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MASADA (Heb. מְצָדָה, Meẓadah), Herod's palatial fortress and the last stronghold during the Jewish War against Rome (66–73/74 c.e.).


Masada is situated on an isolated rock plateau on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert near the western shores of the Dead Sea, south of En Gedi. It is a mountain bloc that rose and was detached from the fault escarpment, surrounded at its base by two wadis. The rhomboid shaped rock is approximately 1,950 ft. (600 m.) long and approximately 1,000 ft. (300 m.) wide in its center. The plateau at its top rises 1,475 ft. (450 m.) above the Dead Sea level. The site was close to two ancient routes: one that crossed the center of the Judean Desert leading to southern Moab and one that connected Edom, Moab, and the Arava Valley with En Gedi and Jerusalem. The remote location and natural defenses of Masada made it an exceptional fortified site during the Second Temple period. The natural approaches are steep and arduous and include the "snake path" mentioned by Josephus on the east, and approaches on the cliff's northern and southern sides.

The name Masada appears in Flavius Josephus' writings in Greek transcription. It derives from the Hebrew and Aramaic word meẓad ("stronghold"). Masada is mentioned in a divorce deed and an ostracon (inscribed pottery sherd) that were uncovered in the Murabbaʿat caves.


The only significant source of information about Masada is the writings of Flavius *Josephus (Ant., 14, 15; Wars, 1, 2, 4, 7). Josephus was the commander of Galilee during the First Jewish Revolt, who later surrendered to the Romans at *Jotapata (Yodfat). At the time of Masada's siege he was in Rome, where he devoted himself to chronicling the history of the Jews and thereafter the occurrences of the revolt. He presumably based his narration upon the field commentaries of the Roman commanders that were accessible to him. Masada is also briefly mentioned by Strabo (Geography 16, 2:44) and Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5:17, 73), which was the source for Solinus (third century c.e.?) and Martianus Capella (c. 400 c.e.).


Josephus provides us with two versions regarding the identity of the founders of the fortress at Masada. In one passage he attributes the first construction to "ancient kings" (Wars, 4:399). According to another passage, Masada was first fortified by "Jonathan the High Priest" (Wars, 7:285). Scholars disagree as to the identity of this Jonathan – whether he was referring to the brother of Judah Maccabee (mid-second century b.c.e.) or Alexander *Yannai (103–76 b.c.e.), who was also called Jonathan.

During an uprising against the house of Antipater, Masada came under the rule of Felix in 42 b.c.e. It was *Herod who soon seized back control of the fortress (Ant., 14:296; Wars, 1:236–38).

In 40 b.c.e. Herod fled from Jerusalem to Masada with his family to escape from Mattathias Antigonus, who had been made king by the Parthians. He left his family, his brother Joseph, and 800 men there to defend it against a siege by Antigonus (Ant., 14:361–2; Wars, 1:264, 267). According to Josephus the defenders almost died of thirst during the siege but were saved when a sudden rainstorm filled the creeks and pits on the summit of the rock. Herod, returning from a trip to Rome, raised the siege and carried his family off to safety (Ant., 14:390–91, 396, 400; Wars, 1:286–87, 292–94). As a result: "Herod furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself, suspecting a twofold danger: peril on the one hand from the Jewish people, lest they should depose him and restore their former dynasty to power; the greater and more serious from Cleopatra, queen of Egypt" (Wars, 7:300). During his reign, Herod transformed Masada into a palatial fortress, providing it with luxurious palaces, bathhouses, well-stocked storerooms, cisterns, all encircled with a casemate wall.

Following the death of Herod in 4 b.c.e. the site was in the boundaries of Herod Archelaus' kingdom. After his removal from power by the Romans and the annexations of Judea to the Roman Empire in 6 c.e. it can be assumed that a Roman garrison was probably stationed there until the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 66 c.e. Masada was captured "by stratagem" in that year by a band of sicarii under the command of *Menahem son of Judah (Wars, 2:408, 433). This group was named after a curved dagger, the sica, which they carried. After Menahem was murdered in Jerusalem, his nephew, *Eleazar ben Jair, fled Jerusalem to Masada and became the commander of the rebel community on the mountain until its fall in 73/74 c.e. Masada became a place of refuge for a heterogeneous population, apparently including Sicarii, Essenes, and Samaritans. *Simeon bar Giora also stayed there for a time. The last of the rebels fled to Masada from Jerusalem in 70 c.e. In 73/74 c.e. the Roman governor, Flavius Silva, marched against Masada. After a siege that lasted a few months, the Romans breached the wall of the fortress and set ablaze the inner wood and soil wall. When the hope of the rebels dwindled, Josephus put in Eleazar ben Jair's mouth two speeches in which he persuaded his followers to take their own life rather than fall into the hands of the Romans. Josephus narrated these occurrences that ended in the mass suicide of 960 men, women, and children and the burning of the buildings and stores of food. The gloomy end of Masada was told by two women who together with five children survived by hiding in one of the cisterns. After Masada's conquest, Silva left a garrison there.

The Church Fathers note that during the Byzantine period a monastery was established in a place named "Marda," which some scholars identify with Masada (Cyril of Scythopolis, Vita Euthymii 11; Johannnes Moschus, Pratum Spirituale 158).

