siege, Flavius Silva? You know he also had a hand in this story telling after the fact, as well. Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin did a study from the excavations in 1963 but this failed to confirm or deny what Josephus said, and then later, Yadin went WITH the claims of Josephus, and the story stood. He is responsible for most of the things said on the tour, I later found out. It was Yadin’s work that found pieces of ostraca, with names printed on them, which ONLY HE atributed (by assuming) to being your ‘KILL-LIST’ for whomever you were assigned to kill, in that mass killing. One of the pieces of ostraca contained Ben Yair’s name. However, there is nothing to support Yadin’s claim, and the tour guide definitely told me this Yadin flavor of the story. To make matters worse, today, what is even more disputed is that the whole Siege of Masada ever happened, by top Israeli scholars like Haim Goldfus! WTF??! The recent debunking is claiming that there is no blood trace there at Masada to match the just under 1,000 people who supposedly died there. They are also tearing down the physics behind the battering ram and how it wouldn’t be able to break through the wall and there was no running space, or force, to be able to do this on the ramp’s tower! The number of Jews (967) that were self-slain at Masada is disputed because only 28 bodies were retrieved, and only 3 of the bodies recovered (a FAMILY) were in the palace, where Josephus claimed ALL 967 Jews were killed. The other 25 found were all found in a CAVE! Josephus mentions no cave! 14 of the bodies found in the cave were older males and were completely different in bodily, structural build than were any other remains found. Who were these 14 males? Roman soldiers??? They also found Pig bones up there in Masada, but SWINE WAS FORBIDDEN in the religion, plus there was a synagogue up there so the Jewish rebels wouldn’t have brought that up there. So that’s crazy too! Who were those bodies??!!! I’m telling you, this is one confusing but exciting controversy worth visiting!!!

Masada National Park
I will hike it next time though

This last stand by Jews, at Masada, not only makes a really excellent story to be proud of, but also to keep as a reminder of what never to allow to happen again. This last stand at Masada was followed by Jews being sold into slavery all around the Mediterranean! So, exactly what they feared would happen if they were to be captured on top of Masada, DID factually happen to many other Jews in the region. Then, 2 centuries later, Muslims moved into the evacuated regions. As a mark of symbolism, it’s very heroic and this story must stand intact. Some debate the “heroism” of this story as it is a very different turn than something like a story of “300” Spartans fighting to the death. Some would say to fight to the death is the best method of heroism, but think about it, your enemy kills you then he goes on to brag about how he kills you and gets parades and everything because YOUR ENEMY took your life. Well, the story of Masada’s exit strategy gives Romans no such great victory, other than revenge for Jerusalem, after years + 3 months additional of building that tower on the ramp. And the mass self-killings by themselves is the finish for all of those efforts? That was a very unique ending of robbing the Romans of their “victory.” I’m here for that thumbing of the nose at the oppressors! Whether or not you believe the story as actual historic evidence, I don’t like people trying to take away this source of pride and heroism. I read the evidence, I don’t know what’s what, I wasn’t there then, I went there recently and I just don’t know. Still, don’t try to historically step-on their heroes, man!

If it is true that “History Is Written By The Victors”, if this “story” has survived this long, then who does that make the Victors! 👍