Monday, January 23, 2012


Massada, the ancient fortress built by King Herod the Great atop a lofty natural plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. In adding Massada to its prestigious World Heritage List, UNESCO cited several aspects of Massada’s universal value: the site preserves a grand first-century Roman villa, the remains of the most complete Roman siege system in the world, and tells the story of the tragic events leading to the last chapter of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans - the last stand of the rebels who became a symbol of the struggle fight for freedom from oppression.

The plateau of Massada is located on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert, near the shore of the Dead Sea, between Ein Gedi and Sodom.  It is a mountain block that rose and was detached from the fault escarpment, surrounded at its base by Wadi Ben Yair in the west and Wadi Massada in the south and east.  The plateau, 450 metres above the Dead Sea, is approximately 650 metres long and 300 metres wide.  East of the mountain is sediment left by the ancient Dead Sea, scored by numerous cracks.  Massada’s remote location and its natural defences were the advantages that transformed it into a fortress during the Second Temple period.


Archeological evidence of some Chalcolithic and Iron Age settlement has been found, but the main period it was inhabited was from Hasmonean times until the end of the great revolt against the Romans.

According to Josephus Flavious, the first fortress at Massada was built by “Jonathan HaCohen Hagadol” – apparently King Alexander Yanai (103-76 BCE), whose coins were discovered in the excavations.  Some people believe Jonathan was the brother of Judah the Macabbi, who became Cohen Hagadol in 152 BCE

King Herod (37-4 BCE) was aware of the strategic advantages of Massada.  He chose the site as a refuge from his enemies.  During his reign luxurious palaces were built here, as well as storerooms, cisterns and a casemate wall.  After his death and the annexation of Judea to the Roman Empire in 6 CE, the Romans stationed a garrison at Massada.

Josephus wrote that one of the first events of the great revolt of the Jews against the Romans, which started in 66 CE, was the conquest of Massada by the Sicarii sect.  They were headed by Menachem, son of Judah the Galilean, who was murdered in Jerusalem in 66.  After the murder, Eliezer Ben Yair fled from Jerusalem to Massada and became commander of the rebel group on the mountain.  It was a varied group, which also included Essenes and Samaritans.  More rebels joined those in Massada after the fall of Jerusalem in 70.

After the rebels took over Masada, they turned the palaces into their command posts and used them as public buildings. A building near the northern wall, which in Herod's day had been a stable, was turned into a synagogue. Used while the Temple still stood, it is one of the earliest synagogues in the world. The rebels also built two Mikvot.

The rebels lived mainly in rooms in the casemate walls, as attested by stoves, niches for food storage and other finds from daily life unearthed in them. Articles of clothing, baskets, household implements and other items were found in piles of ash, apparently burned intentionally by their owners so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.

More than 5,000 coins were found at Masada, mostly minted by the rebels. Especially moving are the silver coins bearing the words “Shekel of Israel” and “Jerusalem the Holy,” with letters indicating each of the five years of the rebellion. Portions of scrolls were uncovered, along with more than 700 ceramic sherds bearing inscriptions.

Hundreds of ballista balls fired at the fortress by the Romans and found atop the plateau attest to the heated battle between the rebels and the forces of their imperial enemy. Large rolling stones that the rebels may have used as ammunition, and skeletons, apparently of warriors who committed suicide, were found in various locations.

Remains of the Roman siege on Masada are the most complete examples of such a siege in the world. The Roman camps, siege wall and siege ramp are clearly visible from the top of the plateau. The siege wall that surrounded the base of Masada is two kilometers long and two meters thick. The extent of the Roman siege-works could be considered surprising in light of the fact that they were meant to counter the resistance of 960 men, women and children. As such the remains demonstrate the determination of the rebels to resist the might of the Romans.

According to Josephus, Massada was the last stronghold in Judah.  In 73 or 74, the Roman 10th Legion laid siege to the mountain.  The legion, consisting of 8,000 troops, built 8 camps around the base, the siege wall and siege ramp.  Captive Jews brought water to the troops, probably from Ein Gedi, and food.

After a few months of siege the Romans brought a tower with a battering ram and began to batter the wall.  The rebels constructed an inner support wall of wood and earth, to which the Romans set fire.  When the rebels realized the situation was hopeless Eliezer Ben Yair gave 2 speeches, in which he convinced the 960 members of the community it would be better to take their own lives and those of their families rather than live in shame and humiliation as Roman slaves.