History of Exploration

Masada was identified for the first time in 1838 by the Americans E. Robinson and E. Smith who viewed the rock which the Arabs called al-Sabba through a telescope from En Gedi. The site was first visited in 1842 by the American missionary S.W. Wolcott and the British painter Tipping and next by members of an American naval expedition in 1848. Ten years later, F. de Saulcy drew the first plan of Masada. C. Warren in 1867 heading the "Survey of Western Palestine" climbed Masada from the east along the "snake path" and in 1875, C.R. Conder, on behalf of the survey, drew plans which were the most accurate up to that time. Sandel discovered the water system in 1905. The first detailed study of the Roman camps was made by A.V. Domaszewski and R.E. Bruennow in 1909. Others followed in the beginning of the 20th century, foremost among them, the German A. Schulten, who surveyed Masada for a month in 1932. Aerial photographs were the basis for the studies of C. Hawks (1929) and I.A. Richmond (1962).

The major impetus for the extensive excavations of the site was provided by Israeli scholars, especially S. Guttman, who correctly traced the serpentine twistings of the "snake path" and with A. Alon studied Herod's water system (1953). He also excavated and restored the walls of one of the Roman camps (Camp a). Large-scale Israeli surveys were conducted in 1955 (headed by M. Avi-Yonah, N. Avigad, Y. Aharoni, and S. Guttman) and again in 1956 (headed by Y. Aharoni and S. Guttman) which established the general outline of the buildings and prepared new plans of the rock. Masada was mainly excavated between 1963 and 1965 by Y. Yadin with a large staff of archaeologists and thousands of volunteers from all parts of the world. Large percentages of the built-up area of the mountain were uncovered as well as probes in Camp f, and restoration of the buildings was carried out at the site simultaneously. A small-scale excavation was conducted by E. Netzer in 1989. Excavations were resumed on top of Masada in 1995 under the direction of E. Netzer and G. Stiebel on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Several seasons were conducted between 1995 and 2000, focusing on the Northern Palace complex, the northwestern sector of the site, the Roman breach, the eastern section of the casemate wall, the Byzantine church, and water installations throughout the mountain. In 1995, a short season was conducted in Camp f and the Roman ramp under the direction of G. Forester, B. Arubas, H. Goldfus, and J. Magness.


early periods

As in many Judean Desert sites, evidence of a Chalcolithic occupation (mid-fifth–fourth millennium b.c.e.) including botanical remains, textiles, mats, and pottery sherds were found in a small cave on the lower part of the southern cliff. Few sherds, but no architectural remains, were uncovered on the plateau from the Iron Age ii (tenth–seventh centuries b.c.e.).

The nature of the Hellenistic presence at Masada is still enigmatic. None of the buildings uncovered to date may be attributed to the pre-Herodian era but possibly two cisterns, located in the eastern sector and the southeast cliff. In addition, merely one oil lamp derives from that period of time. However, Josephus' testimony concerning the identity of the founders of Masada need not necessarily be taken as contradictory, for it may be narrating sequential occurrences, as indeed emerges from the numismatic finds. The dozen Ptolemaic coins from the third century b.c.e., mainly of Ptolemy ii, appear to agree with the reference to "ancient kings" (Wars, 4:399) as the original builders, while the allusion to "Jonathan the High Priest" (Wars, 7:285), clearly a Hasmonean ruler, is supported by the discovery of four coins of John *Hyrcanusi (130–104 b.c.e.) and dozens of Alexander Yannai's coins (103–76 b.c.e.).

herodian period

Two square enclosures, facing the outlet of the "snake pass," were noticed in aerial photographs. Although claimed to represent the camp of the pioneer force of the Roman army during the siege of 73/74 c.e., the larger enclosure of the two clearly antedates Camp c and appears to reflect indeed a chronological rather than technical stage. Being a camp of an earlier episode it was seemingly erected during the siege that Mattathias Antigonus laid against Herod's family and supporters in 40 b.c.e.

The major construction period of Masada was under King Herod's rule. Netzer demonstrated that the works were carried out in three chronological phases. During the first were built three small palaces, the core of the Western Palace, a building in the upper terrace of the Northern Palace, and soldier barracks, all exhibiting a structure with a central courtyard, as well as three dovecotes (colombaria). The Northern Palace complex, consisting of the public storerooms, the large bathhouse, and Northern Palace, the expansion of the Western Palace, and the water system were seemingly erected during the second phase, while the main feature to be constructed in the third phase was a casemate wall (double wall divided into rooms) that enclosed the perimeter of the plateau. The stone for the constructions derives from two sources: the walls were built from the local dolomite stone which was cut in quarries on top of the mountain and in the huge water cisterns, whereas the more elaborate architectonic features, such as the pillar drums, capitols, and architrave's parts, were shaped from non-local softer stone. A large group of iron chisels from that period was uncovered at the site. The mason markings, of Hebrew letters, visible on all pillar drums, indicate the origin of the stone cutters.

