Masada | Notes

Yigael Yadin. Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand.  Steimatzky Ltd., 1997. (272 pages)


1 The challenge

* Western drop to the Dead sea is more than 1,300 feet.
* 66 AD, the Jewish revolt flared up into a full-scale country-wide war.
* 70 AD, the Roman general Titus conquered Jerusalem, sacked the city, destroyed the Temple, and expelled the bulk of the Jewish survivors from the country.
* According to Josephus, the first to fortify this natural defensive position was ‘Jonathan the High Priest.’ Is it A) the brother of Judah the Maccabee (middle of 2nd century BC) or B) Alexander Jannaeus (who reigned 103-76 BC), who was known in Hebrew as Jonathan.
* All agree it was King Herod the Great who turned Masada into the formidable fort between the years 36 and 30 BC.
* At the beginning of the 66 AD rebellion, a group of Jewish zealots had destroyed the Roman garrison at Masada and held it throughout the war. They were joined by a few surviving patriots, after the fall of Jerusalem. They “harried the Romans for two years.” (11)
* In 72 AD, Flavius Silva, the Roman Governor, resolved to crush this outpost of resistance. He marched on Masada with his Tenth Legion, its auxiliary troops and thousands of prisoners of war carrying water, timber and provisions.
* The Jews at the top, commanded by Eleazar ben Yair prepared for defence.

Masada represents for all of us in Israel and for many elsewhere, archaeologists and laymen, a symbol of courage, a monument to our great national figures, heroes who chose death over a life of physical and moral sefdom. (13)

2 The task

Whatever the reasons, whether pangs of conscience or some other cause which we cannot know, the fact is that his [Josephus’s] account is so detailed and reads so faithfully, and his report of the words uttered by Eleazar ben Yair is so compelling, that it seems evident that he had been genuinely overwhelmed by the record of heroism on the part of the people he had forsaken. (15)

At all events, he was certainly right in arguing that Masada was turned into a personal royal citadel and not an ordinary fortification. (16)

* Masada was garrisoned by Roman legionaries, and that these were wiped out int he year 66 AD by Menahem, a leader of the revolt
* with its fall to the Romans in 73 AD, Flavius Silva left a garrison there
* Surveys previous to ours had shown further that in the 5th and 6th centuries AD a small settlement of monks was located on the site and they had built a modest chapel and lived in miserable dwellings and caves.

…the discovery of the remains of the Masada defenders proved to be one of the most impressive experiences of the expedition. They had left behind no grand palaces, no mosaics, no wall paintings, not even anything that could be called buildings, for they had simply added primitive partitions to the Herodian structures to fit them as dwellings, and there they had installed their domestic items, like clay ovens and wall couches… (16)

3 Getting to work

* 10 cisterns each with a capacity of up to 140,000 cubic feet, altogether totaling close to 1,400,000. Herod constructed two small dams from which they would open channels to two sets of cisterns, one from the southern wadi to the top row, and the second aqueduct from the northern wadi to the bottom row.
* Many times the southern wind reached gale force of over sixty miles and hour and tore our tents to shreds.

Josephus says that before the reign of Herod, years before he fortified Masada, Herod’s brother Joseph plus members of his family found refuge at Masada. Holding out against the troops of the last of the Hasmoneans and his allies, the Parthians, they were about to die of thirst, when suddenly the heavens opened and all the pits that had been in Masada filled with water, and Joseph and his people were saved. (32)

Josephus tells how in the final stage of the siege, when the Zealots built a wooden wall to stop up the breach the Romans had effected above the ramp, the Romans threw firebrands and set the wood alight. Suddenly, the direction of the wind changed and began blowing from the north, thus driving the flames on to the Romans. Then, as if at divine injunction, the wind changed direction again and the flames were driven inwards. The Romans saw this as the work of their gods who had come to their help. (34)

* It is likely that they raised only vegetables and not trees

Discussing the realities of European volunteers on an Israeli dig who coped with the heat by wearing bikinis, Yadin writes, “There was a feeling at times that the volunteers — the women at least — were concerned as much with exposing the present as with uncovering the past.” (35)

Yadin’s team needed a place to camp for excavations, but the ideal spot was taken already by Silva and his army 1900 years earlier.

4 The site

* Masada measures 1900 feet north to south and 650 feet east to west.
* Surrounded by a casemate wall, (a double wall divided by partition walls into a series of rooms or casemates) running some 4250 feet round the top.
* Most of the buildings are concentrated in the northern half of the summit. The southern half was bare for the most part, at least in Herod’s time, and was possibly used to raise vegetables.
* The unevenness of the ground does not show on aerial photographs, but in fact there are hollows and mounds.

