Massada – the last stronghold of the First Jewish-Roman War, where the stones still tell the heroic story of choosing death instead of slavery, a story that starts with Herod’s immense fortification project and ends with groups from Israeli youth movements that climb to Massada with first light.
Massada, the royal stronghold of Great Herod and the last outpost of the zealots in 66-73 AD at the First Jewish Roman War was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2002. In a side remark, the Old City of Acco also won this title, and Jerusalem was a candidate but was not chosen because political concerns and conflicts. Nevertheless, this site offers an abundance of archeological remains from Herod time, including palaces, bathhouses, warehouses, and water cisterns. Remains from the episode of the zealots manifest how well they learned to adjust these buildings for defending themselves and the perfect preservation condition of the Roman siege system. (Perhaps the highest level of preservation of a Roman siege system.) In addition, the site offers a fascinating historical story and a spectacular view. In short, this itinerary is much recommended!
Massada (Hebrew: Metzada, fortress) embodies through the ages a model of Jewish resistance against foreign conquerors, and it serves as an emblem of uncompromised belief in freedom. During the pre-state days it was used as a popular pilgrimage site for members of the youth movements and Palmach (The "striking Companies" during Mandatory Palestine). It stood as a symbol for any past, present or future independence (and this ideology was best manifested through the saying: "In blood and fire Judea fell, in blood and fire Judea will rise again"). Today also the winding paths of Massada see many individuals, families, youth groups and military troops that climb their way up. In recent decades, the myth of the mass suicide that was committed by the zealots during Passover eve of 73 AD, a day before the Roman conquered Massada, was questioned and reconsidered again and again. Whatever the opinion you hold is, undoubtedly, climbing Massada by cable, of by foot through either the rampart or snake paths (that was discovered only in 1953), is a worth experience as well as exploring its antiques, glory and elegance, and seeing the documentaries at the audio-visual light show. Consider it as an imperative to visit there.
How to Get There
- From Jerusalem: drive Route 1 until the entrance to Jerusalem. Follow the signposts that direct to the Dead Sea. After HaGiv'a HaTsarfatit Junction drive for 30 km [18.6 miles] and take the road that goes down to the Dead Sea. (The settlements in your way are Ma'ale Adumim, the ascent of Ma'ale Adomim, the Khan of the Good Samarian, Mitspe Yerikho, Nahal Og). At Beit HaArava Junction turn right and drive to Massada. (The settlements on your way are the Kibbutzim Almog, Kalya, Mitspe Shalem and Ein Gedi).
- From Arad to Massada's Main Eastern Entrance: Drive southward to Be'er Sheva until Lehavim Junction, and then turn east to Road 31. Follow this road for few dozens of kilometers (and you would meet mainly Bedouin settlements in your way and the Biblical Arad Mound), until Zohar Junction next to the Dead Sea shores. At this junction turn north and drive an additional 20 kilometers until reaching a signpost that directs to Massada.
- From Arad to the audio-visual light show and rampart (western side): The entrance to the audio-visual light show and also the western entrance to Massada are from Arad. To get there drive your car through an access road that takes directly to this entrance. Follow the efficient signpost system that directs from the entrance of Arad to this access road.
Massada is an elevated rhomboid-shape rock plateau. Its topographic height is 500-metters above the surrounding and 100 meters above sea level; its length is 600 meters and its maximal width is about 300 meters. Access to Massada is available either from east, by cable cars or through the Snake Path for people coming from Jerusalem or Arad, or from west, through climbing the Roman rampart, for people coming from Arad. Massada is mentioned in the writings of Josephus Flavius (Yosef Ben Mathityaho ) and in other chronicles as well. Josephus Flavius tells that the High Priest Jonathan (who is probably Alexander Jannaeus, 103 – 76 BC, whose Hebrew name was Jonathan) was the first one to fortify Massada. Herod the Great flee to Massada with all his family and 800 people and found here refuge from King Mathityaho Antigonas Hasmonean. During that period, Herod left in Massada all the members of his family and sneaked from there to Rome. The Hasmonean king continued with blockading the mountain until the besieged almost perished from thirst. At the last moment, a rainfall replenished the cisterns on the top of the mountain. When Herod returned from Rome, he attacked the fortress with his army and freed it. Afterwards, he further strengthened it and built there a royal stronghold with luxuries that were part of royal palace: bathhouses, belvederes, spacious warehouses, and enough servants, and also erected fortifications that turned the place into a royal haven.
