Masada (Hebrew: מצדה from the word Metzuda for fortress - also spelled Metzada, Masadah, Massada) - a mountain fortress overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea where Jewish Sicarii insurgents held out for three years against the Romans after the fall of Jerusalem in 70C.E. and then committed mass mutual murder (amounting to suicide) to avoid capture. The stand of the Sicarii zealots at Masada has been turned into a symbol of Jewish heroism by modern Zionism.
The only extant ancient source about Masada is the account by Josephus Flavius. Josephus himself had escaped a suicide pact by deception and was anxious to appease his Roman hosts. He wrote in ambiguous terms about Masada, its defenders and the entire Jewish revolt. There is no way to know how much of this reflects the facts, and what is a function of his own bias. The basic facts of the Josephus narrative have been verified by the archeological investigations of Yigal Yadin conducted from 1963 to 1966.
Geography of Masada
Masada is situated on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Masada made an ideal site for fortification - an elevated plateau overlooking the Dead Sea and surrounded by sheer cliffs. The cliffs to the east of Masada are about 1,300 feet (400 m) high, towering over the depression of the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world. Those to the west are about 300 feet (90 m) high. The top of the hill is a flat, rhomboid-shaped plateau, about 1,800 feet (550 m) by 900 feet (275 m). There was a fortified wall around the plateau totaling 4,300 feet (1.3 km) long and 12 feet (3.7 m) thick, with many towers. The fortress included storehouses, barracks, an armory, at least two large palaces and some additional buildings identified as small palaces, ritual baths, a synagogue and cisterns that were refilled by rainwater. Most of these features were described by Josephus Flavius and verified by the archeological expedition of Yigal Yadin. Three narrow, steep and winding paths led from below up to fortified gates. The fortress had a commanding view of all paths.
A plan of Masada is shown below, as it was mapped out by the Yadin expedition, including later Byzantine remains.
History of Masada
Archeological evidence indicates that the site of Masada has been inhabited since Calcolithic times (c 4000 BCE ). According to Josephus Flavius (Jewish Wars 7:285) Masada was first fortified by "the High Priest Jonathan" and it was he who named it Masada. "Jonathan" may have been the brother of Judah Maccabee or he may have been King Alexander Yanai.
The only mentions of Masada in surviving ancient writings are in Josephus Flavius and in Pliny's natural history, where it is briefly mentioned as a "fortress on a rock, not far from lake Asphaltites" in Book 5. ref
According to Josephus, the Judean king Herod the Great had to flee Jerusalem with his family in 40 BCE. He fled to Masada and when the revolt had been put down with Roman help, Herod built fortifications and palaces of Masada from about 37 BCE to 31 BCE, to provide a virtually impenetrable fort protected on all sides by geography.
In the year 66, as part of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, Masada was captured by the Sicarii faction of the Zealots under the leadership of one Menahem, son of Yehudah the Galilean, who overcame the Roman garrison there (Jewish Wars, Book 2:408, 433). Menahem returned to Jerusalem and was assassinated there. Command was given to Eleazar Ben Yair Ben Yehudah, evidently the nephew of Menahem. According to Josephus, these zealots were a faction called the Sicarii, who were reputed by their enemies to be political assassins who used knives (hence the derivation of their name) and who had split from the other zealots and the rest of the Jewish community. The Sicarii garrison was augmented by Sicarii zealots fleeing Jerusalem in 70. According to Josephus, these Sicarii fled Jerusalem before it fell, as they were expelled by other Jews.
Josephus notes that the Sicarii raided surrounding countryside continually, though he mentions only one town that was raided by name, Ein Gedi :
In modern terms, the Masada garrison was conducting a guerilla war and stirring up the countryside. The above is an important passage. It explains the importance that the Romans attached to destroying the Jewish force in Masada, and it shows that the revolt was not really over at this time, as "all the other regions of Judea that had hitherto been at rest were in motion." This impression is further reinforced by this account of the clash between Simon son of Giora (Shimon bar Giora) an ally of the Sicarii and the Idumeans:
There is no doubt that the Sicarii were a threat to Roman rule, no matter what the nature of their predations. In the fall of 72 or 73 the Romans besieged Masada and built a ramp on the west side and an additional circumvallation wall to prevent the escape of the defenders and preclude interference with their siege works. The works and camp indicate an extensive operation, the more impressive because all supplies food and water for the approximately 10,000 legion soldiers and auxiliary troops had to be brought from a distance.