5 The northern palace-villa

* Re: Northern Palace. The rock on the north tapers steeply, and to erect anything at all on it, “Herod’s engineers had to fashion some kind of artificial platform with the aid of powerful supporting walls, up to eighty feet in height, hanging over the abyss.”
* The principal purpose of the artists of the wall paintings/frescos, was to give the lower part of the plastered walls the appearance of being paneled in stone and marble. …Lines are painted to look like the veins in marble.
* The artists’ efforts to produce a likeness to real marble tablets apparently succeeded, at least to the extent of convincing Josephus, who recorded, as we have seen, that the walls of the building were paneled in that material.
* Though Josephus mentions pillars made of a single stone, they were actually constructed of several drums of soft stone, plastered and then grooved giving them the appearance of giant sculptured monolithic columns. Crowning them were Corinthian capitals, and these, too, were painted.

The tremendous energies invested in its engineering were designed to serve the single purpose of creating a magnificent and decorative edifice to be used for rest and relaxation, for leisure and pleasure, a place from which one could enjoy the wondrous scenery northwards to Ein Gedi and beyond, eastwards across the Dead Sea to the mountains of Moab, westwards to the hills of Judea. (47)

* On this slope, Herod did have a Roman style bathhouse, with a cold water pool, tepid room, and hot room.

We turn now to the other way of life at Masada, the remains unearthed in our excavations belonging to the period of the Great Jewish Revolt. (54)

* we came across a thick layer of ashes, the product of a powerful fire, in which we found remains of food, such as date and olive stones, and also coins struck during the revolt, which such typical inscriptions as: ‘The Freedom of Zion’.
* small bath-house remains: three skeletons. One was that of a man about twenty; hundreds of silvered scales of armour, scores of arrows, fragments of a prayer shawl, an ostracon; a young woman; a child

Today we are confident that the entire structure on this central terrace was designed in fact to serve only the purposes of leisure and relaxation, like the lower terrace. (59)

* Close to 50,000 cubic yards of Masada earth were sifted during the course of the archaeological dig.
* The masons marked each column with a latter and each drum with a number, in Hebrew. This shows clearly the builders and stone-masons were Jewish [VIA: and literate]
* Some stones were marked with letters in Paleo-Hebrew…others in Latin, others of geometric signs.

6 The large bath-house

* 200 tiny pillars in the hypocaust. By pouring water on the floor, it became a steam bath.
* Adjacent to the building was an oven.
* a huge tub made of quartz with a lead pipe with water under pressure for a fountain.
* paved floor known as opus sectile.
* The small room was the frigidarium, and it was strictly functional, designed for speedy entry into the cold water and speedy exit therefrom. (81)

Masada was not an ordinary fort but a royal citadel. Nothing was spared to enable the king and his companions to live there, in the desert, and still enjoy their customary amenities. (85)

7 The storehouses

* core, oil, pulse, dates…
* although they were little short of a hundred years from the laying in of these provisions, they were fresh and full ripe, in no way inferior to such fruits newly laid in.
* weapons of war, sufficient for ten thousand men
* hard dolomite stones, quarried on the site
* thickness of the wall was double the width of slab. The slabs themselves were large, each weighing from 400 to 500 lbs.

If this had been an ordinary archaeological site we would no doubt have tried to roll the stones to the edge of the plateau, dropped them over the precipice, and applied ourselves without further delay to the task of digging. But Masada is no ordinary site, and we had to concern ourselves not only with our own immediate expedition but with the future — with the hundreds of thousands of visitors drawn by the drama of Masada, who would wish to see something of the physical remains of Masada’s past. (88)

We did not imagine we could restore each stone to its original position, but I can say that we were sufficiently careful to ensure that each was replaced in the original wall from which it had fallen. (88)

* the original height of all the walls of all the storerooms had been the same — about eleven feet. (88)

Incidentally, in order that the future visitor should be able to tell which part of the wall was still standing when we unearthed it and which had been restored, we painted a black line between the two. It was just as well that we did so while the restored wall was being built up, for Moshe Yoffee and his men were so skilled that at times we ourselves found it difficult to determine where the work of Herod’s builders stopped and that of Yoffe began. (88)

The task of removing some of the boulders and debris required the use of mechanical equipment, such as tractors, which of course could not be driven up to the summit. What we had to do was take them apart, send each section to the top by an overhead cable rail which was installed by the army engineers, and then assemble the parts. (90)

