Sing: Onward, Christian Soldiers, UMH 575
Like “an aircraft-carrier moored to the western cliffs of the Dead Sea” (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor) the palace/fortress of Masada floats on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert between En Gedi and Sodom. A National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, this warship of the desert is topped by the ruins of Herod the Great’s luxurious residential palace on the north-facing prow. Elaborately designed and decorated, Herod’s palace cascaded in three tiers down the cliff face, each tier connected to the level below by a rock-cut staircase.
On the western side of the warship’s 1,800 feet by 900 feet deck are the remains of Herod’s ceremonial palace and administrative center. The largest building on Masada, it covered nearly 54,000 square feet. Herod’s creature comforts included bathhouses and a swimming pool. The most elaborate bathhouse had a hot-room with the floor suspended on low pillars. Hot air from a furnace was circulated under the floor and through clay pipes in the walls.
To supply water in this arid setting, a sophisticated system channeled winter rainfall from nearby wadis into huge cisterns quarried low into the northwest of the mountain. Water was then carried by men and beasts of burden up winding paths to reservoirs on the summit. The lower cisterns alone are estimated to have a capacity of over ten million gallons.
Herod planned Masada as a palace stronghold and desert foxhole, and fortified it with walls, gates, and towers. He wanted a place of refuge in case the Jews should rebel against him, or the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra (who coveted Judea) should try to have him killed. Before Herod the Hasmonean’s had used Masada as a fortress and after Herod the Romans stationed a garrison here.
One of the first events of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans was the conquest of Masada by the Sicarii in 66 AD. The last of the rebels fled to Masada after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and joined those already at the fortress under the command of Eleazar Ben Yair. In 73 or 74 AD the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis laid siege to the mountain-top fortress. The legion, consisting of 8,000 troops built eight camps around the base, a siege wall, and a ramp made of earth and wooden supports to the west. Captive Jews brought water and food to the troops, apparently from En Gedi.
After a siege of a few months the Romans pushed a siege tower with a battering ram to the top of their ramp and broke through the rebels’ fortifications. They found that of the 960 rebels all but two women and five children had been killed or killed themselves.
The Romans kept a force stationed here for another twenty-five or thirty years. After that Masada was left to the desert before a monastery of hermits was founded here in the 5th century. Two hundred years later the rise of Islam apparently led to the end of the monastery.
Masada faded into history for over a thousand years until scholars identified the site in 1838. Some explorations occurred over the next one hundred years and then major archeological work began in the 1950s. Masada National Park opened in 1966 and the first cable car was built in 1971. Conservation and restoration work continues today.
The complexity and luxury of Herod’s fortress/palace is overwhelming. The engineering is every bit as impressive as what was done at Herodium and on the Temple Mount. The work that the Romans did to breach this fortress is also extremely impressive. I would like to come back some time and watch the sound and light show they do on the west side of the mountain during the summer months. One of the great advantages to visiting Israel in the winter is how comfortable it was here at Masada and down at Dead Sea shore.