The Siege of Masada [2008]


Ascending Masada by Cable Car  [May 2008]

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Looking across towards the Dead Sea

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The ruins atop Masada

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The Snake Path

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One of the huge Water Cisterns

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Feeding the birds at Masada

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The impregnable fortress of Masada in the Judean Desert was built by King Herod around  30 BCIt could only be reached by a twisting narrow pathway, called the serpent or snake. 

Masada is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Israel. It is best known for a dramatic siege described by Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, in his work “The Wars of the Jews.”

[The Works of Josephus”, translated by William Whiston.  ISBN: 1-56563-167-6  Pages 762-769]

Following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), Masada was conquered by a group of Jewish zealots, and it became their last stronghold. They refused to surrender and were besieged by the 10th Roman Legion, led by the Roman Governor of Judea, Lucius Flavius Silva.  In total, there was an army of around 9000 soldiers, as well as several thousand Jewish prisoners of war.  It took them almost two years to conquer the fortress.

The Roman legion surrounded Masada and built a line of fortifications around the plateau.  Eventually, they built a huge earthen siege ramp against the western side of the plateau.  This was most probably carried out by the prisoners of war in extreme desert temperatures.  The ramp was completed in the Spring of 73 AD. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp, while the Romans assaulted the wall, discharging “a volley of blazing torches against … a wall of timber”.  When the Romans entered the fortress, however, they found it to be “a citadel of death.”

The 960 Jewish zealots, led by Eleazar ben Jair,  had chosen to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, preferring death to slavery. According to the account, the defenders each killed their own families, and then drew lots to determine who would kill their compatriots. Only two women and five children—who had hidden in a water conduit—survived to tell the tale. 

According to William Whiston, translator of Josephus, the two women repeated Eleazar ben Yair’s exhortations to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans: 

“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice … We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”   Eleazar ben Yair

Photos:  Masada in the Judean Desert   [May 2008]

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