Daily Israel Report

Masada National Park: A World Heritage Site

Breathtaking Masada, located on an isolated mesa in the Judean Desert, is one the most dramatic historic sites in Israel.
By Elad Benari
First Publish: 8/22/2011, 2:25 PM

Masada is located on an isolated mesa in the Judean Desert, the steep and erect slopes to which rise to a height of more than 400 meters above the Dead Sea. The combination of cliffs and escarpments in a desert region has given the place a natural defense system.

Despite its natural fortification, King Herod encircled the flat top of Masada with a strong wall (which was made up of two parallel walls). This is not a trivial task, as the length of the peak of Masada is about 600 meters and its width, at the center, is 300 meters.

Masada was not just built by Herod as a fort, but a royal castle with large palaces, a sophisticated bath house and smaller palaces which were intended to serve Herod’s family.

The top level had four bedrooms and a semicircular balcony, from which there was a spectacular view of the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi, and the Moab Mountains. A sophisticated and hidden staircase led to a middle level in which a large hall was built, surrounded by a veranda whose poles were placed at the edge of the cliff. The staircase went down to the bottom level, in which a large hall surrounded by vestibules was established. The walls of the hall were decorated with spectacular frescoes. A private bathhouse was built adjacent to the hall for the occupants of the northern palace.

At the peak were 29 large warehouses, each one 27 meters long. Excavations of the site found hundreds of pottery vessels in which huge amounts of food were stored. Thus, using a rare combination of natural conditions and human endeavors, Masada became a cliff that was almost impossible to conquer.

The great halls of the palaces were unsuitable for housing families, and thus became headquarters and public buildings.

The building near the north wall, which served as a stable in the days of Herod, was later turned into a synagogue. This is one of the Jewish people’s most ancient synagogues, known to be in use during the period of the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem, an unusual occurrence as synagogues became the accepted place to pray only after the destruction of the second Temple.

The Masada defenders also built two halakhic ritual baths, which conform to present day halakha. Since they date from the period before the Oral Law was written down in the Mishna, this is an indication of halakhic accuracy and continuity.

Most people lived in the wall’s casements and in little buildings constructed next to it. This can be seen by the convection ovens and food storage alcoves. In the rooms that had not been burned by the Romans were found personal effects such as clothing, leather tools, baskets, and houseware. Many of the items were found in piles of ashes, indicating that they were burned on purpose by their owners so as not to fall into enemy hands.

At the beginning of Judea's Great Revolt against Rome in the year 68 BCE, the site was taken over by Jewish zealots, and it became their last stronghold.  They held out for three years, but in the year 72 the Romans besieged Massada and succeeded in reaching the steep fortress aftes constructing a huge earthen ramp on its western side, which still exists today.  In the year 73, according to Josephus Flavius'  account of the Jewish Wars, the 960 Jewish zealots living at the top of Massada chose to commit suicide by killing one another rather than to fall into the hands of the Romans alive. Two women were supposed to have survived. Their deeds left behind a saga of courage, heroism, and martyrdom. 

The IDF conducts ceremonies for recruits at Massada in the spirit of  the motto of the pre-state Jewish defense force, the Hagana, that   "Massada will not fall again."

More than 5,000 coins were discovered in Masada, most of which were minted during the period of the revolt. Particularly exciting are silver coins with Hebrew inscriptions such as “Israeli Shekel” and “Holy Jerusalem”.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority invests considerable resources in the preservation of Masada, and is assisted in this by some of the world’s best professionals. By rebuilding the walls that collapsed and completing destroyed buildings, Masada’s original look is recreated. The conservation and recovery are done using materials with the same composition as materials used in ancient times. This form of recovery is important especially when treating frescoes, murals, mosaics and other artistic elements.

Today religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are held in the synagogue. During these ceremonies a Sefer Torah is brought up the mountain and is read from on Mondays, Thursdays and Chol Hamoed.