The first time I saw Masada was in the late 1950s, when I drove with my parents in my mother’s UN-owned jeep to Ein Gedi. The only way down to the Dead Sea area at the time, was via the old road to Eilat, a dirt road that descended into the Arava Valley via the hairpins of Scorpions’ Ascent. Once down the road reached the old British police fort at Hatzeva, with it 1,000-year-old acacia tree and small spring, from where a jeep track branched off north, to the Dead Sea.
The track wound its way through the white marl canyon of the Nahal Amatziya riverbed, until it reached the southern tip of the Dead Sea. From there it continued along the shore to the Dead Sea works, and on to the oasis of Ein Gedi. As we bounced along the track on our way to Ein Gedi, my father pointed out Masada to me. The flat topped mountain, detached from the cliff around it, looked like a ship sailing north, along the cliff face of the Judean Desert. Climbing Masada from the Dead Sea side was out of the question.The Snake Path that ascended the mountain from the east, still involved a harrowing scramble up the cliff.
I made it to the mountain a few years later, on the annual Hannukah hike of my youth movement. Driving for four hours on benches on the back of a truck, we arrived, towards nightfall at Ras Zueira, today Rosh Zohar. It was the closest point that a vehicle without 4-wheel drive could get to the western side of Masada. Next morning, before sunrise, we set out to hike to Masada, carrying food, water and equipment on our backs. A long line of khaki dressed teenagers, with their not so much older madrichim, led by two desert guides who had hiked this trail before. We arrived toward evening, and bedded down in our woolen sleeping bags next to the Roman army camp, on the eastern side of Masada. Around the campfire we listened enthralled as our madrichim told us about Masada. Our eyes lit up with the story of the heroic last stand of Jewish freedom fighters who had stood up to thousands of Roman soldiers circling the mountain, planning the final assault of the fortress.
The great Roman earth siege ramp gleamed white in the moonlight, and we could imagine the anguish of the defenders as the legionnaires inched their way to the top, while their commanders directed the attack from the very plave were we were now camped. For us, sixteen year old kids, who had been born with the state, the defenders of Masada and their Roman protagonists were very, very real.
Next morning, before sunrise we climbed the ramp to the mountaintop. The massive archaeological excavations were still a year away, and we made our way over the ruins to the northern tip of the mountain where the northern palace was located. From there we walked to the other end of the fortress, and descended, via the ancient steps, into the huge southern water reservoir. Sitting down in the cool cistern, our madrichim read to us from Josephus – the first century Jewish historian, who had described the last days of Masada in “The Jewish Wars”. To this day I can remember the excitement of listening to the words of someone who had lived during that fatal war, describing the fortress and its magnificent palaces and water cisterns, the Roman siege, and the story of the final suicide. I could actually see Elazar ben Yair, the heroic commander of the fortress, gather his group of faithful and brave comrades around him on the night before the Romans were about to break in. I could hear the argument between the fighters. Fight on, or accept defeat. The Romans were about to breach the wall, escape was impossible, but why not fight– I said to myself. Why go like sheep to the slaughter, like Jews in the holocaust.
My teenage daydreams were to no avail. Elazar in a haunting speech, that for many years I could recite by heart, persuaded his fighters to kill their families, all 960 souls, and then gather in the palace where they would draw lots for ten fighters that would kill the rest, and finally one fighter would kill the other nine and commit suicide. Death is better than slavery my madrichim quoted Elazar, a mantra I would hear a few times in my life, as a madrich myself and later as an army commander whoxe soldiers were sworn in at Masada. Death or slavery never seemed to work for me. Escape and freedom sounded much better.
“When the Romans entered the next morning”, read our madrichim, “they saw no enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side. At length they made a shout, as if it had been a blow given by a battering ram, to try to bring out anyone that was within”. Two women who had hid in the cisterns came out and told the Romans what had happened. “Quickly cutting their way through to the palace and there met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact even though it was done by their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at 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.” I was to recite that speech many times in the future, as I guided groups to Masada.