After Herod's death the place was occupied by a Roman garrison until 66 AD, the year of the initiation of the First Jewish-Roman War, when some zealots, led by Menachem Ben Judah the Galilean, conquered the stronghold. Menachem was killed in Jerusalem by Jewish opponents, Eleazar Ben-Yair, Menahem's nephew, had taken his place. Eleazar fled to Massada and held an office as the commander of the zealots there, a faction called the Sicariis, and he entrenched the place until 73 AD. In the year 72 Ad, after the Romans regained their power and control back in Judea, the Tenth Legion, led by Flavius Silva, encompassed Massada and initiated a blockade there in order to subdue the zealots. The Romans maintained for long months their siege, and all the while, Silva had to supply food and water to his people. During these months the roman were successful in making a ramp that actually filled a whole valley west to Massada, and they used it to place their siege engines and finally breached the wall. The rampart was preserved in its whole entirety to this day, and is an access path to Massada from the west.
In the night that preceded the breaching of the wall, Eleazar Ben-Yair persuaded the zealots to take the lives of their family members and themselves and to die as free people, merely not to become slaves and captivated by the cruel Romans. Josephus Flavius gives an account of the dramatic speech of Elazar ben Ya'ir as it was recorded by the only witnesses that survived, two women and three children that hid in one of the cisterns and surrendered themselves to the Romans during the next morning when the Romans took control of the mountain. Nine-hundred men, women, and children committed suicide in what is considered today as the biggest mass suicide in history, not before they entirely burnt their dwellings and food storehouses to prevent the Romans from benefiting them. It is written that when the Romans conquered the mountain during the next day, they differed with their usual practice during similar situations. They did not jeer at the captivated warriors, but stood with awe in front of the valor of the defeated and honored their strong belief to live and die as free people.
The place then became occupied by Roman garrison, until a Byzantine church was built there and finally it was left in its desolation until our days. Two American researchers, E. Robinson and A. Smith, watched the mountain from afar in 1939, from Ein Gedi, and related the mountain to Josephus Flavius' stories. The interest in Massada was renewed.
This drama is shown in a most beautiful way by the nightly audio-visual light show on the west side of Massada.
Important sites on Massada
1. The Wall - Herod the Great built 1400-meter casemate wall that all-encompassed the mountain and was built from two parallel and distanced walls which were used as storehouses and/or for living. He fortified the walls with seven gates; only the Northern Palace was left without a wall.
2. The Northern Palace – the northern palace is one of the most impressive remains from Herod time and one of the more elegant palaces he had built, and Josephus Flavius portrays it with great details in his book. The palace, the most fascinating remain in Massada, is separated in its midst by a wall that divides it to private and public areas. Herod had some reasons to choose building this palace on this locus:
1. From this direction sun rays are not so strongly striking;
2. It was the most strategic locus in Massada since the cisterns were located below it;
3. Chilly north winds blow on this side of the mountain.
Because of the narrowing topographic layout of Massada on this area it was impossible to build a wider palace. However, Herod's engineers found a solution by erecting a palace on three terraces, on three natural stone slabs with height differences that accrued to 30 meters: the first terrace is on the plateau's level, the second is 18 meters bellow it, and the third is 12 meters bellow the latter. The upper slab was the entrance to the palace and was geared with guard rooms and sleeping rooms, central hall and a semi-circular belvedere from which the views of the bottom levels of the palace, and a north view to the canyons of Zeelim, Mishmar and Hever are seen. The Roman road that connected between the springs of Zeelim canyon and the Roman camps is also seen from here.
The square in front of the bathhouse serves as an access passage to the middle slab of the palace. Pass next to a cistern and quarried stone surface that was used as a ritual bath, until you’d reach a plane floor on which the pristyle (courtyard surrounded by columns) was built but today only the column bases remained. South to this location, underneath the natural rock wall, where staircases and other rooms were built, locate the descent to the bottom slab, which is a rectangular hall, surrounded by columns and decorated by frescoes. A typical Roman bathhouse was excavated east to this slab with a basin for dipping the feet, and two pools in the inner room, one for hot water and the other for cold water.
