• Issue: February 1965
  • Designer: R. Errell
  • Plate no.: 126 - 128
  • Method of printing: Photogravure

"A rock of no slight circumference and lofty from end to end is abruptly terminated on every side by steep ravines, the precipices rising sheer from an invisible base and being inaccessible to the foot of any flying creature, save in two places where the rock permits of no easy ascent. Of these two tracks, one leads from the Lake of Asphaltitis on the east. The other, by which the approach is easier, is from the west."

This is the description given by the Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, of Masada, the great rock situated on the shore of the Dead Sea, touching the eastern border of the Judean desert south of En-Gedi. Its summit of about 20 acres towers some 390 meters and is a natural stronghold capable of resisting an enemy even without man-made fortifications.

According to Josephus it was Jannaeus the Hasmonaean king who, at the beginning of the first century BCE, first fortified Masada. Within these fortifications, originally built against the Nabateans, the members of Herod's family found shelter when escaping from Antigonus, the lawful Hasmonaean ruler.

Herod, who captured the throne in the year 37 BCE and whose reign was from then on constantly threatened by his own subjects as well as external forces, built and reinforced a chain of mighty fortresses across the Judean desert, always a natural refuge. The mightiest and most splendid of these was Masada.

Josephus' description of Herod's tremendous constructions at Masada was confirmed by archaeological excavations carried out on the rock.

Herod fortified Masada with a double wall, reinforced by scores of stone towers. Inside the wall, as required in an isolated desert stronghold, the king built storehouses stocked with large quantities of food, including wheat, wine, and oil; he provided for huge arsenals containing enough arms and equipment to last for many months of heavy battle.

Masada and the surrounding territory are barren and dry. Herod therefore developed an involved system of cisterns holding over 10,000 cubic meters of water, which were refilled by flood waters ingeniously directed into them. On the central and northern part of the fortress the king's architects erected a magnificent court, complete with splendid palaces, exquisite bath houses, and other buildings which in their pomp and splendor equaled the buildings of the capital Jerusalem. After Herod's death and the disintegration of his kingdom, a Roman garrison was stationed at Masada.

At the outbreak of the War of Liberation in 66 CE, Masada was the first stronghold to fall into the hands of the Zealots. The Galilean Menahem ben Judah, the leader of the conquerors, found the storehouses full of food and supplies. He was shortly joined by Simon bar Giora and Eleazer ben Yair, leader of the Zealots.

The Zealots held Masada for seven years. The excavations show that during those years the Zealots and their families, living mainly in the rooms built within the walls, led a quiet and organized life. The defenders apparently also had a synagogue and a ritual bath and observed the precept of the tithe. The portions of the scrolls found amongst the ruins are proof that none of the scrolls discovered at Qumran, south of Masada, and elsewhere in the area, can be dated after the year 73 CE - the year Masada fell.

Shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, the defenders of Masada, numbering fewer than 1,000 (including aged, women, and children), were surrounded and besieged by 10,000 soldiers of the Tenth Legion. At the end of a bitter battle the Romans, using heavy war machines and a huge rampart built over the eastern path, finally succeeded in breaking into the city. The defenders, led by Eleazer ben Yair, realizing the inevitable end of their resistance, decided to take their own lives. Their heroic deaths mark the end of the First War of Liberation against the Romans. There is a symbolic significance in the cry echoed by thousands of young Israelis who climb the rock of Masada every year - "Masada shall not fall again."

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Masada Stronghold