That afternoon we descended the mountain, and made our way to Ein Gedi. We then hiked back to Rosh Zohar, through the desert, to be picked up by our trucks again after a week-long hike.
The following years saw the dramatic excavations at Masada, the lectures by Yigael Yadin who led the expedition, and more and more visits to the mountain. By now a road along the Dead Sea shore had been paved, a descent to the Dead Sea from Arad blasted through the cliff face, and the Snake Path fixed so that it could be climbed with ease. A youth hostel and camping ground at the bottom of the mountain made access much easier. By the 1970s Masada had a cable car, entrance fees, opening and closing hours, and a whole set of rules that regulated the visit. Many of the buildings had been reconstructed including the storage rooms, the frescoed bathhouse, and the amazing stepped palace along the northern tip, the synagogue and the water systems. Tourists in the hundreds of thousands flocked to the mountain top to see King Herod’s amazing desert palace-fortress, and the place where the Zealots had made their last stand. Following the Six Day War the idea of the heroic stand of 960 Jewish freedom fighters against thousands of Roman legionnaires was immediately equated with Israel’s stand against its many enemies, and the movie featuring Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss, released in 1981, added even more to the mountain’s popularity. Organized Jewish and Christian fundamentalist groups ascended the mountain to shout an echoing “Am Israel Hai” into the ravines around.
By that time I had not only read Josephus’ description of the last stand on Masada, but read all his works. I had poured through the many articles and reports written about the mountain and the period and, as head of the Government of Israel Tour Guide Course, had initiated hundreds of aspiring tour guides to the legend of Masada.
But the more I read about Masada, the more discrepancies began to come to light. The glorious picture that the Jewish-Israeli national ethos had created did not actually fit when attempting to put together a more realistic picture. Leave it alone, I was told again and again, by leaders of my groups, you tell such a moving story on the mountain which translates very well for the purpose of our missions. But there were too many facts that bothered me, starting with the suicide itself. In Josephus’ account of the “Jewish Wars or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem” as he calls his book, two very similar suicides appear. One in Masada, at the end of the book, and the other at the siege of Gamla on the Golan, near the beginning of the book. Other suicides of fighters, this time fighting King Herod, appear in his other major book “The Antiquities of the Jews”. If you look at the literature of the period, the first century CE, another 500 battle suicides pop up around the Roman World. It seems that in general the idea that the defeated commit suicide, was as prevalent in the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, as it is in Japanese tradition.
Not only was the suicide suspect but also the suicide speech. Reading it carefully it is clear that a non-Hellenized Jew in the second century, could not have made it. It is full Greek philosophical ideas, the exact thing that the rebels were fighting against in the first place. But, when Josephus sat down in Rome to write the history of the Jewish War, people who had taken part in the war, Roman commanders and soldiers for example, were still alive. So could Josephus’ have made up the facts of the story, the suicide for example, which shows the bravery of the Jews, without upsetting the Romans who had taken part in the battle?
Josephus is a fascinating character. He was born in Jerusalem as Joseph the son of Matityahu, around the time when Jesus was crucified. His family, a priestly family that served at the temple, was connected to the Hasmonean nobility through his mother. With the outbreak of the rebellion against Rome the Jewish establishment panicked. In order to bring a quick end to the rebellion they decided to join the rebellion in order to control it from within. Josephus, a scion of one of the ruling families, was sent to command the Galilee – the first place that the Roman legions would land in. The 26-year-old Josephus’ only skills were that he spoke Greek and possibly also a spattering of Latin, and had experience with negotiating with Romans. Three years earlier he had been sent to Rome to negotiate the release of Jewish priests on trial before the emperor. In Rome, through his connections with a Jewish actor living in the city, he became acquainted with Poppea, the emperor’s wife. For two years Josephus’ stayed on in the capital of the world, moving around in the highest circles and becoming acquainted with many of the most important citizens of Rome. His skills made him the best candidate available at that time to negotiate with the Romans once they arrived, prevent the destruction of the country and reestablish Roman rule.
