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Masada Israel

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Part 3: More about Masada.

The only source we have for the story of Masada is Josephus Flavius’ first century book “The Wars of the Jews”. His writings, filled with unknown motives, and not always precise; are the Masadaonly source of information about Jewish life at his time. Yigael Yadin, the archeologist who was appointed to uncover the mountain of Masada used the story of Masada by Josephus to understand the many archeological findings. Yadin wrote a few books about Masada and described the archeological findings in details. The archeological findings are very impressive and make it possible for us to understand the importance of Masada in the Judean Desert. 


Basic understanding of the relationship between archeology and history

When we read biblical or historic texts, we face a few problems. First, the texts include words that are not common today, or may have been used differently in the past. It might be very complicated for us to understand the exact meaning of the texts. In addition, many times the writers did not describe the material culture and the physical environment that surrounded them, as it was not necessary for the reader. The physical environment could be understood by the historic building remains. Archeological excavations can add more details and help us understand the text. In some occasions the digs provide the text itself. By learning the material culture we can add reality to better understand the text. One of the best examples might be Qumran. In Qumran, the texts about the secret community have been found during archeological digs in the Judean Desert caves. The text described an extremely religious Dead Sea ScrollJewish group that rain water purification played a dominant practice in their lives. This community lived in the Dead Sea area where water is not easily found. The digs in a different site unraveled a water system that fit the text description. It had canals that transferred the rain water to a few enormous wells and a purification bath that adhered to the Jewish building laws. The combination of the text and the digs allowed us to gain better understanding of the community life and the texts. Lab tests (Carbon 14 test and DNA test) made to the scrolls provided the age of the scrolls and the type of animal used; these added a reality that is not mentioned at all in the texts.

The challenge of the Desert

What exactly is the Judean Desert? This Desert is a “local desert” the area doesn’t get rain because of the deep and steep cliffs of the Jordan Valley.  Rain falls on Jerusalem and as the St. George's Monasteryclouds travel east they pass the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea and the rain starts again in the eastern part of the Jordan Valley. So this area has no water, is very hot, and is the lowest and saltiest place on earth. During the few rainy days, the waters don’t permeate into the soil and they become a powerful and destructive flood.  The floods destroy the valley’s banks, houses, gardens and everything on their way. The Judean Desert is not easy to travel through or live in. For thousands of years, different groups have built their settlements within the few oases this desert has been blessed with, like the city of Jericho Israel. Another way to survive in this area is to capture the rain water. Two famous engineering projects successfully accomplished that. The water system in Qumran, the writers of the Dead Sea scrolls; and the titanic wells in Masada River built by King Herod for the fortress of Masada. Both water systems were built in the same period of time.

Was Masada the perfect place for a fortress?

What was the fortress function? When learning about Israel we can identify two main functions to a fortress in the area. The first one is to protect critical road junctions, just like the Afek fortress that protected the King Way in the mountains. The second is to protect the fortress’ inhabitants like the Crusaders in Atlit and King Herod at Masada.  The most challenging and complete obstacle in protecting the inhabitants is the problematic access to water. In MasadaMegiddo, a famous city in the biblical days, the Israelite built an underground water system that provided water in case a siege was laid on the city. The water can be used to grow vegetables and wheat in case the siege is long. But Masada had an advantage in the consideration of protecting its inhabitants: It is isolated and very difficult to access. King Herod laid a siege on Masada to oppress his brother’s rebellion against him, when his brother took refuge in Masada. The next experience the King had with the fortress of Masada was only two years later when he himself ran away from Jerusalem with his family to take shelter in Masada. Then, he decided to strengthen the mountain’s fortifications and build the northern palaces and other facilities. But how could you enjoy a palace without water? The answer can be found in the engineering constructions of King Herod. The capturing of the water in Masada and Qumran followed the same techniques: The rain water of small areas was canalled into wells. Masada’s wells were built in the river level and on the mountain top. From the river wells the water was carried to the top wells. This water system made the water available for the fortress inhabitants but not for their enemies. Masada might not be the perfect place for a fortress as it lacks a water source, but when this disadvantage was solved by King Herod’s engineers, it turned Masada into a more than perfect place and as we could learn from the Roman soldiers gathered to conquer Masada.

King Herod and Masada

When a visor to Masada sees the extensive constructions King Herod left behind, he might think that King Herod built it for his retirement, pleasure or something along these lines. Research shows that it is far from being true.  King Herod had many victories in battles against neighboring nations but he was nominated to be the King of Judea by the Romans, and his loyalty was to Rome more than to his own people. Knowing that the Romans could Masadatake his kingdom without any reason, he kept raising the taxes on his people to be able to pay his share to Rome and gain its support. This appeal to Rome did not add to his reputation and he was always in fear for his life from the neighboring enemies, his political enemies, the priests’ families and even his own family. To ensure that running away from Jerusalem would be successful, he chose the Judean Desert, located east of Jerusalem to build a few fortresses. The most famous among them were Masada and the Herodion fortress south of Jerusalem.  While Herodion is small and protected, Masada was built totally differently. The plateau on the top of the mountain is more than 25 acres and it was surrounded with thick walls. Masada fortress included many luxuries like a bathhouse and a three floors palace decorated with mosaics and frescos.

