Masada (मसादा meaning ‘fortress’) is a site of ancient palaces and fortifications on top of an isolated rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. After the First Jewish-Roman War a siege of the fortress by troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of Jewish rebels, who preferred death to surrender.
Masada fortress, the desert and dead sea at a distance
The Masada Story
Roman client king Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. In 66 CE, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada.
In the spring of 73 CE, the Romans successfully breached the wall of the fortress . When they entered the fortress, however, the Romans discovered that its 936 inhabitants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide rather than face certain capture, defeat, slavery or execution by their enemies.
The account of the siege of Masada was related to Josephus (the historian) by two women who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, and repeated the Jewish commander’s exhortations to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans. Because Judaism strongly discourages suicide, Josephus reported that the defenders had drawn lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one to actually take his own life. So ten men were picked to kill rest of the inhabitants and then one of those ten killed the other nine. The last man committed suicide. The Jewish commander ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuff to show that the defenders retained the ability to live, and so chose the time of their death over slavery.
The last Jewish resistance in the war was thus defeated and Masada fell to the Romans again.
The Masada story is very dear to the Jews since this event is considered to cause a significant turn to their history in Israel. The Israel Defence Forces initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony on top of Masada of the soldiers who have completed their basic training. The ceremony ends with the declaration: “Masada shall not fall again.” (This ceremony is also held at the Western Wall)
Masada, a world heritage site, is still being excavated and restored to its past glory. This site is about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem (two hours from Tel Aviv) and is very close to the Dead sea. Dead Sea + Massada can be an ideal one day excursion. There are several tourist companies that organise these trips and it is advisable to go with them since they come with tour guides and it is easier to navigate through the Palestinian West Bank.