960 Sicarii under their leader Eleazar Ben Yair (also called Eleazar Ben Simon) withstood a siege by the Roman tenth legion (Fretensis) that was actively pursued for four to eight months. During this time, the Romans built a huge ramp from the west approach that allowed them to reach up to Masada and break in. One recent researcher ref suggests that the in fact most of the 375 foot high (114 m) ramp was a natural bedrock incline, and that the Romans only needed to build 30 feet above it (9.1m) in order to reach the Masada walls. This would greatly reduce the amount of construction needed. If it were true however, it would be difficult to explain why the Romans would invest Masada with an entire legion, numbering perhaps 10,000 in all with auxiliaries and slaves, in order to conquer a fortification that was easy to reach and that was defended by a small force. There were about 960 defenders on Masada in all, including women and children. According to Josephus, however, the natural outcropping was 300 cubits below the walls of Masada. A Roman cubit was about 17.5 inches. ref The siege was conducted with the aid of extensive constructions:
Josephus does not record that the defenders offered any active resistance to the Roman siege, though they constructed a defense wall against the Roman siege engine. This defense could not be broken by ramming, which compacted it and made it stronger. Therefore, as it was mostly of wood, it was set alight. The wind first blew against the Romans and threatened to destroy their siege engines by fire, but it then turned again against Masada and fire destroyed the defenses.
According to Josephus Flavius, Eleazar Ben Yair, leader of the zealots, supposedly gave this speech:
"My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God, who alone is the true and righteous Lord of men: now the time has come that forces us to prove our determination by our deeds. At a time like this, we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it: we must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. For we were the first of all to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case it is evident that day-break will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honorable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle."
Eleazar ordered that all the 960 Sicarii Zealots were to be killed. That speech being insufficient to motivate the entire assembly, Josephus relates that Eleazar made a second speech.
Supposedly, 10 men killed the others then one of the remaining ten killed the rest, and then he committed suicide. This was to avoid, insofar as possible, actual suicide, which is contrary to Jewish law. When the Romans breached the defenses of Masada, they were amazed to find all the defenders dead. Seven people - two women and five children, survived by hiding in an underground cavern (not necessarily a cistern as related in some accounts). The Romans entered Masada on April 16 (apparently that is the equivalent date) of 73 or 74. (Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars Book 7, 9:1) ref ref
The story of Masada is not mentioned in the Talmud. The Talmud does discuss the Roman revolt, but it is generally unsympathetic to the revolts and in particular to the Sicarii.
Many of the buildings in Masada were damaged in earthquakes. In the fifth and sixth centuries it was settled by Byzantine monks who built a small church with a beautiful mosaic floor.
Archeological Excavations of Masada
The site of Masada was identified in 1838 by the American explorers Robinson and Smith. They viewed the rock of Masada, called El-Sabba by the Arabs, through a telescope from Ein Gedi. Masada was visited in 1842 by the American missionary S. W. Wolcott and a painter named Tipping, and subsequently by the American Naval expedition of 1848. In 1850, F. de Soulcy drew the first plan of Masada. As part of the Palestine survey, C. Warren recorded in 1867 that he had climbed Masada from the East, along what he believed to be the snake path, and C.R. Conder drew fairly accurate plans of Masada in 1875.
The Roman camps around Masada were studied in detail in 1909 by A.V. Domaszewski and R. E. Bruennow. Numerous others followed. Israelis initiated several studies of Masada before it was excavated by Yadin. S. Guttman and A. Alon traced the correct route of the snake path and studied the water system in 1953. Two large scale surveys were conducted. The first in 1955 was headed by M. Avi-Yonah and N. Avidad, and the second was headed by Y. Aharoni. From 1963 to 1965 Masada was excavated by a team under Yigael Yadin. Yadin's was the major archeological study of Masada. It provided a wealth of information about Jewish customs of the Zealot period, the earlier and later inhabitants and the history and beliefs of the Sicarii.
