The cliff top fortress of Masada is located about 30 miles southeast of Jerusalem. Rising 450 meters above the shores of the Dead Sea, at the western end of the Judean Desert, it provides a natural defensive position with steep mountains on all sides.
A fortress is believed to have existed on the site since the time of Jonathan Maccabeus in the 2nd century BCE and it is known that Herod the Great, King of Judaea (37-4 BCE) fled to it in 42 BCE when the Parthians took Jerusalem. Realising the strategic importance and security aspects, between 37 – 31 BCE Herod enclosed the plateau with a wall and defensive towers. He also constructed a palace, storerooms and ancillary buildings to provide a refuge should he be deposed by the former Jewish royal house or in the event of an Egyptian invasion.
From 6 to 66 CE it was a post of the Roman Army but in 66 CE the Garrison was taken by surprise by a group of Zealots, a Jewish sect that opposed domination by Rome. Following the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE, a band of Jewish patriots under Ele’azar Ben-Yair fled to Masada, determined to continue the struggle against Rome from the mountain fortress.
In 73 CE, Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion, auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war, and, establishing his camps at the base of Masada, built a wall around the fortress laying siege to it. A rampart of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth was constructed - by Jewish slaves - against the western approaches of the fortress and, in the spring of 74 CE, a battering ram was moved up the ramp to breach the wall of the fortress.
They broke the stone wall, but to combat the battering ram the Zealots constructed another wall - of earth and wood – that was flexible and hard to break. This, the Romans set on fire and left to burn overnight, resulting in the collapse of the wall. The Zealots chose to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. Therefore, the following day, when the Romans entered the fortress, they found all the defenders dead.
Masada was briefly reoccupied by the Jews in the 2nd century CE and was the site of a Byzantine church and a retreat for monks in the 5th–6th century. It was occupied briefly during the Crusades, but was then abandoned.
The site was identified in 1838 by Americans Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, and in 1842, American missionary Samuel W. Wolcott and the English painter W. Tipping were the first people for centuries to climb it. The initial excavations were carried out in 1955–56, with extensive excavations being carried out during the period of 1963-65. Although the buildings have been reconstructed the, original height pre-existing when renovation started was marked by a black line.
In the 20th century Masada became a symbol of Jewish national heroism and was the place where members of their armed forces were taken to swear allegiance. Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 and is now one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions. Today the fortress has a visitor centre with access to the plateau being via the snake paths or by cable car.
Much of our knowledge of the events during the siege comes to us from an account by historian Flavius Josephus who relates what was told him by two surviving women who were found hiding after the Romans entered the fortress: “The defenders – almost one thousand men, women and children – led by Ben-Yair, burnt down the fortress and killed each other. The Zealots cast lots to choose 10 men to kill the remainder. They then chose among themselves the one man who would kill the survivors. That last Jew then killed himself”.
There are however, a number of discrepancies between Josephus' writings and archaeological findings. According to archaeological findings many buildings show fire damage, yet Josephus mentions only one which was subjected to fire. He claims that 960 people were killed, while the remains of only 28 bodies have been found, although both of these can be explained.
The plateau on which the fortress is built is flat and measures 600 x 300 metres. The casemate wall (two parallel walls with partitions dividing the space between them into rooms), is 1400 metres long and 4 metres wide. The wall consisted of 70 rooms, 30 towers and four gates. It was built along the edge of the plateau, above the steep cliffs. It was in this wall that most of the Zealots were housed.
The fortress has three narrow, winding paths leading to fortified gates, the width of the paths enabled the defenders to prevent any force from gaining access. The steep slopes of the mountain made Masada virtually unassailable.
The fortress contained a network of large, rock-hewn cisterns on the north-western side of the hill. These filled during the winter with rainwater from the mountain while 12 large cisterns on the summit could hold all together about 40 thousand cubic metres of water.
The buildings had thick walls constructed of layers of hard dolomite stone, covered with plaster. The higher northern side of Masada was densely built up with structures serving as the administrative centre of the fortress and included storehouses, a large bathhouse and comfortable living quarters for officials and their families.
The Storehouse Complex consisted of two rows of long halls opening onto a central corridor. The roofing consisted of wooden beams covered with hard plaster. On excavation, the original floor of the storerooms was found to be covered with a thick layer of ashes and charred beams - the clear evidence of the destruction by Zealots, to prevent the supplies from falling into the hands of Romans. A large numbers of broken storage jars which once contained oil, wine, grains and other foodstuffs were found here.
The fortress also contains a Large Bathhouse consisting of a courtyard surrounded by porticos and several rooms. These had mosaic or tiled floors and some had frescoed walls. The largest of the rooms was the hot room (caldarium). Its suspended floor was supported by rows of low pillars, to allow hot air from the furnace outside to circulate under the floor and through clay pipes along the walls, in order to heat the room.
The largest building at Masada is the Western Palace which is located along the centre of the western casemate wall, near the main gate. It served as the main administration centre of the fortress, as well as the King’s ceremonial palace. It consists of four wings: an elaborate royal apartment, a service and workshop section, storerooms and an administrative building. In the royal apartment, many rooms were built around a central courtyard. Its walls were decorated with panels of white stucco. On the eastern side were several rooms with coloured mosaic floors. One of these, the largest room, has a particularly decorative mosaic floor with floral and geometric patterns. This room may have been King Herod’s throne room for when he was in residence at Masada.
The synagogue consisted of four tiers of plastered benches along the walls, with columns supporting the ceiling. The synagogue is considered to be the best example of the early synagogues which predate the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
The Northern Palace was located on the northern edge and was separated from the fortress by a wall, providing privacy and security. This consists of three terraces, luxuriously built, with a narrow, rock-cut staircase connecting them. On the upper terrace, several rooms served as living quarters; in front of them is a semi-circular balcony with two concentric rows of columns. The rooms were paved with black and white mosaics in geometric patterns.
The two lower terraces were believed to have been used for entertainment and relaxation. The middle terrace had two concentric walls with columns, covered by a roof; this created a portico around a central courtyard.
The lowest, square terrace has an open central courtyard, surrounded by porticos. Its fluted, Corinthian columns were covered with plaster. The lower parts of the walls were covered in frescos of multi-coloured geometrical patterns or painted to look like cut marble. Also on this terrace was a small private bathhouse, this contained debris covering the skeletons of a man, woman and a child.
Within the fortress, eleven small ostraca were uncovered, each bearing a name. One reads "ben Yai’r" and is believed to have represented Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the commander of the fortress. It has been suggested that the other ten names are those of the men chosen by lot to kill the others and then themselves, as recounted by Josephus. Prior to the fall everything was burnt except the stores – to let the Romans know that it was not hunger which led the defenders to commit suicide.