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He (Herod the Great, King of Judea in 37-4 BC) had gotten a great many of them (fortresses) already, and among them the strongest of them all, Masada.
Flavius Josephus - The Wars of the Jews - Chapter 12:1 - Translation by William Whiston
Josephus was the leader of the First Jewish Revolt in Galilee and in 67 AD he was captured by Roman general Vespasian who became emperor two years later. Josephus, who had prophesied the event, became an adviser to Titus, Vespasian's son, during the rest of the campaign. He was eventually freed and, consistent with Roman usage, he added the "surname" of his patrons (gens Flavia) to his name. He then wrote several books (in Greek) on the history of the Jews which were meant for a Hellenized audience, but nonetheless are the main source of information for historians and archaeologists on many events which occurred during the First Jewish Revolt and in the century which preceded it.
View from the Dead Sea side
Herod built a wall round about the entire top of the hill, seven furlongs long; it was composed of white stone; its height was twelve, and its breadth eight cubits; there were also erected upon that wall thirty-eight towers, each of them fifty cubits high. Flavius Josephus
Sebbeh (Masada) - This magnificent fortress was carefully planned with a tape and prismatic compass. The plateau is 410 feet above sea- level, or 1,700 feet above the Dead Sea shore. It is, roughly speaking, lozenge-shaped, measuring 2,080 feet along its length north and south, 1,050 feet east and west. On each side are steep precipices, the plateau being isolated by two gorges, and being, in fact, a piece broken away from the main cliff. (..) The mountain is surrounded by a wall of rude unhewn masonry, of moderate size. This seems to have had chambers within it. The length is 4,880 feet, which is not very far from Josephus's estimate of 7 furlongs.
Claude Reignier Conder - The survey of western Palestine - 1883
Most likely the landscape surrounding the rock of Masada at Herod's time was not as rugged and barren as it is today and yet the fortress was regarded as impregnable because of its natural defences.
"The Snake Path", the eastern access to the fortress
There are two ascents to the mountain. One on the east, the other
on the west. The eastern ascent is in a semi-ruinous condition, but the
side wall is visible down the precipice. Josephus gives a length of 30 furlongs for this ascent (called the Serpent). Conder
Masada was located at the south-eastern border of the Kingdom of Judea near Idumea (aka Edom), a region where Herod himself was born. Idumea was a sort of very small buffer state between Judea and the Nabatean Kingdom which controlled most of today's Jordan and Negev, a desert south of Judea. The Nabatean town of Mamfis in that desert was only thirty miles to the south-west of Masada.
Diodorus, who says the sea was sixty two miles and
a half long, and seven and a half broad, seems to be nearer the truth,
especially as to the breadth, which is commonly said to be ten miles;
and the length is generally computed to be sixty; but it did not appear
to me to be above a league broad, though I might be deceived by the
height of the mountains on the other side, and it may be broader in the
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
Today the level of the Dead Sea is dramatically lower than it was in the 1960s (and in antiquity). The image above was taken in early March, when the sea level was relatively high.
Masada controlled a trade route along the western shore of the Dead Sea which was an alternative to the Nabatean one on the eastern shore. It was not the only Jewish settlement in the area. At Ein Gedi, fifteen miles to the north, archaeologists have found evidence of a small town with a decorated synagogue.
Northern palace: (left) model; (right) view of the lower and middle terraces from the upper one
At the north-end of the fortress there is a round tower, about 30 feet
diameter, and 70 feet below the top of the plateau. The wall of the tower
is very thick, with two rings of ashlar and rubble within. Below this
again is another square outwork, on the face of the cliff. Conder
As reported by Suetonius, Emperor Augustus claimed: I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Herod owed his kingdom to the protection of Rome and chiefly of Augustus. He tried to imitate him by founding new towns (e.g. Caesarea), by completing/redesigning the Temple at Jerusalem, by building a palace/fortress at Herodion and by providing Masada with two luxury residential palaces in addition to the fortifications.
Northern palace: lower terrace
The northern palace is a relatively small complex, but the engineers and workers who built it deserve admiration for the three terraces they built at the northern edge of the hill. They are in part cut into the rock and in part supported by walls.
The furniture also of the edifices, and of the cloisters, and of the baths, was of great variety, and very costly; and these buildings were supported by pillars of single stones on every side; the walls and also the floors of the edifices were paved with stones of several colours. Flavius Josephus
As a matter of fact walls and columns were made of local limestone and then plastered and painted to resemble coloured marbles.
Northern palace: (above) warehouses; (below) middle terrace
Lesser edifices were built on the inside, round the entire wall; for the king reserved the top of the hill, which was of a fat soil, and better mould than any valley for agriculture, that (those who) committed themselves to this fortress for their preservation might not even there be quite destitute of food, in case they should ever be in want of it from abroad. Flavius Josephus
Today it is hard to believe that farming could occur inside the fortress and yet Flavius Josephus is very precise about it.