The Northern Palace Complex

Herod constructed the most important buildings in the northern part of Masada – the highest point of the rock ("acropolis"). The Northern Palace was serviced by public storerooms, administrative buildings, and large bathhouse.

The main entrance to the Northern Palace complex was through its south part, near Building no. viii, which seemingly served as the "commandant's residence." The excavations of Netzer and Stiebel revealed the varied features of the main entrance, the dominant building of which is a large hall that occupies the eastern part of the courtyard. It was originally decorated with stucco reliefs and apparently served as a reception hall for Masada's visitors. Together with the "commandant's headquarters," west of the courtyard, this hall formed alavish entrance, that made it possible to monitor the incoming goods and visitors.

Northern Palace

Josephus gives a detailed account of a royal palace situated beneath the walls of the fortress. This palace enjoyed improved climate conditions and commanded a magnificent view of the surroundings as far as En Gedi. It was built in three tiers, the upper containing the living quarters whereas the lower ones were designed for pleasure. The upper terrace is an extension of the narrow tip of the summit and contains a large semicircular balcony bounded by a double wall. A four-room building south of it with two rooms on each side of a court was apparently Herod's private abode. It is decorated by a typical Roman-style black and white mosaic floor in geometric designs. The walls and ceilings were decorated with frescoes. To the south a great white plastered wall separated the palace from the rest of Masada and left only a narrow passageway at its eastern end for a staircase. Columns had probably stood on the facade of the building and around the semicircular balcony. G. Forester showed that the plan of the upper terrace was directly influenced by villa Farnesina in Rome, which is attributed to Marcus Agrippa, Herod's benefactor and close friend in Rome. Descent to the lower tiers was through a flight of stairs, parts of which survived in the middle and lower terraces. The middle terrace, approximately 65 ft. (20 m.) beneath the upper one, contained two concentric circular walls which served as a platform for a columned building. A staircase on the west led to the upper level and on the east stood a large room with traces of frescoes; between them was a roofed colonnade, seemingly a library. This terrace was apparently designed for relaxation and a leisurely enjoyment of the view. The bottom terrace, approximately 50 ft. (15 m.) below the middle one, tapers to a narrow point; great supporting walls were built to form a raised, nearly square platform which was surrounded by low walls forming porticoes. Both the inner and exterior walls contained columns composed of sandstone drums plastered and fluted to resemble large monolithic columns. Frescoes on the lower part of the walls were painted to imitate stone and marble paneling. In the eastern corner of the terrace was a small bathhouse built in Roman style.

One of the difficult aspects in the study of the past is to determine the exact time of transition. Herod represents such a case, for in his time Roman trends diffused into the dominant Hellenistic style. Hence, the upper terrace of the Northern Palace was built in Roman style, while the middle terrace is completely Hellenistic in nature. The lower terrace was furnished with a Roman-style small bathhouse.


South of the Northern Palace was a large bathhouse with four rooms and a court built in traditional Roman style. The bather would enter the dressing room (apodyterium), from which one could have enjoyed the tepid room (tepidarium), hot room (caldarium), and cold room-stepped pool (frigidarium).

The floors of all rooms, except the last, were decorated by mosaic floors which were later replaced by pink and black triangular tiles (opus sectile), while the walls were decorated by frescoes. A Greek inscription praising the tyche was found on the walls of the dressing room. This room underwent changes during the revolt when an immersion pool and a bench made from dismantled pillar drums were constructed there. The largest room, the hot room, was heated through a hypocaust system beneath it and its floor stood on about 200 tiny columns, mostly made of bricks. A furnace drove hot air which heated the floor and the double walls that were furnished with clay pipes. Hot water flowed into a bathtub and quartz fountain set in the room's niches.

The bathhouse was used by the rebels and a charcoal graffiti of the Legio x Fretensis indicates the presence of the conquering Roman soldiers.


Under the northeastern corner of the synagogue building, Netzer and Stiebel uncovered, in 1995, a storage cave from the early days of King Herod's reign. Sixteen storage jars were found in situ, alongside wine amphoras. The cave appears to antedate the construction of the large storeroom complex. It was presumably destroyed in the severe earthquake of 31 b.c.e., the damage of which is discernible at Qumran.

During the second construction phase public storerooms were built east and south of the bathhouse. The long and narrow rooms were designed to hold food, liquids, and weapons: "For here had been stored a mass of corn, amply sufficient to last for years, abundance of wine and oil, besides every variety of pulse and piles of dates" (Wars, 7:296). The discerning taste was evident in the contents of the storerooms, which included a uniquely large number of inscription-bearing vessels (tituli picti). Among the inscribed jars was a group noting a shipment of wine to Herod, King of Judea, in 19 b.c.e. (the year of the consul C. Sentius Saturninus), from southern Italy by a supplier named Lucius Lanius. Indeed, Josephus mentions that Herod had a special wine servant. In a manner appropriate to a gourmet like Herod, one inscribed vessel was found to exhibit the name of the celebrated fish sauce garum – a product of southern Spain. Fish bones from this delicacy were found adhering to the inner face of this vessel. Following the Roman custom, the king ended his banquets with apples imported from Cumae, Italy.