Masada as a Symbol in Zionist Ideology
The story of Masada was virtually forgotten in Jewish tradition until modern times. Few Jews read Josephus Flavius, and the rabbinical tradition was opposed to revolt, which had cost so many lives. In modern times, Masada had gotten favorable mention in the writings of Berdichevski, and it was taken up as a symbol by the extreme right wing ideologue Aba Ahimeir. In 1923, a translation of Josephus' Jewish Wars was published. The story of Masada now began to catch the imagination of Hebrew writers. Beginning in 1923, part of Yitzhak Lamdan's Epic Poem "Masada" were published, the whole being published in 1927. Masada of the poem was not, at that time, meant literally to refer to the epic of resistance and suicide. Masada was rather viewed as a last refuge - a fort that would protect the Jewish people from the gathering storm of European persecution. Masada was an allegory for the Jewish settlement in Palestine.
Lamdan wrote: "Open your gate Massada, and I, the refugee, shall enter!" and concluded: "Masada shall not fall again" (Sheynit Masada lo tipul - שנית מסדה לא תיפול ). The latter line became a slogan not only of the the extreme right, but of all the youth movements. In the 30s, Masada became a favorite hiking destination for youth movements, because of the challenge of the climb, and because some reconstruction work had made the hike a bit easier.
With the coming of World War II however, Masada began to have a new symbolism. In mandatory Palestine, British authorities began to contemplate abandoning Palestine to the Nazis. Zionist leaders of the Yishuv began to contemplate a 'heroic last stand.' (Shapira, 1992, p 313). The very first book of the Am Oved publishing house, was an anthology of stories of Jewish heroism, which, as editor Berl Katznelson noted, had always been hopeless heroism, since the end of the Second Temple. Yisrael Galili used this book as a device for evoking heroism. He called the theme, "Masada throughout the generations." Organized hikes to the peak of Masada were presently institutionalized and became the object of projects involving all the youth movements, at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942. The story of Masada was said to be a major inspiration for the ghetto uprisings, especially the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The coincidence that both the suicide of Masada and the last battle of the Warsaw Ghetto took place around Passover was noted as well.
In two seasons, Yigal Yadin excavated Masada between 1963 and 1965. The excavations showed that the physical description of Masada provided by Josephus Flavius was very close to the actual geography and architecture. They could not verify every detail of the Josephus story of course, nor could they conclusively contradict it. Yadin, anxious to obtain government backing for archeological projects, did not contradict some of the more florid government press releases and booklets, though his own books and publications were usually more conservative in interpreting the finds and their meaning. Here indeed, Yadin had found ritual baths, storehouses with signs of burning, Roman camps, human remains, and what might be the Ostrakha used to draw lots for the final suicide.
Such a wealth of findings in such detail must be considered fair corroboration of an ancient historical account. Nothing that Yadin found directly contradicted the original story of Josephus Flavius except that the warehouses appeared to have been completely burnt. But the date at which the contents were burnt is not known. There no possibility of corroborating or refuting every detail in Josephus, nor is the account of Josephus, as we have seen, very detailed.
Problems and Gaps in the Masada Story
Josephus's story is sparing and probably biased and incorrect in at least some details, though the archeological findings of the Yadin expedition bore out major features of the story. There was a fort, there were defenders. Human remains were found of a few dozen individuals, but not of the over 900 persons. Ostrakha (bits of potsherds) inscribed with names were found in one location, which Yadin believed were those used in drawing the lots. They included the name of Ben Yair, possibly Eleazar Ben Yair. But there 11 of them rather than ten. Numbers of other ostrakha were found as well, and these may have been used for many purposes. Storehouses of food were found. At least some of these had been burnt, though not necessarily by defenders. The speech of Eleazar Ben-Yair stated that the food would be spared.
The account of Josephus Flavius has the Romans reach the wall of Masada by the evening of April 15, but they do not enter Masada, according to Josephus, until April 16. Shaye Cohen suggests that this is a very strange way of proceeding, since it gives the defenders time to recover and prepare further defenses before the final attack. He suggests that Josephus invented the delay is give Eleazar ben Yair a chance to give his speeches and to have the dramatic suicide pact. Actually, Cohen believes, there was no suicide pact and the defenders may have fought the Romans piecemeal or surrendered.ref Since we have have no information on this point however, it is equally possible to claim that the Romans wanted to enter in daylight, when there would be less chance for ambush.