3. The Western Palace, the largest building on Massada, was also built by Herod. Spreading over 4000 cubic meters it contains official residences, audience chamber, bathrooms covered with mosaics, accommodations for servants, workshops and warehouses.
4. The warehouses – there are about 15 of them, some where reconstructed with great details and others were left as they are, in their condition prior to the reconstruction work, to allow future generations to reconstruct them. These warehouses served as the storage place for wine, oil and flour.
5. The ritual bath is on the eastern side of the plateau, and its design was examined by a great ultra-orthodox rabbi from Mea Shearim that affirmed its compliance to all rules of Jewish law.
6. The synagogue is one of the oldest in the world, and an additional one was discovered in ancient Gamla in the Golan Heights. It was used by the zealots after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.
The Roman Siege System of Massada
Together with the natural means of defense that the topography of Massada supplies, i.e. its steep precipices, and especially its natural rock walls below the place, Herod strengthened it with an additional casemate wall that encompassed the plateau from all its sides and was five meters high and 1,400 meters long. The wall was constructed from two parallel fortifications: the external wall was 1.40 meters wide and the internal was 1.00 meter wide, while the four meters separating between the two were entirely roofed to all their length, which amounted to nine dunams. Many horizontal walls divided this encased space to rooms, watching towers were erected every 40 meters next to the wall, and guards patrolled on them. The four gates of the wall were built facing the four paths that climb on the mountainsides: the East Gate for the snake path, the West Gate for the western path, the North Gate for the Water Path, and the Cave Gate to the southern path.
Therefore, the Romans had to invest extensive efforts in order to breach the wall and to subordinate the zealots in 73 AD. Indeed, they had built no less than eight army camps around Massada. The head of the siege was the Roman commissioner Lucius Flavius Silva with an army of 10,000 people. A circumvallation wall was built along five kilometers girdling the mountain. In the last phases of the siege, the Romans built a massive rampart from beaten earth along the western side of the wall. Layers of woods that were brought from the near Zeelim canyon and layers of earth that were stratified intermittently established this rampart.
During the construction works of the rampart, the zealots wielded any stratagem to disrupt the Roman efforts: they shot arrows, hurled stones by slings and thrown big rocks onto them from above the wall. With these circumstances the Romans had to work with one hand protecting themselves with a shield and the other doing the building work, but finally the rampart was completed and the Romans brought their special war machineries for battering and breaching the wall from its western area, near the location of today's cable cars. Notwithstanding, the spirit of the besieged zealots was not broken and throughout these efforts they had fortified the wall with a new wooden wall stuffed with earth. The wood for the entrenchment was taken from the logs of the palaces' ceilings, from the casemate wall and from other buildings on the mountain. This wall was impassable for the Romans because their war machineries could had battered and breached only hard stone walls rather than soft wooden and earth wall, so they started to shoot inflammable arrows at the wall.
Links and Useful Information
To the audio-visual light show click here
Learn more about Massada from Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority's site.
Entrance Fee to the audio-visual light show: individuals: adults NIS 41; children NIS 34; groups (more than 30 visitors) adults NIS 37; children NIS 28. Telephones: 08-9954409; 08-9959333. Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays from March to August. The audio-visual light show is presented on Massada western side beginning at 9 PM; On September – October the show starts on 8 PM.
Prices: East Gate Cable ride entrance: Individuals: adults: NIS 61; children NIS 34; Groups: adults: NIS 57; children: NIS 33. Trail through the Snake Path: Individuals: adults: NIS 23; children: 12; Groups: adults: NIS 19; children: NIS 11. Massada National Park combined entrance: adults: NIS 45; children: NIS 22; Groups: adults: NIS 41; children: NIS 21. Cable train bi-lateral ticket for Members/Green Card holders: Individuals: adults: NIS 39; children NIS 23; Groups: adults: NIS 38; children: NIS 23. Telephone: 08-6584207/8
Entrance hours: April – September: 8 AM – 5 PM; October – March: 8 AM – 4 PM. On Fridays and holidays eve closing time is one hour earlier. The cable car works on Sunday – Thursday & Saturday 8 AD – 4 PM. On Fridays and Holliday eves 8 AD – 2 PM. On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) 8 AD – 12 PM.
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