Masada, Israel

Masada, also known as the Masada Fortress, is a natural fortress in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. Geologically, Masada is an oval shaped plateau with steep cliffs on all sides, ranging from 300 feet on its west side to 1,300 feet on its east side.

In the first century BC, Herod the Great built a fortress on Masada, the top of which is almost completely flat (below), to evacuate to in case of a rebellion, and built a cascading palace for himself on its breezy northern facade (below).

Masada ruins

Masada is best known for the Siege of Masada that ended the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. In 66 AD, a group of Sicarii - Jews who were even more militant than the Zealots - ambushed the unsuspecting Roman garrison at Masada and captured it. Over the next several years, they were joined by more Sicarii and other Jews as the Roman army's retaliation against them gained momentum.

The Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD, as Jesus had prophesied a few decades earlier (see Mark 13). In 72 AD, a Roman legion marched to Masada and laid siege to it. In the photo below, taken from above the ruins of the palace that Herod the Great built into the northern facade of Masada, the square remains of one of the siege-laying and stone-walled Roman garrisons is still visible almost 2,000 years later.

Masada Roman Garrison

Having failed to starve the Jews into capitulation, the Romans used Jewish slaves to build a siege ramp (below) to the top of Masada from its relatively shallow western side, correctly guessing that the Sicarii will not attack their fellow Jews.

Masada Siege Ramp

Below is a painting in Masada's cable car station that depicts a heroic battle atop the plateau between the Jews and the Romans. Each graduating class of the Israeli military academy are brought to Masada, where they swear an oath to protect Israel.

Masada Battle Painting

Who won the battle for Masada?

There was no battle and the painting above is a fictitious aspiration. The day before the Roman siege ramp reached the top, the 960 Jews at Masada chose 10 men by lot to cut the throats of the other 950. When the 10 were left, they again drew lots to choose the one who would kill the other 9 and then himself, thereby requiring only one person to commit suicide, which the Jewish law forbade. When the Romans stepped onto Masada the next day, April 16, 73 AD, they discovered only two women and their five children to have survived the mass suicide by hiding inside a cistern.

Travel Tip
Masada, which is 100 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem, can be reached by bus from West Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, a (guided) tour company van, or by driving east to the Dead Sea and then south along it. The ascent to the top of the plateau is by cable car or, for those in shape, a 40 minute trek up a narrow, zigzagging trail. Many visitors cool off afterwards in the Dead Sea and/or visit the Qumran Caves.