Northern palace: baths: (left) one of the halls; (right) evidence of the hypocaust, the Roman system of underfloor heating
In 19 BC Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, was appointed governor of Syria and given special powers over the whole of the Roman territories in the Levant. It is known that he visited or was expected to visit Judea and King Herod wanted to offer him hospitality adequate to his rank. During his stay in Rome in 37 BC he had seen that wealthy families had private baths and he provided his residences with similar facilities which perhaps were built by Roman engineers. The image used as background for this page shows a black and white mosaic found at these baths.
Northern palace: water supply system: (left) water entry point (darker area); (right) its enlargement
There are several other ruins dotted about the plateau,
including six rock-cut tanks, and one of masonry, with steps leading
down into it. (..) The floor is paved with chips of stone. Some of the rock
trenches are cemented, some are not. There
is also a deep well on the west side north of the masonry tank. Conder
Archaeologists have identified several cisterns at Masada; the large ones were probably used to store rainwater, but those of the northern palace were replenished by a complex supply system. A net of canals/small aqueducts conveyed water to a conduit excavated in the rock at the foot of the hill which was accessible by a trail or steps from the northern palace. Today this seems quite impossible, but perhaps at the time of Herod the cliff was not as precipitous as it is today.
Southern palace: mosaics
Immediately south of the western ascent to the plateau is another
large block of ruins, consisting of heaps of large fallen stones. It
measures 160 feet east and west by 200 feet north and south. The
position is exactly that in which Herod's palace is described by Josephus. Conder
A second palace was built in the southern part of the fortress; it did not enjoy the commanding view of the northern one, but it was larger in size and more comfortable to live in. It retains some small elaborate mosaics which perhaps were made after the death of Herod.
The Roman commander Silva had now built a wall on the outside, round about this whole place, and had thereby made a most accurate provision to prevent any one of the besieged running away, he undertook the siege itself. (..) There was also a tower made of the height of sixty cubits, and all over plated with iron, out of which the Romans threw darts and stones from the engines, and soon made those that fought from the walls of the place to retire, and would not let them lift up their heads above the works. At the same time Silva ordered that great battering ram which he had made to be brought thither, and to be set against the wall, and to make frequent batteries against it, which with some difficulty broke down a part of the wall, and quite overthrew it.In the morning (the Romans) put on their armour, and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks, to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did; but saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place, as well as a perfect silence. So they were at a loss to guess at what had happened. At length they made a shout, as if it had been at a blow given by the battering ram, to try whether they could bring any one out that was within; the women heard this noise, and came out of their under-ground cavern, and informed the Romans what had been done, as it was done; and the second of them clearly described all both what was said and what was done, and this manner of it; yet did they not easily give their attention to such a desperate undertaking, and did not believe it could be as they said; they also attempted to put the fire out, and quickly cutting themselves a way through it, they came within the palace, and so met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was.
The crowds who visit Masada do not come because of the remains of Herod's palaces, but because the fortress was the site of the last resistance of the Jewish rebels in 73 AD. The tragic epilogue of the Roman siege is a symbol of Jewish national identity and heroism.
(left) Western walls: site of the Roman attack; (right) western access to Masada
The Roman investment of Masada remains to the present day in a very perfect condition. The wall is traceable all round the fortress, and the two large camps, one east, one west of the fortress, are almost perfect, together with six small forts on the wall in the plain. (..) The eastern camp is near the plain, the western is on a bank raised above the plain. Both are some little distance (about 200 yards) behind the investing wall. The wall and the camps were built up of unhewn stones, without mortar, and have gradually fallen in heaps of stone. The western ascent was easier, and is now yet more practicable, in consequence of the bank, or causeway, raised by Sylva at the time of the Roman siege. A bank of soft limestone here adheres to the precipice - a narrow ridge reaching up from the open ground on the west. On this promontory (called 'White Promontory' by Josephus) an artificial mound, some 300 feet high, has been raised, and on the mound is a wall of unhewn blocks, forming a sloping ascent some 70 feet high. Conder
Church: (left) apse; (right) fragment of a mosaic
The Christian remains include a chapel and a cave.
The chapel stands in the south-west corner of a courtyard. (..) The chapel apse on the east is 13 feet 7 inches
in diameter. (..) The inside of the chapel is cemented with fragments of pottery
arranged in patterns in the cement. The masonry of the walls is
irregular in the length of the stones. The apse-stones are well finished
with a toothed instrument. The windows have round arches with a
narrow keystone. The roof of the apse is a half dome. The walls are
standing high on all sides, but the roofs are gone, except that of the apse. Conder
Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Where they (the Romans) make a desert, they call it peace.
Tacitus - Agricola.
After Emperor Hadrian quelled the Second Jewish Revolt (132-136), Judea was almost depopulated. Religious Jewish centres flourished in Galilee, e.g. at Tiberias, but Jews were not allowed to return to Jerusalem. In the Vth or VIth century some monks built a church in Masada, but after the Arab invasion of the VIIth century the site was abandoned for very long periods.
A Grand Canyon landscape
Ancient Synagogues: Introduction, Korazim, Capernaum and Hamat Teverya
Ancient Synagogues: Bet Alpha, Diocaesarea and Ein Gedi
Necropolis of Bet She'arim
Scythopolis (Bet She'an)