It seems that valuable goods, like jars containing balsam, or weapons and raw materials sufficient to equip 10,000 warriors, were stored in a group of three storerooms that is situated in the southwest wing of the Northern Palace complex. The entrance to these storerooms was monitored by a guard room. Weapons from Herod's time were found at Masada, most notably a sheathed gladius Hispaniensis (Spanish sword) and several groups of dozens of spare armor scales.

Near these storerooms was located the service entrance to the Northern complex. Interestingly, the expedition of Netzer and Stiebel excavated courtyard 174, under the floor of which two early phases corresponding to the first and second Herodian building phases were uncovered. It is the first time that stratified material in sealed archaeological contexts from Herod's time was found.

Western Palace

On the western side of Masada Herod erected the Western Palace complex. Covering an area of nearly 37,500 sq. ft. (4,000 sq. m.) it is the largest building found on the site. Yadin attributed ceremonial functions to this Palace, a notion rejected by Netzer, who assigned this function to the Northern Palace. The Western Palace was a self-sufficient unit and consisted of four wings: official wing ("the core"), storeroom wing, service wing, and administrative wing.

The official wing was built around a large central court with a large reception hall leading into a room interpreted by Yadin as the throne room. This notion is based on four depressions in the plastered floor in which the legs of the canopied throne may have been set. In the hall was a magnificent, richly colored mosaic pavement with circles and border ornaments of plant and geometric designs. Recently a charcoal "blueprint" of this mosaic was found on a nearby plastered wall. This wing also contained service rooms as well as bathrooms with tubs, a steeped cold water pool, and other installations, all paved with mosaics. During the period of the revolt, parts of the Palace were clearly used for public functions by the rebels' community, such as a storeroom, bakery, and smithies (see below).

Water System

One of the most impressive engineering projects at Masada is the water system Herod constructed to ensure an adequate supply of water. The system included dams that diverted floodwater of the two wadis, west of Masada, into two plastered channels that fed a dozen large cisterns. The cisterns were hewn on two parallel levels into the rocky slope. Each cistern had a capacity of up to 140,000 cu. ft. (4,000 cu. m.) and together could hold about 1,400,000 cu. ft. (40,000 cu. m.). The cisterns are mostly square in shape and have two openings, one leading from the aqueduct and a second, higher one connected with an inner staircase for drawing out water. Pack animals then bore the water up to the cisterns on the mountaintop. The pass leading from the upper level of the cisterns ended in a gate just south of the Northern Palace ("water gate"). Another pass led from the lower level to the "snake pass."

Casemate Wall

Towards the end of his reign, Herod enclosed the entire summit of Masada, except for the northern tip, with a casemate wall (a double wall with the inner space divided into rooms). Its circumference measures about 1,530 yards (1,400 m.) which corresponds exactly with the 7 stadia of Josephus' description. About 70 rooms, 30 towers, and four gates were found in the wall. The gates consisted of a square room with two entrances, benches along the walls, stone slab pavements, and "masonry-style" stucco decoration. They include the "snake path" gate in the northeast; the western gate in the middle of the western wall, the location in which the Byzantine gate was later erected; the southern ("cistern") gate which led to a group of cisterns; and the northern ("water") gate near the bathhouse which served mainly for bringing water from the upper row of cisterns and was probably also the gate for the northern part of Masada.

From the period when the Roman garrison was stationed at Masada between the time of Herod and the Jewish War hundreds of coins were found from the reigns of Herod Archelaus, Agrippa i, and all Roman procurators.

Period of the Revolt (66–73/74 c.e.)

The site of Masada appears to be a microcosm of the material culture of Second Temple Judea and even beyond. The many finds from this brief eight/seven-year period throw much light on the character of the rebels, their way of life at Masada, and the end of the Jewish War. The rebels made use of the casemate wall's rooms for dwelling. They divided the rooms into small units and erected clusters of shacks constructed of mud and small stones adjoining the wall and other buildings. Cooking stoves and niches for the cupboards were built into the wall. In rooms which had not been burned remains of their daily life were strewn on the floors: clothing, leather, baskets, glass, stone and bronze objects, etc. Piles of charcoal with remnants of personal belongings indicate that they had collected all their possessions at the end and had set fire to them. Hundreds of coins and several scroll fragments were found in the rooms. The towers on the wall seemingly served mainly as public rooms or workshops. One of the workshops in the western casemate wall (l. 1276) was identified as a tannery. However, ecological considerations and the nature of the plastered installations and cross beams discovered there indicate this tower had been transformed into a laundry.

The Herodian palaces were not used for dwellings but rather functioned as command posts, public buildings, etc. Their decorative architectural parts were dismantled for building materials and furniture: floors, roofs, columns, tables, etc. A prominent place was given to the Western Palace. The biggest storeroom at Masada (l. 502) was used for storing food. When excavated, lines of vessels were found, each of which was marked by an ostracon declaring the purity or impurity of the line. Next to this storeroom was located the central bakery of Masada (l. 493). A huge oven (furnus, פורנא) with two grinding posts on each side of the door was uncovered. This domed oven, 3 m. in diameter, was capable of producing hundreds of loaves of bread, the distribution of which was seemingly done in a centralized manner in the nearby courtyard (l. 401), where many receipts mentioning bread were found. These ostraca instruct that on day x was the handing over of y amount of loaves to z, the head of an extended family or group of people, who was always a male, manifesting the patriarchal atmosphere of the period. Two smiths, in which iron trilobite arrowheads were forged, are reported from the Western Palace as well.

material culture

The historical narration of Josephus and even more the archaeological finds indicate that the community of the rebels was in fact rather heterogeneous and dynamic in nature.