* the vessels had not been broken by falling beams when the roof collapsed in the big fire started by the Zealots, but had been intentionally smashed, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Romans.
* several vessels carried the Hebrew “t” (tav in Hebrew), written in ink and charcoal…for the Hebrew word Truma – priestly due
* the defenders of Masada were not only Zealots from the national-political point of view but also lived rigidly according to the religious code, strictly adhering to such commandments as tithing, despite the harsh conditions of life at Masada.
* in one entrance, nearly a hundred coins strewn on the floor within a small radius. They belonged to year two and year three of the Jewish revolt.
* stocks of tin, other metals, wine, oil, flour jars…

8 The ‘apartment’ or garrison building

* This building is the only one on Masada which had originally been built as a dwelling place. (107)
* a heap of coins, constituting the largest group of shekels ever found in one location; and this is the first time that shekels have been discovered in a regular archaeological excavation and in a stratum which belongs without any doubt to the period of the great Jewish revolt. (108)

9 The Byzantine chapel

* 5th century

10 The western palace

* 36,000 sq. feet
* not mentioned by Josephus
* ceremonial palace, the palace of Herod at Masada.
* someone had apparently destroyed the floor during attempts to dig through the piles of debris and rubble presumably in a search for hidden treasure.
* the most ancient coloured mosaic floors ever discovered in the country
* lines had been scratched denoting exactly the borders of the floor and the principal patterns, to guide them in the placing of the stones (127)
* dovecotes … agricultural fertiliser, some form of worship? …It is our conviction that this building, like similar though larger buildings discovered in Italy, was designed to receive the remains of cremations. It is probable that Herod built it for the burial of his servants, ministers or other members of his court who were not Jewish. (139)

11 The casemate wall

* chambers within the wall had both a utilitarian and military purpose…storerooms, dwelling-rooms, base for building of battlements and firing embrasures.
* 1400 yards (4200 ft.) in length
* dolomite stone quarried on Masada
* covered with a white plaster
* 110 rooms
* There were rooms we excavated which at first glance had not been burnt, but we would find in a corner a heap of spent embers containing the remains of clothing, sandals, domestic utensils and cosmetic items…
* At several strategic points, such as those dominating the ‘snake path’ …we found more than a dozen huge, round stones, each weighing about 100 lbs.
* all around this sector (breach point) we found hundreds of ballistic stones the size of grapefruit which had been hurled at Masada by the Roman catapults. (156)

12 The ritual bath (mikve)

* the mikve was ‘forty measures’ required by the ritual law.
* ‘among the finest of the finest, seven times seven’.
* the law therefore prescribes that it is sufficient if part of the water is ‘pure’; additional water, drawn and brought from elsewhere and not direct-flowing rain-water, becomes ‘purified’ on contact with the pure water. (166)
* the defenders of Masada were devout Jews

13 The scrolls

* Psalm 81 to 85

…this section from the Book of Psalms, like other biblical scrolls which we found later, is almost exactly identical (except for a few very minor changes here and there) to the text of the biblical books which we use today. Even the division into chapters and psalms is identical with the traditional division. This not only testifies to the strength and faithfulness of the Jewish tradition, but it enables us to learn many things about the development of the biblical text, particularly in the light of the fact that many of the scrolls of biblical books which were discovered in Qumran and in the caves north of Masada, contained significant textual changes from the accepted traditional text. (172)

* Book of Leviticus fragments also found.
* one of the ways in which the Roman soldiers persecuted the Jews was tearing books of the Bible before their eyes.
* another fragment found was exactly the same as the text of one of the scrolls discovered in Qumran, in cave four.
* The first day of the first month, namely the month of Nissan, always fell on a Wednesday, the day of the creation of the luminaries, which determined the division of time.
* The big question was: ‘What has this sectarian scroll to do with Masada?’
* It seems to me that the discovery of this scroll serves as proof indeed that the Essenes also participated in the great revolt against the Romans.
* Psalm 150
* The wisdom of Ben-Sira (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus)

14 The synagogue and its scrolls

* a kind of geniza found off to the side
* chapters from the Book of Ezekiel
* parts of the two final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy

All in all, we discovered at Masada portions of fourteen scrolls, biblical, sectarian and apocryphal. From the point of view of scroll research and a study of the literature of the Second Temple period, these were the most important discoveries of our Masada excavations. (189)

* Altogether we discovered almost 700 inscriptions on pottery.
* all the jars bore the name of the Roman consul for the year 19 B.C., C. Sentius Saturninus. These jars had contained wine which had been specially sent from Italy to Herod. We know this from the last line of the inscription, which read: “To King Herod of Judea’. This was the first time we had discovered and inscription with the name of Herod. (189)

