Welcome back to our virtual tour of Israel. Today we will be traveling south, down to the Dead Sea region. When I say down, I mean down to the lowest place on earth to -430 meters below sea level! And if you were so inclined to want to swim in the Dead Sea, it would be a challenge of a lifetime because the water is 33.7% salt; meaning you can actually only float in it.
As we drive along the western shore of the Dead Sea, our eyes are continuously diverted to the towering cliffs to the east. There are numerous deep crevices in the cliffs formed from flood waters running from the hills of Jerusalem during the rainy season. The rain causes flash floods to rage through these crevices. They are thrilling to see but deadly if caught in them. We drive a bit further to find a solitary isolated rock on the edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea Valley. The flat rock is 440 meters above the Dead Sea and is surrounded by deep gorges on all sides, forming a natural fortification. This fortification is called Masada, meaning stronghold in Hebrew. In ancient days, the only access point to this stronghold was by way of a steep “Snake Path” from the eastern side of the mountain. There are 867 steps from bottom to top; a very challenging hike indeed. In modern days we can take a cable car to the top, the choice of preference for most of us!
Before we make our way to the top, I will tell you the story of Masada. The writings of the historian, Josephus, are the only significant source of information we have about Masada. King Herod fled from Jerusalem to Masada with his family in a moment of danger. Sometime between 37-31 BCE, he built a royal citadel as a refuge fearing “a peril from Jewish people” and one “more serious from Cleopatra of Egypt.” After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Masada was used as a Roman garrison until the Zealots captured it at the beginning of the Great Jewish Revolt in 66 CE. The Zealots were a Jewish political movement in the 1st century which sought to incite the people of Judea to rebel against the Roman Empire. Their goal was to expel the Romans from their land by force of arms. Masada was the last outpost of the Zealots and the site of the most dramatic and symbolic act in Jewish history, where rebels chose mass suicide rather than submit to Roman capture.
Eliezer ben Yair escaped Jerusalem to Masada where he led the Zealots until its fall in 73 CE. The Zealots lived here for seven years before the fall of Masada. We will try to envision just how they “lived” in such an isolated fortress. They had wives and children, who needed to be educated, and in historical Jewish fashion, they did find a way to “live” during that time. Masada was the last point of Jewish resistance after the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In 72 CE, the Roman governor Flavius Silva resolved to suppress this outpost. Silva brought the 10th Legion, its auxiliary troops and thousands of Jewish prisoners, totaling 10-15 thousand people. They established eight camps around the mountain and surrounded it with a high wall, leaving no escape for the rebels.
It took the Romans nine months to build a siege ramp to the top on the west side of Masada. They succeeded in building a huge battering ram that was able to break thru the stone wall. The defenders had managed to build a second wall of wood and earth that was hard to break, but eventually, the Romans destroyed it by fire. They waited till morning to enter the top of Masada. At night, Eliezer ben Yair gathered all the defenders and persuaded them to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. The people set fire to their personal belongings, and then ten people chosen by lot killed everyone else and then committed suicide. In the morning the Romans entered a silent fortress and found only dead bodies. Two women and five children survived the mass suicide by hiding in a cave.
Josephus, who was a Jewish captive of Flavius Silva, was an eyewitness to the events at Masada. He describes all the dramatic details of the last hours of the Masada defenders as told by the two surviving women. All in all 969 Jews died at the top of Masada that night. What a horrific story! What a horrific ending!
Still thinking over this macabre scene, let’s go to the top of Masada and begin our tour. The view from the cable car is quite spectacular. We can see the Dead Sea shimmering in the sunlight to our east. If we look straight down we can see the Snake Path winding its way to the top of the mountain. As the cable car ascends, we begin our journey through time. Our first stop will be the Northern Palace.
The Northern Palace was King Herod’s private palace getaway. It is described in good detail by Josephus in The Jewish War Book VII Chapter 8. The palace was built by King Herod beneath the walls of the citadel on the north side. The wall to the palace was very high and very strong, its four corners 27.5 meters high and it was built on three tiers. A road was dug from the Palace to the top of the mountain and the buildings were supported by pillars of single stones on every side. (This description was challenged 2,000 years later when archaeologists found the pillars were made of limestone dressed with faux paint to look like stone). The walls and floors were paved with stones of several colors and one can imagine the costly furnishings that Josephus writes about.