Numerous coins struck during the Jewish War (66–70 c.e.) were found both in large hoards (of 350, 200, and 100 coins) and in small numbers. Mostly ordinary bronze coins, they also include 37 silver shekels and 35 half-shekels representing all the years of the war and including the rare Year Five. This was the first discovery of shekels in a dated archaeological stratum.


Outside Qumran, the site of Masada yielded the largest collection of epigraphic finds in Israel. The collection consists of several hundreds of Hebrew- and Aramaic-inscribed ostraca and 14 parchment documents and one papyrus in Paleo-Hebrew characters.


More than 700 ostraca were found, mostly written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Since they can be dated exactly between 66 and 73/74 c.e. they are of great paleographic value and they also shed much light on the organization of life at Masada and the national and religious character of the defenders who scrupulously observed the ritual laws. About half of them were found near the storerooms. These bore single or several letters in Hebrew and may have been connected with the rebels' community rationing system during the siege. Others indicate tithes and names on others may be those of priests or levites.


Parts of 14 biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian scrolls found at Masada are the first scrolls discovered outside of caves in a dated archaeological stratum. The biblical scrolls are mostly identical with the Masoretic Text but some show slight variations. These include parts of the books of Psalms, Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Ezekiel. Apocryphal scrolls include part of the original Hebrew text of the Wisdom of Ben Sira 39–44, dated to the first century b.c.e., and several lines of the Book of Jubilees.

A fragment of a sectarian scroll of the Songs of Sabbath Service is identical with a scroll found at Qumran. Other small fragments exhibit phrases that appear to be sectarian in nature. It is important for dating the Dead Sea Scrolls and because it indicates that members of the Dead Sea Sect (apparently Essenes) took part in the Jewish War.

This applies also to a papyrus scroll noting in Paleo-Hebrew script the idiom "Har Gerizim" (Mount Gerizim), which is the holy mountain of the Samaritans, the location of their temple. This indicates the presence of Samaritans amongst the rebels' community at Masada.

religious life

Mikva'ot (Ritual Baths)

Masada was the first site in which ritual immersion pools (mikva'ot) were recognized as such, an installation that came ever since to be a fossile directeur of Jewish settlements. The plastered, commonly stepped, pool had a source for rainwater that flowed directly into it. A relatively large number of mikva'ot was uncovered at Masada. Two were constructed in the southeastern sector of the casemate wall (l. 1197, 1162), one in the Northern Palace complex's administrative wing (l. 151), and near the synagogue (l. 1301). Another mikveh was documented in a cave in the southern cliff (l. 2006/1), in small palace xi (l. 601), and near the middle terrace of the Northern Palace (l. 67). To this group we may add two plastered pools, from the time of the revolt, that were built in the Large Bathhouse (l. 105, 104). It was suggested that during the revolt the stepped pools were in the frigidaria of the lower terrace of the Northern Palace (l. 8), in the Large Bathhouse (l. 107), and in the Western Palace (l. 546), and in the courtyard of the Large Bathhouse (l. 103, 112).

A unique public mikveh, with a dressing room, in the walls of which locker-like niches were used for the depositing of the bathers' clothes (l. 625), was excavated near Building xi. The mikveh that was constructed during the time of the revolt differs from any other example at Masada and is much akin to the examples uncovered at Qumran.

The "Essenes' Quarter."

Interestingly, the entrance of this immersion complex turns towards Building xiii. The closest structure, situated in the northern annex of Building xxi, is a hall built in the time of the revolt (l. 809). This is an elongated hall with a bench extending along three sides of the wall and a low bench along its axis. The excavators named it bet midrash (religious school). However, its features appear to concur well with the "dining hall" at Qumran, a structure that according to the accounts of Pliny the Elder and Josephus was used by the Essenes for ritual activity. Hence it may be proposed to identify this area as the "quarter of the Essenes" at Masada, the presence of which is further attested in the characteristic sectarian documents that were found at the site.


A rectangular building located in the northwestern sector of the casemate wall was seemingly used as a stable in the first half of the first century c.e. During the time of the revolt its plan was transformed into a large hall with two rows of columns in the center and a back service room. A series of four peripheral tiers of plastered benches were built along the walls. The building was identified by Yadin as a synagogue. Examples from that period of time are known from Herodium and more decidedly at Gamala. This identification was further supported by the discovery of parts of two biblical scrolls, Ezekiel and Deuteronomy, buried in pits dug into the floor of the back room (possibly a genizah; a ritual deposition of religious documents). An ostracon inscribed ma'aser kohen ("priest's tithe") was uncovered in the main hall.