Josephus Flavious, The War of the Jews, VII, 395-406)
Then, having chosen by lot 10 of their number to dispatch the rest, they laid themselves down each beside his prostrate wife and children, and flinging their arms around them, offered their throats in readiness for the executants of the melancholy office.  These, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom it fell should slay first the nine and them himself last of all;....  they had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; the Romans advanced to the assault..... seeing none of the enemy but on all sides an awful solitude, and flames within and silence, there were at a loss to conjecture what had happened. Here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death displayed by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution.

Josephus wrote that 2 women and 5 children, who had been hiding in the cisterns on the mountaintop, told the Romans what had happened that night, the first night of Passover.  A Roman auxiliary unit stayed at Massada until 106.

After the Romans left Massada remained uninhabited for a few centuries.  In the 5th century, during the Byzantine period, a monastery was founded.  The monks used the Roman siege ramp to climb and descend the mountain.  With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, the monastery ceased to exist.


Massada was abandoned until the 19th century.  In 1838 Smith and Robinson identified the mountain as Massada.  The first to climb to the top were Wolcott and Tipping in 1842.  Warren climbed Massada in 1967 and Conder described and mapped it in 1875.  Sandel discovered the water system in 1905 and Schulten studied the Roman siege system in 1932.

Shmarya Gutman, Micha Livneh and Zeev Meshel rediscovered the Snake Path and Northern Palace in 1953.  Survey excavations were carried out in 1955-56, which led to major excavations by the Hebrew University, headed by Yigal Yadin, from 1963-65.  These uncovered most of Massada’s structure, as well as thousands of well-preserved artifacts that present a rare picture of the material culture at the end of the Second Temple period.

Many buildings have been conserved and reconstructed and Massada National Park was opened in 1966.  The cable-car was constructed in 1971.  A new visitors’ centre was opened in 1998.

The Snake Path Gate

The bridge from the upper cable car station leads to the Snake Path gate.  To the right a staircase leads to an ancient cistern and from there to the upper end of the Snake Path.  The walls of the gatehouse are decorated with stucco (moulded plaster).  Along the walls are the original benches that served the guards and those awaiting entry.  The stone paving was intended to prevent damage to the floor by mules that brought supplies.

The Quarry

This quarry provided stone – hard, durable dolomite – for construction of Massada’s buildings in Herod’s day. The plateau of Massada consists of extensively cracked rock due to it location along the Syrian-African rift valley, which made quarrying easier.  The quarry later served as a dry moat, protecting the entrance to the northern complex.

The Commandant’s Residence

Near the quarry, to the right of the path, is a grand residence.  Its location at the entrance to the northern complex indicates it was used by the commandant.   The residence consists of a central courtyard, surrounded by rooms, some of which were adorned with colourful wall paintings.  It later served as a home for rebel families.

The Storerooms Complex

This contains 29 storerooms, each one 27 meters long, which were used to store food, liquid and weapons. Excavations there turned up hundreds of clay pots that could hold huge amounts of food.   According to the finds, Herod had expensive tastes.  Inscriptions were found on the amphorae stating the shipment was to Herod, King of Judea in 19 BCE from southern Italy, from a supplier named Lucius Lanius.  Among the delicacies served at Massada, Josephus mentioned a fish sauce known as “Garum”, from southern Spain.  Fish bones from this sauce were found in one vessel.  The king ended his banquets with apples or apple liqueur brought from Cumae, Italy.

The Northern Palace

This is Massada’s most impressive structure, constructed against the northern cliff-face as if hanging over the abyss. It was built by Herod on three rock terraces, each containing grand rooms and supported by gigantic retaining walls to expand their size. Both Hellenistic and Roman architectural elements were used.  The four bedrooms on the top level had a semicircular balcony that revealed magnificent views of the surroundings, especially En Gedi to the north and the Dead Sea and the Mountains of Moab to the east. A staircase led to the middle level - a large, round hall surrounded by a colonnade that extended almost to the cliff-edge. On the lowest terrace was another large, colonnaded hall adorned with spectacular wall paintings, and a private bathhouse for the palace's residents. Herod also built a large bathhouse atop the plateau for the other inhabitants of Massada.