There is no account in Josephus Flavius of any action by the besieged defenders against the besieging Romans or any attempt to escape before the investment or resistance during the investment. If Flavius Silva went to the expense and trouble of building a four mile circumvallation wall with towers and guardposts to prevent escape of the defenders, it is reasonable to suppose that defenders had escaped or attempted to escape, but no such attempts are recorded. This is in marked contrast to Josephus' other accounts of sieges, where each sally is detailed. It is hard to believe there was no resistance. If the defenders had not repulsed Roman attacks, surely the Romans would not have found it necessary to build either the wall nor the ramp. Flaming oil, rocks and missiles could have been used the besiegers, as well as escape sallies.
The two women who survived in the cave are questionable features of the story. It is unlikely that nobody would have missed them, especially as Josephus relates that one of them was a kinswoman of Eleazar.
The speeches of Eleazar Ben Yair, like all speeches in ancient histories, are almost certainly a fabrication. There were no means of recording the speech. If the women were hiding in a cistern, it is unlikely that they heard it in full or remembered it. Even if they did, it is unlikely that the Roman soldiers who heard the speech from them wrote down or remembered every word. However, neither speech is like, as some allege, like the speech that Josephus Flavius himself gave at Jotapata, for the latter was an injunction against suicide. (Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars, Book 3, 8:5) The style is necessarily the same, however, because there is no doubt that the speeches, like nearly all such speeches in ancient historical documents, were the authors' idea of what sort of things ought to have been said or could be said on such occasions.
We cannot be at all certain that Josephus Flavius' account of Masada is unbiased, or that he gives a true rendition of the importance of the fortress or the activities and character of the defenders, whom he names as Sicarii. Sicarius means "dagger" in Latin, and the term was applied by the Romans generically to various robber bands. This derogatory term was likely the ancient equivalent of "terrorist," which was either used as an accurate description or as an epithet. In Josephus' history and subsequent Jewish tradition, the "Sicarii," supposedly a faction of the Zealots so named by Josephus became the villains of the piece, responsible for all manner of irresponsible mayhem, brigandage and senseless murders. They did not survive however, to give an account of themselves and their motives.
The band on Masada very likely did not call themselves Sicarii.. That was the epithet bestowed upon them by Josephus. Josephus, as related in Book 3 of the Jewish Wars, shamelessly betrayed the trust put in him as commander of Jotapata. First he thought to escape from the besieged town by lying to the other defenders and saying he was going to seek help. Then, to discourage further defense when it was hopeless, and to encourage surrender to the Romans he pleaded with them in a speech that suicide is against Jewish law:
When that did not convince them, he lied to to them again, and entered into a false mutual suicide pact in which they drew lots, as in Masada, as to who would kill whom. By "chance" or pre-arrangement, Josephus drew the last lot according to his story and then reneged on the plot and escaped along with another. (Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars, Book 3 8:7)
By his own account, he had risked his life in this pact, and had no intention of killing himself if he could help it. The pact and its outcome are his story and we have only his word for the events. The only certain fact is that Josephus emerged alive.
Josephus was always outspoken about the evils of the Sicarii according to his view of the matter. Moreover, the defenders of Masada had faithfully carried out a suicide pact of a type which he himself, by his own admission, had betrayed. It could scarcely be expected to give an account of the defenders of Masada that was complimentary. Here is what he said of Sicarii in another passage:
The "wickedness" of the Sicarii therefore consisted in combating those who would submit to the Romans. Of course, the Sicarii treated them "as if they were their enemies" because that is what they were. This, claims Josephus, was only a pretense for their avarice. But it could not have been avarice that caused these supposedly wicked robbers to risk their lives again and again and end them in a suicide pact, rather than giving in to the Romans as Josephus had done.
Distortions of the Masada Story
To the ancient story of Josephus Flavius and the inferences that could legitimately be drawn from the archeological remains, popular imagination and occasionally Israeli government press releases, as well as a very popular movie, added various "improvements." The Sicarii came to be pictured as "freedom fighters," the public became convinced that the historical account detailed attacks of the Sicarii on the Romans, that the actual siege lasted as long as three years, and that there were many fewer defenders. The Masada story as embroidered and enlarged in the national mythology almost to the same extent that the battle of Bunker Hill was enlarged in American mythology, or the stand of Joan of Arc in France. Eventually however, the popularity of the youth movements declined, new sites were found for the IDF swearing in ceremonies after the Six day war, and Israelis had new, actual accounts of glory that could take the place of the Masada suicide pact in the national mythology of heroism.