Human Remains

Twenty-five skeletons of men, women, and children were found thrown in a heap in a small cave on the southern cliff. Although the skulls were reported by Yadin to be of the type found in the Bar Kokhba caves in Naḥal Ḥever, the fact that pig bones were found with the skeletal remains may suggest according to Zias that they belong to the Roman soldiers killed in 66 c.e. Skeletal remains of three individuals were uncovered in the lower terrace, including a woman's scalp and braids and leather sandals. They were claimed by Yadin to represent a rebels' family. However, the condition of the three skeletons and the fact that many protein-rich bones are missing may indicate that the bodies were dragged there by hyenas.

the roman siege

Despite the fact that Masada was the last rebel stronghold in Judea, it seems that the Roman considerations for commencing the Masada campaign, three years after the triumphant parade celebrating the victory over Judea took place in Rome, were not security but rather financial gain. The rebels' presence at Masada, which formed a base for raids, endangered a highly profitable resource – the balsam plantations of En Gedi. According to Pliny the Elder within five years of the suppression of the revolt, a staggering sum of 800,000 sesterces was obtained from the perfume trade in Judea. Indeed, the balsam trade is mentioned in two Latin military documents from Masada.

The Roman siege system at Masada appears to be one of the most complete and best preserved in the Roman world. Under the command of Flavius Silva a Roman force of 7,000–8,000 soldiers deployed around Masada in eight camps. The fortress was surrounded with a 2.17 mi. (3.5 km.) long siege wall (circumvallation), the flat eastern sector of which was fortified by towers to prevent the nearly 1,000 rebels from escaping and attacking the Roman force. All of the architectural elements of this system were of dry-constructed fieldstone. Taking into consideration the historical information concerning the length of the siege works at Jerusalem and the calculations of the working capacities of trained soldiers it seems that the construction of the camps and siege wall at Masada did not exceed a period of two weeks. The Roman military body consisted of the Legion x Fretensis and six auxiliary units. The legionaries were garrisoned in the two large camps, one in the east (b) and one in the northwest (f) which served as Silva Flavius' headquarters. A rare pay record of a legionary cavalryman, one Gaius Messius, was uncovered at Masada. The six small camps were located at strategic points around the base of the mountain commanding the ascents and possible escape routes. Camp h, which was built south of the fortress on higher elevation, allowed the Romans to observe part of Masada's summit. Communication was ensured by a trail that climbed the fault escarpment and connected all camps. Surveys, aerial photographs, and excavations of the camps indicate that the soldiers were housed in leather tents which were pitched over low walls and secured by iron pegs. In many of the contubrenia (eightman tents) a raised bench was found along their walls. Small hearths, for cooking, were built in front of the tent units. Three larger ovens, which were presumably intended for bread baking, were found west of Camp f. Water was apparently brought in from the oasis of En Gedi by Jewish captives.

Roman military attention focused on a narrow section of the west wall of the fortress. The main undertaking was to provide the platform for the effective operation of the battering ram against Masada's wall. For this end an assault ramp (agger) was erected. Hewn from the nearby white spur, a mass of earth and stones that was stabilized by tamarisk and date-palm branches was laid on the natural spur of the western slope. A stone platform paved the head of the ramp in order to allow the 60-foot siege tower to be raised. The siege engines were most likely constructed in a secured courtyard ("bauplatz") located west of the ramp. Roth's work suggests that the completion of the entire siege works at Masada would have been achieved in a matter of two months.

During the excavations of Netzer and Stiebel's expedition four rooms of the Western casemate wall were excavated for the first time. The section directly above the ramp is entirely missing, in all likelihood being breached by the action of the battering ram. According to Josephus the rebels built an inner wall made up of wooden beams and soil. Mapping the burn pattern of the buildings at Masada, E. Netzer proposed that the lack of conflagration signs in many of the structures was the result of an intentional dismantling of the ceilings for the purpose of the inner wall's construction. Ballista balls shot from torsion artillery machines, arrowheads, and slingshots were found in the breach's immediate environs, testimony to the battle that raged there. The defenders' return fire included slingshots, arrows, and large rolling stones. This was seemingly the purpose of the scavenged wagon's wooden wheel that was found on the floor of the adjacent tower. There were apparently few casualties on the Roman side. A unique Latin medical care manual details the treatment of wounded and sick Roman soldiers. One typical burial of a Roman soldier, consisting of a cooking pot that contained cremated human remains, was found west of Masada.

The Mass Suicide

According to Josephus, when the Romans penetrated the fortress, they came face to face with the multitude of nearly 1,000 dead rebels. Apparently, this act of suicide was honored by the conquerors. The discovery of a group of ostraca near the Large Bathhouse, each inscribed with a single name and all written by the same person, including the name "ben Jair" (son of Ya'ir), led Yadin to the conclusion that these were the lots described by Josephus. According to his account the last ten survivors at Masada drew lots to choose who would kill the other nine and then himself. It should be noted that over 200 ostraca were also found in this location, and they all seem to be more likely part of the administrative organization of the rebels (tags or coupons) rather than the actual "lots." This notion is seemingly strengthened by the recent discovery of an ostracon bearing one of the names that appears in the "lot" group by Netzer and Stiebel. Nonetheless, the association of the "ben Jair" tag with the commander of the rebel community seems to be very likely.