The significance of the archeological findings

The dry air at the Dead Sea

The Israel archaeology science is very developed. It is important to understand the impact of humidity on research. In most cases the remains left by inhabitants are consumed by the Masadahumid air. When archeologists excavate a site hundreds or thousands years old, the remains are nonexistent. The impact of the Dead Sea area’s dry air is unbelievable. The Roman ramp built with local woods is still there. The excavation exposed articles of clothing, leather sandals and scrolls written on animal skin, that were buried thousands years ago. Taking into account these findings, was it possible that the rebels enjoyed the foods left by King Herod 70 years earlier to the Great Rebellion or is it only a legend?

Yigael Yadin’s findings in Masada are valuable to the research and for understanding the Jewish life during the end of the Second Temple period. The following list of findings could impress any visitor with a minimum of appreciation to the story presented in Masada:

·        The western palace – This is the first palace built in Masada. King Herod built this palace and the soldiers’ rooms and a few more buildings before he ran away from Jerusalem chased by Mathitiahu Antigonus.

·     Masada    The northern palace –Built by King Herod after he experienced the life in the fortress. The palace is decorated with frescos, mosaics, has a round room and an impressive bath. The palace has three stories and is located on the shaded side of the mountain, so the King could enjoy a cooler weather all day and a relaxing breeze.

·         The bathhouse - The bathhouse has been built next to the upper level of the northern palace and it included the cold room, the hypothermal room and the hot room. Fire used to be placed under the floor and pierced ceramic pipes entered the hot air into the rooms while the bath attendant purred water on the hot floor to create the steam.

·         The storage buildings – The storage buildings in Masada are big and could easily store enough food for a long period of time. King Herod built 29 storage rooms, 30 yards each, hundreds of clay pots have been uncovered. The storage rooms are located next to northern palace as well. Thanks to the dry air in the area, the foods could be preserved for longer periods of time.

·         The water system – There is a considerable importance to this subject. Without a workable system to collect the rain water, the fortress would become a death trap. The fortress inhabitants had to have access to water to survive a siege which the enemy would lay on the fortress. Masada’s water system channels the rain water into a series of wells in the NW cliff of the mountain and that water was carried to the mountain top and stored in upper wells.

·         The wall – The wall length surrounding the mountain top is approximately one mile, and makes it almost impossible to break into the fortress. The wall included two parallel walls, 5 feet high and 3-5 yards between them, all this fortification has bMasadaeen covered with a roof and the guards patrolled the top of the wall. The covered wall area was approximately 2.2 acres which was used for dwelling. 37 towers were built on the wall and 4 protected gates led to narrow access trails.

·         The ramp – the ramp was built during the siege on Masada. The Romans used woods to support the ramp. The ramp was built wide and high enough so that the batting ram could break the wall. The current western entrance trail to Masada is mostly built on the ramp.

·         Hundreds of ballista balls were found, evidence of the Roman attack on Masada.

Other findings even if not so impressive and visible might confirm Josephus’ story. Josephus tells us that the last men drew lots. Ceramic pieces have been found in a room with names written on them. One of the names, “Ben Yair” is explicitly mentioned by Josephus as the fortress leader and that might confirm the drawing part in Josephus story. 5000 coins have been found, from different periods of time, mostly minted by the rebels. Interesting were these with the words “Jerusalem the holy” and “Shekel of Israel”. The rebels minted their own coins and included the years of the rebellion on their coins.

In every Jewish settlement the archeologists look for synagogue. Jews don’t usually reuse religious scrolls, and these are buried in the synagogue’s archive. In Masada, the synagogue was built during the Great Rebellion. It is considered one of the most ancient synagogues. The rebels converted one of the rooms in the western wall to a synagogue and it faced towards Jerusalem. In the main room a fire remains have been found, maybe one more evidence to Josephus’ story that the rebels burned what they could, so that the Romans could not enjoy the loot taken from the fortress. It is very interesting to research the synagogue archive, it consisted of scrolls from 14 different biblical books, among them “The Valley of Dry Bones” (Ezekiel 37).

Although the findings from King Herod’s buildings and the Great Rebellion are the most visible, it is interesting to note that during the excavations, remains from as early as the Chalcolithic period (6000 years old) have been found in the caves on the western cliff of the mountain. During the Byzantine period Christian priests chose Masada as one of their solitude places. The priests lived in the caves and in the wells that were not in use anymore and built a church.



Masada had a great importance in helping individuals and groups hide and protect themselves from their enemies. It was a place that gave men a hope for a better life and the Masadachance to hide until the danger passed. The archeological excavations added a significant value to the material culture research. The story of Masada inspired individuals and leaders during hardships of building a new country. The UNESCO World Heritage Site describes Masada as “The Mountain that became a symbol of determination and heroism”. Many text books are available about Masada, the study of many other related researches can be implemented to Masada and advanced lab techniques can be applied to the research. This knowledge along with the numerous archeological remains found by Yigael Yadin, and the historic text provided by Josephus Flavius, could turn a simple tour to Masada into an historic journey. And when you are there just imagine what stories the stones could tell.