This isolated mountaintop fortress, around 1,300 ft (440 m) above the banks of the Dead Sea, is believed to be the location of the oldest synagogue in the world. Masada was fortified as early as the 1st or 2nd century BC and then enlarged and reinforced by Herod the Great, who added two luxurious palace complexes. On Herod’s death, the fortress passed into Roman hands, but it was captured in AD 66 during the First Revolt by Jews of the Zealot sect. After the Romans crushed the rebels in Jerusalem, Masada remained the last Jewish stronghold. It was heroically defended for more than two years before the walls were breached by the Romans in AD 73.
INSIDE THE FORTRESS
The cliff-top plateau of Masada is surrounded by two walls, 4,593 ft (1,400 m) long and 13 ft (4 m) wide. Within, King Herod built palaces, barracks, and storehouses. His private retreat, the splendid northern Hanging Palace, extended over three terraces, ait into the cliff face and connected by steep staircases. The rooms were lavishly decorated with mosaic floors. Walls and ceilings were painted to resemble stone and marble, and elegant columns surrounded balconies and courtyards. His other residence, the larger Western Palace, served as the administrative center and contained Herod’s throne room and apartments.
Around the time of Herod’s death in 4 BC, the inhabitants of Masada became embroiled in a rebellion against Rome. The uprising was led by Judas of Galilee, founder of the Zealots, a militant Jewish sect that vehemently opposed the Romans because of their pagan beliefs.
The Romans crushed the rebellion and took Masada. In AD 66, at the start of the First Jewish Revolt, the Zealots regained the mountaintop. They lived among the palaces, using the fortress as a base to conduct raids against the Romans. At the time of the Roman siege of Masada, there were 1,000 inhabitants.
HEROD THE GREAT
Herod was born in 73 BC, the son of a Jewish father, Anti pater, and an Arab mother, Cyprus. Herod, like his father, was a practicing Jew. Antipater was the right-hand man of Hyrcanus, King of Judaea (r. 76-30 BC), and instrumental in Herod’s first appointment at the age of 16 as governor of Galilee. With cunning and ruthlessness, Herod moved up the political ladder. He married the king’s daughter, found favor with his Roman overlords, and was ultimately crowned king of Judaea himself in 37 BC. He embarked on a massive building program, which included a modern port, Caesarea, fortresses such as Masada, and the grand reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews, however, considered him racially impure and were incensed by his tyrannical rule and his excessive taxes.
This stands at the head of a winding path that leads to the reservoirs below.
Masada’ shot baths are one of the best-preserved parts of the fortress. The columns on which the original floor was raised, to allow hot air to circulate underneath and heat the room, can still be seen.
Part of the large Northern Palace complex, this was Herod’s private residence. It was built on three levels; the middle terrace had a circular hall used for entertaining, the lower terrace had a bathhouse.
As an alternative to the cable car, visitors can reach the fort by hiking up the steep winding path on the mountain’s east side.
This is a small building with niches for funerary urns; it is thought the urns held the ashes of non- Jewish members of Herod’s court.
A large number of pilgrims visit this rocky mountain citadel every year. The cable car was in stalled to ease their tiring journey.
At the foot of the mountain, Herod built dams and canals that collected the seasonal rainwater to fill cisterns on the northeastern side of the fortress. This water was then carried by donkey to the cisterns on top of the rock, such as this one in the southern part of the plateau.
Possibly built by Herod, this synagogue is thought to be the oldest in the world. The stone seats were added by the Zealots.
Used for receptions and the accommodation of Herod’s guests, the Western Palace was richly decorated, with mosaic floors and frescoes adorning the walls.
The story of the Roman siege of Masada, and the mass suicide of the Jewish inhabitants, was told by two women survivors. They had escaped the killings and the devastating fire lit by the last man before he, too, took his life, by hiding with their children in a cave.
THE ROMAN SIEGE OF MASADA (AD 70-73)
According to a 1st-century account by Roman historian Flavius Josephus, the Roman legions laying siege to Masada numbered about 10,000 men. To prevent the Jewish rebels from escaping, the Romans surrounded the mountain with a ring of eight camps, linked by walls-an arrangement that can still be seen today.
In order to make their attack, the Romans built an enormous earthen ramp up the side of the mountain. Once this had been completed, a tower was constructed against the walls. From the shelter of this tower, the Romans set to work with a battering ram. The defenders hastily erected an inner defensive wall, but this proved little obstacle and Masada fell when it was breached. Rather than submit to capture, slavery, or execution, the Jews inside the fortress chose to commit mass suicide. Josephus relates how each man was responsible for killing his own family.
37-31 BC: King Herod starts his grandiose building project.
1963: Excavations of the Masada stronghold begin.
2001: UNESCO declares Masada a World Heritage Site.