In the Galilee Josephus hardly makes an effort to put together an organized armed force, fortify cities, or prepare the Galilee for war. His feet dragging raises a lot of doubts in the minds of the leaders of the rebellion, Galilean figures like John of Giscala, a rich farmer from Gush Halav in the Upper Galilee, and Menahem ben Judah of Gamla, scion of a long family of rebels who had fought the Romans and the Jerusalem establishment since the days of Herod the Great.
Josephus manages to prevail in his position until the Romans arrive and then makes a beeline for the fortified town of Yodfat, secluded in a small valley in a remote mountain range in the Galilee. What were the Romans looking for and why was Yodfat so important to conquer we are not told. But the Romans as if in a prearranged agreement arrive in Yodfat and lay siege to the town – with Josephus inside running the defenses. The town puts up a heroic stand, but finally the Romans are led into the town by a “traitor”, who shows them a secret gate in the walls. The town falls and Josephus and ten of the town’s most prominent leaders hide out in a cave. Josephus’ persuades them to commit suicide, “to die as free men and not as slaves”, he explains. Drawing lots as to who will kill whom, they put themselves to death one after the other – until in the end – only Josephus and one more person remain. Josephus then persuades his fellow conspirator to stop this nonsense, and to give themselves up to the Romans
In the Roman camp Josephus is brought before Vespasian, the Roman commander of the expeditionary force. Here he predicts to the very superstitious Vespasian that he will become emperor of Rome before the year is out. Vespasian, who actually becomes emperor the next year, spares Josephus’ life – and makes him the official historian of the war that he took part in – staying in the Roman camp until the fall of Jerusalem. Leaving with the troops to Rome he lives in the emperor’s household, takes the name of Flavius – the family name of the emperor, and writes the history of the war in order to glorify the deeds of Vespasian and his son Titus. The book, called “The Jewish Wars” is similar to another famous Roman history called “The Punic Wars”. Except for a few meager reports in other historical sources all we know about the great Jewish rebellion against Rome in the year 66, which brings about the destruction of the temple, is what Josephus Flavius has told us.
From Josephus we learn about the sect that will eventually end up in Masada. They are the family of Menahem the Galilean, founder of the faction that Josephus calls the “Sicarii” the people of the little daggers. They are the most extreme of all the factions that join together in the rebellion against Rome. For them serving Rome is idol worship, a great taboo in Judaism, and one of the four instances when suicide is permitted. Suicide under this context is one of the central believes of the sicarii. The sica were little two edged daggers that the sicarii used to carry around concealed in their cloaks and use to stab their oponents. The family of Menahem has a long history of rebellion and suicide. Hezekiah the Galilean, the founder of the family, fought Herod in his attempt to conquer the Galilee for Rome in the 40s BCE. He was followed by Judah who kept up the rebellion against Rome after the death of Herod and led the sack of Zippori the capital of Galilee under Herod Antipas, Herod’s son. Judah’s two brothers, Menahem and Yair, lead the fourth faction, as it is called by Josephus, that makes up the parties taking part in the rebellion against Rome. The and their followers reside in Gamla on the Golan.
In the year 66 Menahem and his men attack the Roman garrison defending Masada. Taking the desert fortress by surprise they break into the arsenal in the fort, and with their newly acquired arms make their way to Jerusalem. Here they manage to oust the Roman garrison from the city, and take control of the mos fortified place in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount. The first thing that the rebels do, once the city is in their hands, is to burn the archives, where the debts owed by the populace to the upper classes of the city are kept. Then, with no clear central leadership they start to fight among themselves.
Menahem and his followers make themselves the fear of Jerusalem: Looting the palaces of the rich, taking bribes, controlling the food supply. Menahem begins to see himself as a kind of Messiah. Dressed in dazzling white he leads a daily procession of his to the temple mount. Finally the population of Jerusalem has had enough. As Menahem prepares to ascend to the temple mount for the celebration of Sukkot, he and his followers are attacked by the other rebels. Menahem and most of his followers are clubbed or stoned to death. The few that manage to escape flee back to the Sicarii stronghold at Masada. With Menahem dead the leader of the Sicarri is now is cousin, Elazar the son of his brother Yair.