Why did Herod build a palace in this location? It could have been for the view, or for the natural defense advantage, but most likely because of the climate. The sun and wind scorched the top of Masada, but the Northern Palace was sheltered from the sun and wind and was much cooler than the rest of the rock.
The Upper Terrace was the only area in the palace that served as living quarters. The northern section was a large semi-circular porch, built with concentric walls. There were four original bedrooms and several corridors. These rooms were most likely built for Herod and maybe one of his wives. The living quarters appeared to be quite lavish. There were mosaic floors; one was black and white with geometric designs.
The archaeologist Yigal Yadin discovered a huge embankment of earth sloping from north to south. His team moved the earth and sifted through every piece of dirt; finding a lot of coins, pottery inscriptions, and jewelry. In the entire Masada project, 50,000 cubic yards of dirt was sifted through. After 11 months of digging, the team uncovered a Herodian period wall, covered in plaster. This wall can still be seen even from afar. Many pieces of painted plaster were found which were most likely used to adorn the walls and ceilings of the upper terrace of the palace. Many columns, capitals (Corinthian and Ionic), drums and pillars were found on this level that was probably dumped over the edge of the cliff by later inhabitants of Masada, like the Zealots, the Roman Garrison, and the Byzantines later on. The builders had put marks on each stone, assigning a letter to the column and a number to the drum. These inscriptions were in Hebrew letters, proving that the builders and stone-masons were Jewish. A wide staircase was found that was leading from the summit down to the palace. Volunteers excavated the eastern section tied to ropes so they didn’t fall off the 1300’ drop to the Sea level.
The Middle Terrace was a circular structure with two concentric walls with the space between them containing fragments of capitals and drums which had fallen into it from above. This section is not open to the public and does not have much left in the way of impressive remains.
The Lower Terrace was located at the narrowest part of Masada. Herod’s engineers had to make some kind of artificial platform with strong supporting walls, up to 25 meters high, with the villa hanging over it. The lower part of the wall was decorated with columns and colorful frescos that gave the appearance of stone and marble. These paintings were protected by debris and the dry climate for 2,000 years! The paintings were scraped off the walls, removing most of the plaster (to 1 mm thickness) and then a new backing was put on and the paintings were put in frames and then restored and put back in their original places. Josephus thought that the pillars were a single stone, but Yadin found that they were made of several drums of soft stone, plastered and then grooved. The Corinthian capitals were painted in rich gold. This terrace was designed to be a place of rest and relaxation, not for living quarters. The beautiful view was to the north toward Ein Gedi, the east to the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab, and to the west toward the Judean Hills. The greatest thing about this place of leisure was a private-bath house built for Herod, in the finest tradition.
The finds attributed to the Great Revolt were just as interesting at this terrace. Underneath the upper layers of debris, there was a thick layer of ashes from a powerful fire. Remains of food (date and olive stones) were found along with coins with inscriptions like “The Freedom of Zion.” These finds were those mentioned by Josephus when he documented that the Zealots burned their communal buildings before they took their own lives. The most chilling find was at the steps leading to the cold-water pool where three skeletons lay. One was a man about twenty. Near his body were hundreds of silvered scales of armor, scores of arrows, fragments of a prayer shawl, and an ostracon with Hebrew letters. Not too far off was the skeleton of a young woman, with her scalp preserved intact because of the extreme dryness of the atmosphere. Stained plaster was next to her with what looked like blood and a pair of sandals by her side. The third skeleton was that of a child. Josephus recounts the last moments:
“And he who was the last of all took a view of all the other bodies, lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain should want his assistance to be quite dispatched, and when he perceived that they were all slain, he set fire to the palace, and with the great force of his hand ran his sword entirely through himself, and fell down dead near to his own relations. So these people died with this intention, that they would not leave so much as one soul among them all alive to be subject to the Romans.” (Jewish Wars Book VII, Chapter 9)
These words are chilling. We don’t know that these skeletal remains were of the last to be slain at Masada, but we do know that 969 souls were lost that night because they chose death over slavery. The story of Masada makes one wonder…what would you choose?
We continue our tour on Masada next week. Until then….Blessings from Jerusalem.
Top Photo Credit: Green Olive Tours