|The Masada Plateau with the Snake Trail in the background -- Jews held off Roman legions for 3 years (wikipedia)|
But there is another site in Israel that should be on every visitor’s must-see list. Masada is an ancient fortress situated on the crest of an isolated plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.
|Masada's desolate ruins are impressive (Taylor)|
Located at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, it was at Masada that a band of approximately 960 Jewish Sicarii rebels held off the Roman army for three years before being breached in 73 AD.
Like so much of the historical accuracy in the Holy Land, Masada is the subject of considerable architectural debate, but there can be no question about the existence of fortress itself, and therein lies much of its appeal.
Much of the controversy centers around the accounts of a 1st-century Jewish Roman historian named Josephus who is responsible for nearly all the written information about the story of Masada. The problem arises in the fact that most scholars regard Josephus as a less than reliable source for the details surrounding Masada.
|Model of Herod the Great's three tiered palace which he never occupied (Taylor)|
Masada sits atop a 1,400-foot desert plateau that spreads over an area of 23 acres. Though never occupied by Herod the Great, he built a palatial villa there on three descending terraces at the northern end of the rock. Due to the angles, there are only partial views of the palace from above.
In 2001, Masada became a UNESCO World Heritage Site which can be reached by walking up the Snake Trail from the Dead Sea side, by the Roman Ramp Trail on the western side or by cable car.
According to Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist group that split from a larger Jewish assembly known as the Zealots. They fled Jerusalem in 70 AD and settled at Masada after the massacre of a Roman garrison.
|Water was a key factor in Masada's survival (wikipedia)|
The governor of Rome pursued the Sicarii and surrounded Masada but were stalled in their siege due to the strategic location of the fortress. Thanks to an ingeniously designed system of cisterns, the Jews often taunted their enemies by drenching them with fresh water in the severe desert heat of the region.
Eventually, the Romans began constructing a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. Construction of the ramp was frequently stopped because the Jewish defenders were able to pelt the Romans from above with rocks.
In the end, the Romans succeeded by using Jewish captives to build the ramp. The Sicarii halted their stone bombardments in order to keep from killing their brethren.
After three long years, the Roman legion eventually breached Masada and captured the fortress. Upon their arrival however, the Romans discovered that most of the 960 inhabitants were dead and all the buildings except for the food storerooms had been burned. Only a handful of women and children survived
|Partial view from above of Herod's palace at Masada as it exists today (Taylor)|
Whether the Jews committed mass suicide remains a topic for conjecture. Other details that have proven to be either inaccurate or ommitted is also subject to scholarly debate.
|The Snake Path was the primary access point to the Masada Fortress (wikipedia)|
What is known however, is that the elaborate system of channels that provided an ample water supply for the inhabitants does exist, as do the remnants of Herod’s northern villa. The siege did take place and the defenders were dead when the Romans entered the fortress.
|A cable car is the fastest, easiest and most efficient way to reach Masada (wikipedia)|
As the debate continues, so does the symbolism of Masada in modern-day Israel. For Jews, Masada is a sign of unity against its adversaries. The site was regarded as so significant that the former Israeli military leader, Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding swearing-in ceremonies for various units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at Masada.
Over time the practice has been somewhat displaced, but Israel’s paratroopers still commemorate the Six Day War of 1967 at the Western Wall of Masada.
|The Masada plateau is a symbol of determination and pride for Israel (wikipedia)|
Like so many places throughout the world, Masada is a site that much be visited in person to understand the full magnitude of its meaning.
For Americans Masada is, in its own way, much like the Battle of the Alamo. For Jews, given the historical chronology, they would likely tell us that the Alamo is more like Masada.
Like so many sites in the Holy Land, archaeology often creates more questions than answers. Whatever the truth may be about Masada however, cannot be diminished by a lack of information because the site speaks for itself.
This article first appeared in Communities Digital News
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