The Aftermath

After the fall of Masada a Roman garrison cleared the site; scattered remains of this activity were found on top of Masada. This garrison erected a small camp within the boundaries of Camp f, in which it was stationed for several decades (f2). The latest coin that was uncovered at the site is a silver coin from Trajan's days dating from 112 c.e.

Byzantine Period

Following the abandonment of the site in the early second century c.e. Masada remained uninhabited for a few centuries. During the fifth century c.e. a monastery (laura) was founded at Masada, after a series of earthquakes had caused considerable damage to many of the buildings. Some of the scholars identify this monastery with a site named Marda (lit. "fortress"), noted by the Church Fathers. The group of hermits erected a small church with mosaic pavements of which little remains aside from a rich colored floor in a side room with medallions containing representations of a basket with a cross, fruits, and vegetal designs. These mosaics were locally manufactured. Remnants of this production were discovered near Building xii at the center of Masada. Fragments of the church's marble screen and window glass were uncovered in and near the building. West of the church was a refectory and kitchen. These last occupants of Masada dwelt in small stone cells scattered over the summit and in caves. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century c.e. this settlement apparently ceased to exist.

Modern Era

In many respects the perception of the episode of Masada by Israeli society, throughout the 20th century, mirrors the history of the state. The Hebrew translation in 1923 of The War of the Jews by Josephus, as well as the poem "Masada" by Lamdan published in 1927, brought Masada closer to the hearts of the young people in the country's Jewish community. S. Guttman, who led numerous trips to the mountain, was particularly instrumental in transforming Masada into a symbol of defiant resistance and the choosing of death over a life of slavery, in particular for Zionist and, later, Israeli youth. This trend appears to have climaxed in the late 1960s–early 1970s, when one of its manifestations was the swearing of the oath of allegiance by the recruits of Israel's Armored Corps on the summit of the site: "Masada shall not fall again." However, the last three decades witnessed a gradual shift in public perception, which was now determined more by political affiliation. Since the opening of Masada's National Park (1966) and the construction of a cable car (1971), it has become one of Israel's most visited tourist sites. In 2001 Masada was inscribed on the unesco World Heritage List.


Y. Yadin, Masada, Herod's Fortress and the Zealot's Last Stand (1966) (incl. bibl.); Masada i–vii, The Yigael Yadin Excavations 19631965 Final Reports (1989–2006); Masada i: Y. Yadin and Naveh J., The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions; Y. Meshorer, The Coins of Masada (1989); Masada ii: H.M. Cotton and J. Geiger, The Latin and Greek Documents (1989); Masada iii: E. Netzer, The Buildings, Stratigraphy and Architecture (1991); Masada iv: D. Barag and M. Hershkovitz, Lamps; A. Sheffer and H. Granger-Taylor, Textiles; K. Bernick, Basketry, Cordage and Related Artifacts; N. Liphschitz, Wood Remains; A.E. Holley, Ballista Balls; Addendum: J. Zias, D. Segal, and I. Carmi, Human Skeletal Remains (1994); Masada v: G. Foerster, Art and Architecture (1995); Masada vi: S. Talmon, Hebrew Fragments from Masada (1999); Masada vii: R. Bar-Nathan, The Pottery of Masada; G.D. Stiebel and J. Magness, The Military Equipment from Masada; R. Reich, Spindle Whorls and Spinning at Masada; idem, Stone Mugs from Masada; idem, Stone Scale-Weights from Masada (2006); M. Avi Yonah et al., "The Archaeological Survey of Masada," in: Israel Exploration Journal, 7 (1957), 1–60; S.J.D. Cohen, "Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 33 (1982), 385–405; M. Gichon, "A Further Camp at Masada," in: Bulletin du Centre Interdisciplinaire de Researches Aeriennes, 18 (1995), 25–27; H. Goldfus and B. Arubas, "Excavations at the Roman Siege Complex at Masada – 1995," in P. Freeman, J. Bennett, Z.T. Fiema, and B. Hoffmann (eds.), Proceedings of the xviiith International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies held in Amman, Jordan (September 2000), vols. 1–2, bar International Series 1084 (i) (2002), 207–14; Y. Hirschfeld, "Masada during the Byzantine Period – the Monastery of Marda," in: Eretz Israel, 20 ("Yadin Volume"; 1989), 262–74; I.A. Richmond, "The Roman Siege-Works of Masada, Israel," in: Journalof Roman Studies, 52 (1962), 142–55; J. Roth, "The Length of the Siege of Masada," in: Scripta Classica Israelica, 14 (1995), 87–110; Y. Tsafrir, "The Desert Fortresses of Judaea in the Second Temple Period," in: L.I. Levine (ed.), The Jerusalem Cathedra, 2 (1982), 120–45; Y. Yadin, "The Excavation of Masada – 1963/64, Preliminary Report," in: Israel Excavations Journal, 15 (1965), 1–120; idem, Y. Yadin, The Ben Sira Scroll from Masada (1965).

[Guy D. Stiebel (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 14 2018


site of jewish revolt and martyrdom, 74 c. e.

