Below is a picture of one of the interesting chandeliers in the hotel. After breakfast, we boarded our bus for the short trip from the Dead Sea – at 1,371 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest spot on Earth – to Masada, on the highest peak in Israel.
There Herod the Great had built impressive palaces, which he fortified in fear of an attack around 37 BCE. Below is a reproduction of what Herod’s fortress castle may have looked like at that time, from Archeology Illustrated.
Almost 100 years later, in 66 CE, a group of Jewish extremists (the Zealots) overcame the Roman garrison in charge of this fortress. By 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, more Zealots and other families joined them, totaling about 1,000 people altogether.
As we ascended via cable car, we could look down on some of the remains of Roman camps that were laying siege to Masada back in 70 CE. Note the Dead Sea (AKA Salt Sea) in the background. The Sea itself was a good bit bigger back then.
If you click on the picture above and then enlarge it on your screen as much as possible, you will see some of the detail of the remains of the Roman Legion Camps A, B, and C. There are some other Roman camp remains on here as well, but I was not able to name them.
Below is a closer picture of one of the Roman Legion camps.
What the Romans first did was to implement a standard siege intending to starve out the Zealots. They also surrounded the mountain so the Zealots were essentially prisoners and could neither escape nor bring in supplies. This did not work very well because the Zealots were well supplied with food in the huge store-rooms and water in the cisterns; eventually, according to the historian Josephus, the Romans decided is to build a massive ramp up the side of the mountain. The ramp is still there after 2,000 years. Up that ramp they were able to bring a siege tower, sketched here on a plaque at the Breaching Point. In it was a battering ram with which the Romans intended to break the walls of Masada. The battering ram was not effective, however, because the walls had been reinforced inside by the rebels with a secondary wall of earth and wood. Josephus relates that General Silva decided it would be easier to burn the wall than to knock it down, so his soldiers began shooting at it with burning torches. This almost backfired, as a wind blew the fire back on the siege tower itself, but then turned and blew the flames against the fortress walls, destroying them. Since the siege tower was made of wood, it seems a shame the rebels did not succeed in burning it first.
According to Josephus, the rebels in the fortress preferred death to slavery, and so when the Romans entered the next morning they found nothing but dead bodies.
The way the Zealots (and some zealous visitors, in the picture below) got up to Masada is by the Snake Path which you can see here. It was narrow enough that people had to go one at a time, which made it easy to defend from above I imagine.
We did not attempt the Snake Path, but ascended by cable car.
Below is a picture of our group at the top, before we set out to explore.
Below are some views into rooms. Notice the floors have the remains of mosaics and the walls have the remains of plaster and paint.
Here I am next to a wall (well, the whole place is full of remains of walls). And below is a close-up showing the way the walls were made.
Below are remains of one of the several Columbariums with hundreds of niches for doves and pigeons. The birds were raised for meat as well as for sending messages. Their droppings were used for fertilizer. I didn’t see any areas for growing fresh produce but I suppose that with 12 cisterns, and fertilizer from what must have been thousands of birds, they could have made this part of the desert bloom quite nicely. The picture on the right is part of a drawing depicting someone feeding the birds.
More views. Notice the vast desert and the Dead Sea in the distance.
Here I am going through an arched doorway between rooms. It’s odd that it seems such a tight fit when I am only 5’1″
Below is a Caldarium (steam room) which Herod built in the Roman style. The fire (below simulated by paper with light shining through) blew heat under the flooring which was held up by the little pillars, heating the water for the steam.
After sweating in the steam room, the bather would actually bathe in the big swimming pool of cold water in a room called the Frigidarium. These Roman bath houses were not just for getting clean; they were also for relaxation, entertainment, and business meetings. The “getting clean” part itself involved oils and perfumes, as well as slaves to scrape it all off before the cooling swim.
Many of the floors included intricate and beautiful mosaics, often designed like oriental rugs of today. Here is part of one that still remains. Many of the walls were plastered and painted to resemble marble. Others were painted with vividly colored frescoes (a type of painting which used powdered pigment on wet plaster so that the picture became part of the wall).
Here and there, we passed stacks of large round balls of rock. These appear to be stacked like cannonballs, ready for firing by catapult. As far as I can tell, however, the rebels didn’t have any catapults or in fact any weapons at all to match the Roman artillery. These rocks were fired by the Romans into the fortress. It appears that the main reason the rebels were able to remain undefeated for three years of the siege is because (1) the fortress was so very hard to attack, thanks to Herod and location, and (2) they were well provisioned with food and water so they could not be starved out.
These are two of the 12 large cisterns Herod had dug out of the mountain to collect water from the yearly rains. Herod made sure he and his guests had enough water not only for drinking and bathing, but also for a swimming pool.
Below are some of the storerooms built on the north side of Masada. There are 29 long warehouses side by side, each one 27 meters (about 88.5 feet) long and 4 meters (13 feet) wide. The storerooms were organized to hold essential food items as well as weapons.
Here some of us are resting on the convenient benches around the walls of what may be the oldest synagogue in the world. Although the building was originally probably built by Herod as a stable, the rebels changed its structure and function to turn it into a place suitable for community meetings and Torah readings. A small room was closed off in the corner of the hall as a Geniza, which is a place of storage of worn-out Torah scrolls awaiting burial. Under the floor archeologists found fragments of several Biblical scrolls which are identical to those in use today.
The Geniza was reconstructed and modernized (and air conditioned) in 2008, and since about 2010 Torah scribes have been working there producing Biblical texts. The scribe on duty also takes time to answer questions and to write the Hebrew name of visitors in Torah script.
The ruins below belong to a different time – they are the ruins of a Byzantine church built by monks who lived as hermits within the ruins of Masada from the 5th to the 7th centuries CE. They had water from some of the cisterns still operational.