Massada, Israel

Massada: The Ultimate Jewish Fortress

Corvid perched on a wall of the fortress of Masada
Between columns
Visitor walks past columns on the terrace of Herod's palace
In AD 73, after months of siege, a Roman legion found that the resisters at the top of Masada had committed suicide. Once again Jewish, this fortress is now the supreme symbol of Zionist determination

The cable car gains altitude.

Unveil the inhospitable and yellowish vastness of the Negev Desert and, to the east, the smudge of mist generated by the evaporation of the Dead Sea.

It had crossed our minds to climb the trail that winds along the steep slope on foot, but the summer heat is pressing and discouraging. There are other stops for the rest of the afternoon and even in these biblical and secular settings, time is running out.

Some visitors chose not to resist the appeal and strive to add sensations to the solemn memory of the place. We see them, in the middle of the route, relatively close, but as the cabin approaches the top, their figures almost disappear against the dimension of the plateau.

Cable car, Masada Fortress, Israel

Cable car connecting the Negev desert plain to the heights of the Masada plateau

A semi-suspended platform leads us from the exit of the cable car and, after passing a door carved into the rock, we finally enter the elevated stronghold of Masada where the blue and white flag of Israel immediately stands out.

Masada fortress, Israel

Israeli flag flies on top of Massada

We learned about the configuration of the space. We went on looking for structures that resisted erosion, lost, here and there, in an international crowd of outsiders and guides that make us think that we could also be at the top of the mythical Tower of Babel.

Masada's Remote Judeo-Roman Origin

Until around 103 BC – when it began to be fortified – Masada was nothing more than a small plateau about 400 meters high and almost inaccessible, lost in the immensity of the Negev.

Where other rulers had found nothing of interest, Herod the Great saw a perfect refuge to protect himself both from an eventual Jewish revolt and from the whims of Cleopatra, who by this time yearned to take all Judea from him.

It is said that at their very first meeting, the queen tampered with the Roman maxim Vini, Vidi, Vinci.

Masada fortress, Israel

Corner of Masada endowed with paths dug into the slope.

Marco Antonio arrived and saw. Cleopatra won him over. If the Roman had not dared to do his mistress's complete will, symbolic parts of Herod's subdomain, including his royal plantings of dates and balsam of Jericho and Ein Gedi, had already been offered to him.

At Masada, Herod prepared for future advances by the Egyptian queen.

The Desert Plateau Herod Appalated

The monarch reinforced the defenses of the fortress with casemate walls and towers. It also added barracks, arsenals and warehouses and, in order to ensure that any forced retreat was not spent in discomfort, it also built two luxurious palaces equipped with terraces overlooking the desert and the Dead Sea, thermal baths and swimming pools.

Herod Columns, Masada Fortress, Israel

Visitor walks past columns on the terrace of Herod's palace

Many of these structures have remained recognizable to archaeologists. They feed the visitors' imagination, enriched by the descriptions and explanations of the guides who also make an effort to clarify several associated questions.

These are the cases of complex water storage and supply, the real function of the dovecote and the place where, later, the Romans would come to the top.

The Taking of the Jewish Revolts

Herod died of natural causes in 4 BC. He never got to use his resplendent refuge. In AD 66, the first Jewish revolt against the Romans took place. A group of hit men (extremist zealots who wore sicae, daggers) from Jerusalem, took the fortress from the imperial troops who guarded it.

They found themselves gifted with a varied supply of weapons and ammunition, raw materials that allowed them to build more, as well as grains, oils, wine, dates and gardens that provided fresh food. Also the cisterns that received the rain water turned out to be full.

Seven years later, Masada was still occupied by 960 zealots and Jewish families under Eleazar ben Yair, used as a base for planned attacks on the Romans.

Like almost all visitors, we wonder if the various rectangles visible in the rocky ground around the fortress are traces of Roman military encampments.

The guides summarize for the millionth time, but with enthusiasm, the epic answer to history.

Negev Desert, Dead Sea, Israel

The desolate surface of the Negev Desert and, in the background, the Dead Sea.

Masada. A Stronghold of Resistance that Embarrassed the Romans

For two years, the garrison was the last focus of Jewish insubordination in the region. It resisted the attacks of the Roman legions and humiliated the occupying leaders.

By that time, the governor General Flavius ​​Silva he took over military operations in southern Judea himself and, determined to put an end to the insult, led the march of the Legio X Carregansis from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

Arriving in Masada, he distributed 8000 men in eight camps installed around the base of the mountain and, using Jewish slaves, took advantage of a natural formation to install an earthen ramp along the slope now considered to be the back of the fortress.

Remains of Roman encampment, Masada Fortress, Israel

Geological traces left by the camp of the Roman Legion that had the mission to contain the revolt of Masada.

Roman engineers planned it with a base of 210 meters and a gradient of 1:3. At that point, the ramp needed to evolve only about 140 meters. When the work was completed, a 28 meter siege tower was installed against the wall.

From the top of this tower, Roman gunners could operate their scorpions and ballistae, while a ram destroyed the base of the wall.

The Final Assault on the Jewish Stronghold

About a month after Flavius ​​Silva's arrival at Masada, with the various preparations that the zealots accompanied from the interior having completed, the Romans were ready for the final assault.

The morning they entered the fortress, they found her in silence. When they called the rebels into combat, they found only two women and five children.

Walking visitors, Masada Fortress, Israel

Group of visitors crosses the plateau of Masada

As determined as they were radicals, overnight, the resisters had decided that they would rather kill themselves than be killed or enslaved by the Romans.

They began by sacrificing the women and children and then all the others, until only the commander and ten other men remained, who drew lots among themselves to determine who would kill the rest.

After doing so, the last man set fire to the palace and committed suicide. The five women and children who appeared to the Romans hid from the slaughter in underground water pipes.

Little by little, we investigated every corner of the plateau, including the area where the Roman ramp was erected and partially resisted erosion.

We descend to the lower terrace of Herod's palace and enjoy the view of the desert and the Dead Sea, flown over by flocks of small corvids.

Corvideo, Masada Fortress, Israel

Corvid perched on a wall of the fortress of Masada

The Conversion of Masada into the Supreme Symbol of Jewish Determination

We return to the top and, as we pass through the space that remains of the old synagogue of the Zealots, we come across a semi-retired Bar Mitzvah ritual.

An American Jewish family on vacation in Israel had decided to bind their children with a solemn ceremony above the fortress.

After the rediscovery and archaeological recovery of 1963, more than a religious site, Masada became the ultimate symbol of Zionist determination. The story of the harassment to which the zealots were victims is often used as a representation of the situation in the modern Jewish state.

Accordingly, many Israeli schools organize visits to the fortress as a rite of passage for their children, something as important as learning Hebrew and mathematics.

Balcony, Masada Fortress, Israel

Visitor admires the desolate Negev desert scenery from a balcony of the Masada Fortress.

Several units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carry out the oaths of your new recruits, realized with the renewal of the shouted promise that: “Masada will not fall again”.

We are still at its top when a deafening roar from the south intensifies. Without further warning, an Israeli fighter squadron flies over the Negev Desert to assure him.

The Roman threat may have been left behind but Israel's new Jews are also besieged.

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