An isolated mountain on the western shore of the Dead Sea, Masada was turned by King Herod the Great of Judea (3734 b.c.e.) into a major stronghold. In 66 c.e., at the onset of the Jewish revolt against Rome, the extremist Sicarii ("dagger-men") captured Masada; after the revolt's suppression, it remained the last Jewish fortress to hold out. When the Romans were about to storm its walls in the spring of 74 c.e., the defenders, preferring death to slavery, decided to commit collective suicide. Men slew their women and children, then killed one anotherthus relates Flavius Josephus, the only historian to describe these events. The story of the mass suicide is supported by comparable occurrences in the Greco-Roman world.

In traditional Judaism, Masada went largely un-mentioned for centuries. Only with the advent of Zionism did it gain prominence, with the defenders portrayed as freedom-loving heroes and their stance hailed as an example to live by. In Yitzhak Lamdan's influential poem of 1927, Masada came to symbolize the entire Zionist enterprise, with the most famous line announcing, "Masada shall not fall again." From the 1940s, Masada became the goal of ritual treks organized by Zionist youth movements; from the 1950s, recruits of Israel's army swore their oath of allegiance in ceremonies atop Masada. The excavation of the fortress in the 1960s enhanced still further its salience in Israeli consciousness.

The veneration of Masada was never total; for instance, in 1946 David Ben-Gurion coined the slogan "Neither Masada nor Vichy." From the 1970s onward, the Masada myth repeatedly came under attack. The credibility of Josephus's account was questioned; the cruelty of Masada's "dagger-men" toward other Jews was emphasized; and the portrayal of the perpetrators of a group suicide as national heroes was decried as incongruent with Judaism's teachings and educationally misguided. Hard-line Israeli leaders were accused of being possessed by a "Masada complex"that is, of so identifying with Masada's desperate situation that they were no longer reacting to the reality of their own times.

In 2002 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) proclamation of Masada as a World Heritage Site entailed another round of exchanges between Masada's admirers and detractors.


Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Josephus, Flavius. The Jewish War, translated by H. St. John Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Kedar, Benjamin Z. "Masada: The Myth and the Complex." The Jerusalem Quarterly 24 (1982): 5763.

Yadin, Yigael. Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.

benjamin kedar


views updated May 29 2018


Fortress, located on a rocky peak beside the Dead Sea, where a historic battle took place between the inhabitants and the Romans from 70 to 73 C.E. and around which an extremely important myth/legend emerged, especially in the twentieth century. Basically composed of Sicarii and Zealots under the command of Elazar ben Yair, the population of Masada (Kasr el-Sebbeh in Arabic), after a three-year siege conducted by the Roman general Flavius Silva, decided to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. According to tradition, two women and three children were excepted, so as to transmit the story of this sacrifice to the Jewish community.

In 1927, the poem "Masada," composed by Isaac Lamdan, became the watchword of Zionist youth. At the end of 1941, when Palestine was threatened by the German troops of General Erwin Rommel, some Jewish leaders proposed a withdrawal of the population to Carmel, where resistance would be organized. The plan was called "Masada." In January 1942 these leaders met on the Masada site to study the plan, but it was not put into effect. The word "Masada" symbolizes the resistance of Israel to invaders of today and yesterday. But it also carries the not-so-acceptable suggestion that suicide is preferable to surrender. Until the end of the 1980s, young recruits to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) were sworn into the service on the site of Masada.

Because of its symbolism, Masada today is the most popular destination after Jerusalem of Jewish tourists visiting Israel. Since the excavation of the fortress in 1964, cable cars have enabled tourists to reach it; now with new larger cars and an elegant tourist center at the base of the mountain, thousands of visitors ascend daily.


views updated May 23 2018

Masada. Prominent rocky site in Israel/Palestine, where Herod the Great built a palace and refuge. According to Josephus, it was here that the last defenders against Rome at the end of the first Jewish revolt committed suicide rather than surrender. Despite the emotional importance of this in the state of Israel, archaeology throws doubt on Josephus' account.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Masada the site, on a steep rocky hill, of the ruins of a palace and fortification built by Herod the Great on the SW shore of the Dead Sea in the 1st century bc. It was a Jewish stronghold in the Zealots' revolt against the Romans (ad 66–73) and was the scene in ad 73 of mass suicide by the Jewish defenders when the Romans breached the citadel after a siege of nearly two years. The name may be used allusively of a readiness to anticipate threatened defeat by bringing about one's own destruction first.


views updated May 17 2018

Masada ★★★ 1981

Based on Ernest K. Gann's novel “The Antagonists,” this dramatization re-creates the 1st-century A.D. Roman siege of the fortress Masada, headquarters for a group of Jewish freedom fighters. Abridged from the original TV presentation. 131m/C VHS . Peter O'Toole, Peter Strauss, Barbara Carrera, Anthony Quayle, Giulia Pagano, David Warner; D: Boris Sagal; M: Jerry Goldsmith.


views updated May 18 2018

Masada Fortified hill near the Dead Sea, se Israel. It was the scene of the final defence of the Jewish Zealots against the Romans during the Jewish revolt that began in ad 66. In 73, the defenders, c.1000 in number, committed mass suicide rather than surrender.