Friday, January 29, 2016

Masada: Israel’s inspirational desert fortress

Masada is a desert fortress near the Dead Sea where the Jews held off Roman legions for three years  (wikipedia)
MASADA, ISRAEL At any given time, Israel is a troubling destination to visit. With the Middle East in a constant state of instability, making plans to visit the Holy Land to view the Biblical landmarks can be a challenge. Once there however, the desert country brings to life the history of some of the world’s great religions.

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.

The key to success was access to water  (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.

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.
Model of Herod's three tiered palace at the northern end of Masada...Herod never occupied it  (Taylor)
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.

The Snake Trail was the main access to Masada  (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.
Today the fastest and easiest way to reach Masada is by cable car  (wikipedia)
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 of Herod's palace as it is today  (Taylor)
Josephus writes that the Jews of Masada either chose suicide or killed each other rather than suffer capture by the Romans.

Whether the Jews committed mass suicide remains a topic for conjecture. Other details that have proven to be either inaccurate or committed is also subject to scholarly debate.

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.

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.
The Jews often doused Roman invaders with fresh water to demoralize them  (Taylor)
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.

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.
From the air Masada dominates the landscape and seems to be impregnable  (wikipedia)
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.