Even though we started our trek up the snake trail after midnight, the temperature was still in the 90’s. Our guides were lining the trail with luminaries as we sat around a campfire at the bottom of Masada, waiting anxiously to start the climb. It wasn’t an easy walk, which is why there are cable cars, but it was part of a spiritual journey that linked us with the 960 Jewish rebel extremists who had been under siege by the Romans. In 70 CE, these Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than be conquered.
Masada is a large mesa in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. For two thousand years it’s been out of easy reach of man and in an arid environment that was favorable for preserving the palaces and fortifications. It wasn’t until 1963 that archeologists took an interest in Masada.
The two main palaces were built by Herod between 37 and 31 BCE. Masada was fortified by Herod in case of a revolt. The palaces and other buildings have been excavated and partially restored, revealing mosaic floors and wall paintings. Other structures include a Byzantine church and a synagogue, storage rooms, Roman bath houses, a ritual bath and cisterns to collect water.
In 66 CE, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War, a group of Jewish extremists took Masada from the Romans troops stationed there. The group of rebels were trapped there while the Romans built a ramp from their camp at the foot of Masada to capture the Jews.
Among the artifacts uncovered during the excavations were 11 small ostraca, small shards, one of which has the name ben Yair, which could be short for Eleazar ben Yair, the commander of the fortress. Ostraca were used for voting, and these could’ve been the way the men drew lots to go forward with the mass suicide. It’s believed that certain ones were chosen to put the others to death with a knife or sword. When the largest number of warriors’ lives had been taken, the ones who had been charged with that onerous job might have drawn lots to see which of them would be the last standing and need to commit suicide to complete the pact. We don’t know who that was, only that when the Romans completed the ramp from their camp to the top of Masada, not one Jewish warrior was left alive.
See the accompanying slide show of Masada, the Dead Sea, and the archeological site HERE.
For an explanation of UNESCO and how the World Heritage sites are chosen, have a look at an outstanding article by Christine Zibas.