15 The remains of the last defenders

The defenders of Masada, as testified by Josephus, died by their own hands. The exceptions were two women and several children who hid themselves during the suicide operation and who later recounted to the conquering Roman unit what had taken place in Masada in the final moments. (193)

* twenty-five skeletons found, southern cliff in the network of caves
* 14 males (22-60 yrs.), 1 man (>70 yrs.), 6 females (15-22 yrs.), 4 children (8-12 yrs.), 1 embryo
* eleven, small, strange ostraca…one bearing the name ‘Ben Ya’ir’

It is thanks to Ben Ya’ir and his comrades, to their heroic stand, to their choice of death over slavery, and to the burning of their humble chattels as a final act of defiance to the enemy, that they elevated Masada to an undying symbol of desperate courage, a symbol which has stirred hearts throughout the last nineteen centuries. It is this which moved scholars and laymen to make the ascent to Masada. It is this which moved the modern Hebrew poet to cry: ‘Masada shall not fall again!’ It is this which has drawn the Jewish youth of our generation in their thousands to climb to its summit in a solemn pilgrimage. And it is this which brings the recruits of the armoured units of the Defence Forces of modern Israel to swear the oath of allegiance on Masada’s heights: ‘Masada shall not fall again!’ (201)

Period Date The finds
Calcolithic 4th millennium Caves in cliffs
First Temple 10th to 7th centuries BC Scattered sherds
Hasmonean 103 – 40 BC Coincs of Alexander Janneus
Herod the Great 40-4 BC Fortress, palaces, storerooms, bath-house, water cisterns, coins
Dynasty of Herod and Procurators 4 BC – AD 66 Hundreds of coins, additions to buildings
The Great Revolt AD 66 – 73 Dwellings, ritual baths, synagogue, scrolls, ostraca, coins and articles of daily use
After the Revolt AD 73 – 111 Coins of the Roman garrison, some additional buildings
Byzantine 5th – 6th centuries AD Chapel, monks’ cells

 16 Masada’s history in the light of the finds

In the course of our two-season, eleven months’ dig, we excavated 97 per cent of the built-on area of Masada (205)

17 The other side of the hill

There is, however, no more impressive testimony to the courage of the defenders than the remains of the Roman camps and their siege structures which surround Masada. (209)

…what was Silva’s military aim?

It seems to me that the words of Josephus and the plan of the camps and siege works leave no room for doubt on these matters. Silva well knew that the defenders of Masada were among the most daring, zealous and desperate people who had ever stood up to and resisted the Roman army. Moreover, he cannot have thought that a siege would bring them to their knees for he knew that, quite apart from their fighting qualities, they had considerable quantities of water and food on the summit. To subjugate them through siege would have taken a very long time indeed, and this Silva could not permit himself, if only because of the climatic conditions. He had to complete the conquest of Masada before the onset of the burning summer. It therefore follows from all this, that Silva planned an assault on the fortress from the very outset.

If this is so, however why did he expend so much energy and resources in encircling Masada with a siege wall of more then 3,800 yards? The answer is given by Josephus, in the extract we have just quoted: the wall was built to prevent the escape o the beleaguered defenders, and this, without doubt, was Silva’s principle purpose. For all the strategic importance of the fortress Masada for the Roman army, the fact is that what disturbed the tranquility of the Roman empire were the 960 men, women and children holding out on its summit. …This they considered a double danger. The rebels could use Masada as a base for forays against centres of settlement and units of the Roman army. Perhaps more important, by their very existence the Zealots could spark anew the embers of the rebellion which in fact were smouldering all the time — as witness the revolt of Bar Kochba which broke out sixty years after the fall of Masada. One can well imagine the stern and urgent orders from Titus in Rome to Silva in Palestine, commanding him to liquidate the ‘nest of rebels’ at all cost and without delay. And it is surely no accident that the conquest of Masada was not celebrated in Rome, or at all events found no mention in the Roman annals of that time. (214)

* walls were 6 feet thick, twelve towers built at intervals of 80 to 100 yards, eight camps, 9,000 troops, 15,000 men if we add to the fighting units the thousands of Jewish prisoners who, according to Josephus, were used to bring water and food and apparently also to work on construction. (223)
* circumvallation
* the ramp was two hundred cubits (~330 feet) in height

18 The dramatic end

*See Wars 7.252 – 7.388 (Chapter 8)

About VIA


  1. Pingback: Traveling Israel: Masada and the Dead Sea | Two Different Girls

  2. Dr. Jack D. Montgomery

    What are the Hasmonean
    coins Worth. Dr Jack D. Montgomery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: