Masada – an Ancient Dead Sea Fortress

Masada is famous for several reasons. To Israeli Jews, it is a symbol of Jewish Independence. To those interested in military or ancient history, it is an example of Rome’s famed tenacity. For some modern tourists, it is the site of an ancient battle which happens to offer magnificent views of the Dead Sea valley.

Masada was fortified by Herod the Great a few decades before the birth of Christ. Herod took advantage of its exceptional defensive strength and prepared it as a place of refuge in the event of war. The site was well equipped to handle a long siege. Only a narrow, difficult path offered access to the fortified summit, which is some 1,300 feet above the valley floor. (The distance from top to bottom is smaller on the west side, but remains a formidable 300 feet.) A clever aquaduct system carried rain runoff into large cisterns that had been carved into the mountain. Besides its casemate walls and towers, the site had a lavish palace complete with mosiac floors, frescoed walls and Roman baths. Excavators have uncovered numerous storerooms that once held large quantities of food, drink and weaponry. It was an intimidating fortress by any measure.

Masada (center) viewed from the northeast. Its defensive power is obvious.

Masada (center) viewed from the northeast. Its defensive power is obvious.

During the Jewish Revolt against Rome, Jewish rebels seized the summit ahead of the advancing Roman armies. When the 10th Roman legion arrived it surrounded Masada with a siege wall and 8 forts. Since the Romans had no good path to assault the top, they created their own. The video below shows how that worked.

Josephus wrote what is the only extant history of the battle at Masada. He records that on the night before the final Roman assault, the doomed Jewish fighters decided they and their families would not live as Roman slaves. They drew lots to determine who would kill the others before killing themselves. When the Romans broke in the next morning, nobody was alive except for a few women and children who had hidden themselves during the mass suicide.

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The Roman general Silva set up his headquarters in this camp on Masada's west side. One can still observe the Roman siege wall (in front of camp) and the other forts around Masada's perimeter. The white path running in front of this camp is the Roman communications road that linked this headquarters with other forts.

There is no known mention of Masada in the Bible, though some speculate it could have been the “stronghold” used by David in 1 Samuel 22:4 when he was on the run from Saul. We will likely never be sure, but who knows what future excavations may yield?

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View from atop Masada looking east over the Dead Sea. The mountains in the background are the mountains of ancient Moab, today the country of Jordan. The land bridge is the Lisan Peninsula that now divides the shrinking Dead Sea.

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About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister in English and Spanish with the North Terrace Church of Christ and participates annually in archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke also leads tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
This entry was posted in General Archaeology, Interesting places to visit, Israel, Short videos, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Masada – an Ancient Dead Sea Fortress

  1. Pingback: The Dead Sea « Luke Chandler's Blog

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