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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

The Masada's Last Stand
January 8, 2000

It seems like a place where no one can live. In every direction, the dry hills and valleys are an unvarying shade of beige, with only the bright blue of a shrinking lake to cut the monotony. But nothing grows around this lake, called the Dead Sea, because it is so salty that only a few little-known microorganisms can live there.

An unlikely place for a major tourist attraction, I think, as I stand at the base of a huge hill near the lowest spot on earth! The view is amazing in its vastness and starkness, but that's not the reason people come here. This hill is called the Masada in English, or Metzuda, "stronghold," in Hebrew, and many people say that a visit here is important to understanding the Israeli psyche. There is even a phrase, the "Masada complex," which refers to how strongly the Israeli people relate to the story of the Masada and the message behind it: that it is better to be dead than to be enslaved.

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Looking up at the Masada from nearly the lowest spot on Earth!
A path winds its way up the hill, snaking back and forth, rising over 430 meters, through the rocky beige, to the top of the Masada. But, why should I try to explain this place to you, when it's already been written? Most of what we know about the Masada's history comes from the writings of one historian, a man named Flavius Josephus, who lived in the first century. He's well known because he never let the facts get in the way of a good story. You can read some of what he had to say, while my parents and I get in that cable car and sail to the top of the hill!

"There was a rock, not small in circumference, and very high. It was encompassed with valleys of such vast depth downward, that the eye could not reach their bottoms; they were abrupt, and such as no animal could walk upon, excepting at two places of the rock, where it subsides, in order to afford a passage for ascent, though not without difficulty. Now, of the ways that lead to it, one is that from the lake Asphaltitis, towards the sun-rising, and another on the west, where the ascent is easier: the one of these ways is called the Serpent, as resembling that animal in its narrowness and its perpetual windings; for it is broken off at the prominent precipices of the rock, and returns frequently into itself, and lengthening again by little and little, hath much ado to proceed forward; and he that would walk along it must first go on one leg and then on the other; there is also nothing but destruction in case your feet slip; for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind. When, therefore, a man hath got along this way for thirty furlongs, the rest is the top of the hill, not ending at a small point, but in a plain upon a mountain top." --Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War

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The winding path is steep enough to strike fear in the hearts of ancient writers.  I think I'll take the cable car!
Wow! How on Earth they got the building materials and stores of food and water up to this fortress before the cable car was put in is beyond me! But they did. The Masada was first built as a fortress around 100 BCE (Before Current Era, the way many non-Christians say "BC"). Later that century, during the rule of the Roman King Herod, it was further fortified, and two luxurious palaces and a swimming pool were built on top. Herod feared either a revolt from the local Jews, or that Cleopatra in Egypt would try to take over Judea (as the area was known then). If he had to escape to Masada, he wanted his new digs to be stylish. But come on, dude, a swimming pool on the top of a hill in the middle of a vast desert?! Get serious!
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The remains of King Herod's great fortress.
Mind you, this is the same Herod that ordered all the baby boys killed when he learned that the birth of a new king of the Jews had been written in the stars, when Jesus was born. They say he was a bit crazy. It is also said that he died of syphilis, a horrible disease that turns people a little mad, so perhaps that explains some of his unpleasant eccentricities. After Herod died in the year 4 BCE, the Masada was guarded by a bored garrison of Roman soldiers, which spent a lot of time waiting for something to happen out here in the middle of nowhere. Imagine math class going on forever! Nothing of interest happened for over 70 years! Of course, the Jews were not happy with being under Roman rule all this time, but they put up with it, more or less, until 66 CE (Current Era, another way of saying A.D). That's when the mad Roman emperor Caligula (what's up with all these loco Romans?!) ordered his image to be hung up in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews' most sacred site.


psyche - state of mind
circumference - distance around a circle
subside - sink down
ascent - going upward
precipice - an overhanging rock or cliff
quell - stifle, supress
furlong - 1/8 mile (so 30 furlongs = 3 ¾ miles)
fortified - strengthened
eccentricity - unconventional behavior
garrison - a military post
cistern - a tank for holding and storing rainwater
siege - the surrounding and blockading of a city, town, or fortress by an army attempting to capture it
Diaspora - the dispersion of Jews outside of Israel
BCE - abbreviation for "Before Common Era," referring to time before the Year 1. Also called BC for "Before Christ."
CE - abbreviation for "Common Era," referring to time in Year 1 and later. Also called AD for anno domini, or, informally, "after dead."
zealot - a passionately committed person

Enough is enough! The Jews revolted against Roman rule, and held Jerusalem for four years, until the Romans busted through and destroyed the whole city, including the temple. Then the victorious Romans set about combing the countryside for Jews to enslave or kill.

One group of Jews, who called themselves Zealots for their religious zeal, managed to take the Masada and kill the garrison stationed there. No one knows how they did it. I assume that the garrison, after 70 years of nothing happening, just wasn't paying very close attention. The Zealots, led by a charismatic man named Eleazar ben Yair, probably just sneaked in.