During all these fateful events the Romans are still busy in the Galilee. Taking town after town, with not too much resistance. The few exceptions are Magdala on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, home of Mary Magdalene, that puts up a strong resistance, with a bloody naval battle between the Romans and the Jewish fishermen of the Sea of Galilee, and Gamla, resisting the Roman siege, until the Romans manage to break into the town perched on a cliff above Daliya ravine. The fighters of the hometown of Menahem decide not to surrender, and commit suicide by jumping off the cliff on which the city was built to their death. Once the Galilee is subdued, three years after the outbreak of the rebellion, the Romans are ready to take Jerusalem. In the beginning of the year 70, twenty thousand experienced and elite Roman legionnaires set siege to Jerusalem.
The battle for Jerusalem will last for 7 months. The factions inside the city will manage every now and then to put aside their differences and sally out of the walls in heroic attacks. But, for the Roman army, making war on a fortified town is what they did best. The legionnaires were not brave nor brilliant, but professional. The legionnaire served for 25 years, after which Roman citizenship and a nice pension was granted. The soldiers hailed from all parts of the Roman Empire. Jews were not rare in the legionary ranks, and by coincidence the Commander in Chief of the Roman army during the time of the rebellion was Jewish.
Jerusalem fell on the 9th of Av, in the year 70. The great and marvelous city, with its huge temple, fortresses and palaces will be a charred ruin for the next 6 decades. A Roman Legion, the famous Iron Tenth, will set up a permanent camp on the ruins. The rest of the legions and the thousands of auxiliary forces will march away, to other places where they were needed in the Roman world. John of Giscala will be taken by Titus to Rome, together with the vessels of the temple and thousands of Jews, to march in the triumph along the streets of Rome. Josephus will go with them.
And here we arrive at the most important clue in Josephus’ account to understand the events at Masada. The natural ending place for the “Jewish Wars” is the destruction of Jerusalem. But, the narrative continues and takes us to Masada. Reading carefully, between the lines, you will notice that there is a time break between the fall of Jerusalem and the battle of Masada. During this interval a triumphal procession is held in Rome announcing that the Jewish rebellion is over. But is it?
The chapter on Masada, chapter VIII, starts with an interesting remark: “When Bassus was dead in Judea, Flavius Silva succeeded him as military governor. Who when he saw that all the rest of the country was subdued in this war, and that only one stronghold was still in rebellion, he got all his army together that lay in different places and made an expedition against it.” Seemingly straight forward, but on close scrutiny it raises a lot of interesting questions – the first one being the enigmatic report that the military commander of Judah, had suddenly died – or had he been killed?
If we roll back to chapter VI, we will find some more interesting information. After the triumph in Rome, Lucilius Bassus is sent as governor to Judea, where he receives an army from the commander of the Roman forces in Greater Syria, who resided in Damascus. His army was made up of the tenth Roman legion, garrisoned on the ruins of Jerusalem and various auxiliary forces. Bassus first objective is Herodium, Herod’s fortified city, where he was buried, on the outskirts of the Judean Desert just outside Jerusalem. After taking Herodium ,Bassus heads for Macherus, another of the desert forts built by the Hasmoneans and Herod. This time the fort is on the eastern side of the Dead Sea – opposite Masada. “for it was highly necessary that this citadel by demolished, lest in be a means of drawing away many into a rebellion”. It seems, from these events, that the rebellion was actually not over. Something that Josephus didn’t want us to know, was going on. Bassus manages to conquer Macherus, and then he “marches hastily to the forest of Jarda, for he had heard that a great many of those who had fled from Jerusalem and Macherus where there.” Bassus sourrounds the forest with his horsemen, and begins to cut down the forest with his foot soldiers.
