Masada is Hebrew for "fortress." It is the name of an ancient fortification located on top of an isolated rock cliff on the eastern edge of the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea. The cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 450 meters high, dropping off to the Dead Sea, and the cliffs on the west are about 100 meters high; the natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult. The top of the plateau is flat and rhomboid shaped, approximately 600 by 300 meters. There was a casemate wall around the top of the plateau totalling 1400 meters long and 4 meters thick with many towers, and the fortress included storehouses, cisterns that were refilled by rainwater, barracks, palaces and an armory. Three narrow, winding paths led from below to fortified gates.
Dovecote at Masada where pigeons were raised.
Photo by Elizabeth Thomas, click image for details
According to Flavius Josephus, Herod the Great built Masada between 37 and 31 BC as a refuge for himself should his Jewish subjects rise against him. In 66 AD, at the beginning of the Jewish uprising against the Romans, a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii took Masada from the Roman garrison stationed there. In 70 AD they were joined by additional Sicarii and their families who were expelled from Jerusalem by the other Jews living there shortly before the destruction of the Temple, and for the next two years used Masada as their base for raiding and harassing Roman and Jewish settlements alike. Then, in 73 AD, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion and laid siege to the fortress. They built a circumvallation wall and then a rampart against the western face of the plateau, using thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth. Josephus doesn't record any major attempts by the Sicarii to counterattack the besiegers during this process, a significant difference from his accounts of other sieges against Jewish fortresses, suggesting that perhaps the Sicarii lacked the equipment or skills to fight the Roman legion. The ramp was complete in the spring of 74 AD after approximately two to three months of siege, allowing them to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram. When the Romans entered the fortress, however, they discovered that its approximately one thousand defenders had set all the buildings ablaze and committed mass suicide rather than face certain capture or defeat by their enemies. This account of the siege of Masada was apparently related to Josephus by two women who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children.
Due to recent archaeological findings many historians no longer believe that there was an organized mass suicide at Masada, although there is still evidence to suggest that the defenders of Masada set its buildings on fire when the wall was breached and it is plausible that many individuals did kill themselves. Josephus appears to have embellished the conclusion of the tale somewhat, though perhaps not as much as others he recorded. Nonetheless, the siege of Masada has become a popular story of heroic resolve in the face of oppression, and the more questionable details of Sicarii conduct are often overlooked when it is told today.
The site of Masada was identified in 1842 and extensively excavated in 1963-65. A modern cable car now carries the many visitors to the ruins of the fortress. The Snake path (on the east side) and the Roman ramp (on the west) can still be climbed on foot.