By the year 72 CE, the Zealots at the Masada were the only Jews left free. The Roman General Flavius Silva (played by Peter O'Toole in the movie Masada, if you've seen it) built a wall around the base of the Masada, with eight camps of soldiers. Because it was impossible to attack the fortress (imagine trying to charge up the snake path), the Romans figured they'd starve these Zealots out. After all, it is the middle of the desert. How much food and water could they have up there, anyway?

The answer is, 'a lot.' The Masada had four storerooms of food, enough to last the 967 Zealots for five years . . . kind of like your grandma's pantry, except it had bags of dried wheat and beans, not cans of Campbell's soup and beanie weenies. They also had huge cisterns filled with water from the runoff of the occasional flash floods that hit the area. The Roman garrison had been kind enough to stock the place up, in their free time, before getting killed by the Zealots.

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One of the four enormous cisterns that used to be filled with water from flash floods.
From the top, the view is unbelievable! To the East, I can look across the Dead Sea to the Moab hills in Jordan (The Moab hills in Utah were named after these, maybe because they look similar). In every other direction, dry, beige hills and wadis (valleys) run in every direction. It's beautiful to me now, but I imagine the Zealots got a little sick of it after two years!

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Little wadis (valleys) below! The sunshine plays magically on the sand.
Imagine being stuck at the top of a hill, in the middle of the desert for two years! The Zealots turned Herod's luxurious palace into a dining hall, and in his elaborate baths they built small tubs where the water was re-used over and over; the swimming pool became the mikveh, or ritual bath. One room became a synagogue.

Jewish communities have always had synagogues. Before the year 70 CE, the synagogues were not actually places of worship, though; they were more like community centers. People could go there and talk politics, read, play games, or whatever. But after the second temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the Jews no longer had a place to worship, so the synagogue became that place.

The Zealots were the first and only surviving free community of Jews after the fall of Jerusalem, when the temple was burned. Therefore, some say that this synagogue here is the first synagogue ever! A special room was built for storing the holy books, and those books were found, hidden under the synagogue, when archeologists first excavated the Masada 1900 years after this famous battle.

On the other side of the line, keeping 15,000 soldiers camped out in the scorching hot desert by the Dead Sea is not an easy or a fun task. Silva got tired of waiting, and decided to build a ramp. The western side of the Masada, away from the sea, is at the base of another row of hills, so it is the shortest side. Using rocks and dirt, the Romans started to build a huge ramp up to the Masada. The Zealots attacked the Romans by throwing rocks down on their heads, so the Romans used Jews, captured from other communities, as slave labor and as human shields. Refusing to kill their own people, the Zealots watched the ramp get finished.
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Abeja perched on top of Masada's Roman Camp.
An iron battering machine was rolled up to pound through the external wall. While the Romans were bursting through the wall, the Zealots built a double wall out of wood, with earth in between. When the battering ram hit that wall, the wall just pushed into the earth harder, instead of bursting apart like the stones had.

Fire was all it took to get the new wall down. As their line of defense raged in flame, the Zealots knew it was their last night of freedom. The families gathered together, and their leader Eleazar gave an impassioned speech. He recommended that his followers take their lives rather than surrender to the Romans. Flavius Josephus, the historian, wasn't there; so how he knew the exact words of the speech is a mystery -- he probably made it up. But real or not, it's a moving speech, and here are a few paragraphs of it:

"Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice. We were the very first that revolted from them, and we are the last that fight against them, and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God hath granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom, which hath not been the case of others, who were conquered unexpectedly. It is very plain that we shall be taken within a day's time, but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends...."

"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 would be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fail 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."

--Eleazar's speech, as written by Flavius Josephus in The Jewish War

And so, it was decided. The Zealots destroyed all their belongings so that the Romans would get nothing from them. They left their food, however, so that it would be obvious that they didn't kill themselves because they were starving. They also buried the holy books below the synagogue, since it is against Jewish law to destroy the holy books.

Each man then killed his wife and his children. At least one man must have had pity, because two women and five children hid in a cistern, and lived to tell this horrific tale. The men then drew lots to choose the ten men who would kill the rest. After all were killed and laid out by their families, lots were drawn again. This time, one man was left to kill the others, and then he fell onto his own sword, next to his family.

As the guide tells us this chilling tale, a brisk wind blows across the Masada. I can imagine the eerie silence that greeted the Romans that next morning. They learned the story from the two women, hidden in the cistern, and Flavius Josephus wrote it into history. Today this story is deeply ingrained in the collective memory of all Israelis.

"The Masada will not fall again!" is the oath taken, high up on the Masada when combat troops are sworn in to the Israeli Defense Force (the IDF). It is a symbol of the Jewish people under siege, surrounded by those who want them dead. It is a story of the Jewish people thrown off their land and into a Diaspora. More than just a rock, the Masada is a symbol of the reasons that modern Israel exists, and of a history that the Jewish people vow will never be repeated.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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