Suddenly the Jews attacked. The Romans defended themselves “with great courage,” writes Josephus. The battle ends with the death of three thousand Jewish rebels, including Judas the son of Yair, “their general”. Judas the son of Yair explains Josephus, was “captain of a certain band at the siege of Jerusalem, and by going done into a certain vault underground, had made his escape”. So here we have Bassus running successful battles against Jewish rebels, holed up in the Judean Desert. The only other thing that we hear of Bassus, is that he receives a letter from Caesar telling him to sell off the lands of Judea. Even though the information about the letter is in a paragraph following the battle of Yarda – Josephus if very vague about its timing – “about the same time” he reports. And suddenly Bassus is dead. Where did he die? My hunch is that he was killed at the battle of Yarda, led by none else than the brother of Elazar ben Yair, the commander of Masada.
All this evidence seems to lead to a different narrative then the one that Josephus is trying to tell us. From these scanty pieces of information we learn that Jewish resistance is not over after the fall of Jerusalem, and that Jewish rebels still control three fortress in the Judean Desert: Herodium, Macherus and Massada. Herodium and Macherus are on the fringes of the desert – Masada on the other hand is in the heart of the desert– the place where probably the headquarters of this entity was located – headed by the sons of Menahem – Judas and Elazar.
One of the interesting finds at the excavations at Masada is a pottery shard that authorizes that whatever was in the container from which the shard had come had offered the priestly tithe. The shard is signed by no less then the son of the high priest of Jerusalem, according to Josephus the arch enemy of Menahem. So what exactly is he doing at Masada signing pottery shards? Another visitor to Masada is John of Giscala, who stays at the bottom of the mountain, says Josephus, because he was not trusted by the Sicarii. But this evidence puts another of the leaders of the rebellion at Masada.
The suicide at Masada, especially the speech has a purpose. “We were the very first to revolt against the Romans,” says Elazar in the opening remarks of his speech, “and we are the last that fight against them” – and so, as god has not been favorable upon this undertaking let us do the only thing left to us and take our own lives. God is on the side of the Romans, is the message, and rebellion against Rome is suicidal.
Many years after I had led group after group of tour guides to Masada I returned once again to the mountain, with a measuring reel. I had spent the morning thinking about Masada when suddenly I said to myself “what about the Roman siege, what about the Ramp?” Josephus gives us the exact measure of the ramp, and the stone platform that went on top of it, and the wooden tower erected over it to breach the walls of the citadel. And so I raced to Masada, in the middle of an August heat wave. The ramp was there. As always. Shimmering in the sun, with the logs that had been inserted into it by the Roman army engineers peeking out of the edges. Climbing on the ramp I measured it and compared it with Josephus’ description. It was more or less accurate. Josephus, who was not present at the siege of Masada, had gained his information from the Roman army reports – which reported that the rebellion was not over, but was still going strong in the Judean Desert.
“Wipe it out at all costs,” fumed the Emperor who had been awarded a triumph for stamping out a rebellion that was still going on. And so at all costs the Roman army marched down to Masada, to finish this rebellion once and for all. 8 army camps, a massive ramp, supply routes, a wall that circled the fortress all around – it is still today the best preserved Roman army siege to be seen any where in the world.
The famous speech at Masada was probably never given. The famous suicide probably never happened. What did happen was an impossible struggle for Jewish independence at a time when independence was not an acceptable agenda. The Romans eventually stamped out the rebellion – with the aid of four legions – brought in from all over the Roman Empire. A mere sixty years would pass until the Jews would rebel again, this time a rebellion with no historian to tell the tale. The second rebellion needed a dozen Roman legions to stamp it out – half of the amount of legions in the Roman army – some of the legions would never be heard of again after that. Freedom or death was not the message of Masada, nor the idea of rebelling again and again. The message is that we are slowly gaining the ability to understand what really went on in the minds of the people who lived here 20 centuries ago, Jews who wanted to live and were ready to fight for their freedom.