Masada Myth Myth
Several Israeli new historians, following Nachman Ben Yehuda, took it upon themselves to "debunk" the Masada story as it was perceived in the popular memory. In doing so, they created a myth of a Masada Myth above and beyond the inevitable actual distortions of the Masada story by Yadin or the Israeli government, the makers of movies and the public imagination.
Every nation has bits of history associated with its foundation - archetypical "heroic" occurrences such as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, the victory of Crecy, the victory of Charles the Hammer (Charles Martel) over the Muslims in the Battle of Tours, the stand of the American patriots at Bunker Hill, Montgomery stopping Rommel at Alamein. All of these national events are based on actual history, but they are greatly distorted in retelling. Inevitably, in retelling these stories, routes are converted to victories, and little victories to big ones. Historians may assert that the battle of Tours represented the outermost possible effort of the stretched Arab armies, or that likewise Rommel had simply outrun his supplies at Alamein, or that the Palestinians were actually defeated rather badly at Qarameh, but in the national perception all these battles are great victories won by extraordinary bravery and courage. None of these events are "myths" - they are real events seen incorrectly or in a biased way through the distorting influence of culture and time, and the inevitable problems of historical point of view. A myth is usually thought of as a fictional (and fantastic) story that is part of a mythological system, such as myths about ancient deities, fairies and leprechauns.
But Ben Yehuda and his followers redefine a myth, in order to be able to attach the label of "myth" to the Masada story. Ben Yehuda writes, "It seems that the invocation of the word myth implies something that is not quite true." (Ben Yehuda, 1995 p. 8). That is a peculiar way of asserting a definition, and it is offered without any proof. It "seems" to whom? This definition allows Ben Yehuda to label just about any bit of history as it is related anywhere as "myth," because as Harry Truman remarked,
By that criterion, everything that any people believe to be part of their history can be shown to be a "myth." A part of Ben-Yehuda's method was to ask many Israelis to retell the history of Masada from memory, and to note the numerous errors that crept into their accounts. They mentioned too few defenders, they believed the siege lasted three years and not several months, they got the number of survivors wrong, they believed the Sicarii had carried out many heroic exploits against the Romans. thought none of these were mentioned in detail by Josephus. This "experiment" forms a large point of the account in Ben Yehuda's 1995 book, thought it is not mentioned at all in a later article. ref ref
However, Ben-Yehuda did not have a control experiment. Had he asked Israelis to retell any other event in Jewish history, or had he asked, for example, British people to recount the struggle of Boudicea against the Romans, or had he asked French people to tell the story of Vercingetorix, surely the story would have been somewhat different from the versions that are available in the most veridical sources. Yet there is no doubt that all these events occurred and are not myths. No government and no persons are charged by anyone with bad historiography or with deliberately creating a myth. The poetic license of the writers of historical novels and the producers of movies is understood and taken into account, and the right of governments to "improve" history a bit is taken for granted. Israel does not get any such break at the hands of Ben Yehuda and his followers.
Ben Yehuda seems to create his own myth. He tells us that according to Josephus Flavius there were no battles between the Romans and the Sicarii (Ben Yehuda, 1995 p. 9). This is not literally true. Josephus makes no statement about how many battles there were. He doesn't mention any battles, which is peculiar. But Josephus Flavius does mention, as we noted, that the activities of the Sicarii were rekindling the revolt in Judea. This contradicts the impression given by Ben Yehuda that the Sicarii were only engaged in assassinations and killing of innocent women and children, unless we adopt the view that the entire interest of the Jews in the revolt was robbery and assassination.
Anti-Zionists and critics of Israel have insisted that Israelis have developed a "Masada complex" - that is, a feeling of being walled up inside a fortress with imminent doom approaching and no way out. The taunt is meant as a claim that Israeli security fears are not realistic. Given the fact that several Palestinian organizations, as well as the government of Iran, are publicly committed to the destruction of Israel, and take steps to implement it, there appear to be good grounds for Israeli security fears.
Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (1995) The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel . Madison University of Wisconsin Press , 1995
Shapira, Anita (1992) Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, Stanford University press, 1992.
Synonyms and alternate spellings: Metzada, Masadah, Massada
Further Information: Jewish Revolt Josephus Flavius
Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:
'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.
ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."
u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.
a- sounded like a in arm
ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.
'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.
o - close to the French o as in homme.
th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.
q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.
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