The Water System

12 gigantic cisterns were hewn into the mountainside to collect flood water; they had a capacity of some 40,000 cubic meters, enough to supply water for all the requirements of the inhabitants, from drinking water to a swimming pool, bathhouses and agriculture. Thus in a rare combination of natural conditions and human initiative, Massada became an impregnable fortress - almost.

The Synagogue

This building was originally constructed in Herod’s time and used as a stable.  During the Great Revolt it was converted to a synagogue, with the addition of benches along the walls and a separate room at the back.  In 2 pits under the floor of the back room biblical scrolls were found, indicating they may have been a geniza.  This is one of the only synagogues found in Israel dating from the Second Temple period.

South of the synagogue is the “Casemate of scrolls”.  This is a collection of Roman artifacts from after the conquest of Massada.  It includes a large number of parchment and papyrus fragments, including the salary record of a cavalryman from the 10th Legion, named Gaius Messus.  He was born in the colony of Beirut and was paid 3 times a year, with the cost of clothing, equipment and food deducted at source.  Rolling stones and hundreds of ballista balls were also discovered in the room. 

The Columbarium Towers

These 2 square towers in which pigeons were raised, also served as lookout and guard towers.  They were built in Herod’s time, before the construction of the perimeter wall.  The niches in the walls housed pigeons that were used for food and postal services, and whose droppings were used for fertilizer.

The Byzantine Church

The centre of the Byzantine monastery was the church, which is well preserved.  There is a narthex with a white mosaic floor.  The nave was also originally decorated with mosaic.  The semicircular apse is preserved to its original height and glass from its window was found in the courtyard.  The floor contains a pit, which may have been a crypt or reliquary.  Dozens of clay roofing tiles were discovered during the excavation.  The western room of the church contains a mosaic depicting floral designs, medallions encircling fruit and baskets of communion bread.

Breaching point in the wall

The perimeter wall is missing above the siege ramp, where it was destroyed during the assault.  The Romans raised a tower high enough to overlook the wall and bombarded the area.  The rebels defended themselves by rolling large stones down on the Romans.  The Romans destroyed the perimeter wall and then burned the wood and earth wall the rebels had built to shore it up.  This was the end of the siege.

The Western ByzantineGate

This stone gate stood at the upper end of the path that led over the siege ramp to the top of the mountain in Byzantine times.  It is still used as an entrance by those who climb the mountain from that direction.

The Western Palace

The 3,700 square metre Western Palace was built during Herod’s reign and is the largest structure on Massada.  To the right of the entrance is a reconstructed model of the palace.  On the north side of the central courtyard a flight of steps can be ascended to view the bath complex blow, with its mosaics and stucco.  Nearby is a reception room with a magnificent colourful mosaic.  On the left when descending the steps is a room with 2 bathtubs and a water cistern.

Public Bath

This stepped pool was built during the Great Revolt.  The wide steps allowed several people to enter the pool at once.  A dressing room was found nearby, with wall niches where clothing could be placed.

Small Palaces

Herod built 3 small palaces for guests, which were later used by the rebels.

The Rebel Dwellings

This group of modest structures hugs the inside of the eastern perimeter wall, near the eastern observation point.  These were living quarters during the Great Revolt.  Artifacts discovered reveal elements of daily life during the revolt.  These include textiles, stone and metal tools, baskets, pottery and glass vessels and bone utensils.  Leather items, coins and jewelry were also found.  In addition, Hebrew and Aramaic texts found tell us about their lives.

The Round Columbarium Tower

Pigeons were raised on the lower floor of this tower, and the upper floor was a guard tower.

The Swimming Pool

Herod built a large, plastered swimming pool, with a flight of stairs to the bottom.

The Southern Fort

In ancient times access to Massada was via the southern cliff, where a fort was built.  There is a spectacular view from this point of Wadi Massada, the Dead Sea, the siege wall and siege camps.

The southern and eastern water cisterns

These are an example of the huge investment and know-how that went into the construction of Massada’s water cisterns.  A flight of 64 steps leads into the cistern the southern cistern.  The eastern cistern drains the northern half of the plateau and its plaster suggests it may have been built in Hasmonean times.  A plastered channel led water from the Snake Path gate to this cistern.

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