It was quiet. The darkness of the night had swallowed the shouts of the Romans and the noise of their war machinery, the heavy battering ram, and the ballista on its wheeled platform, used for launching rocks and arrows. Only the guards were standing on alert. The soldiers slept in the tents and barracks of their compounds, maybe their commander Flavius Silva was awake and deep in his thoughts. The Roman army, at the foot of the rock, was ready for their final task, to end the siege of Masada and to capture it the next morning.
High up at the mountain the silence was total and deadly, there was no sound - all was done already. The wings of death were inaudible fluttering over the ground. Not even whispers could be heard from the few souls hiding in a cave on the upper slopes of the hill. The woman with the thick braids and pretty sandals on the steps of the palace was shaking, holding the hands of the child, waiting for the final act. The young man looked at his lot, the ostraca, the ceramic sherd with his name written on it - the last of ten names. He raised his sword...
There was no defense, no shrieks, they were met with absolute stillness - after two years of holding Masada and realizing it was not further possible, the Jewish rebels had chosen death over slavery and imprisonment by the Roman conquerors. The soldiers discovered almost a thousand bodies - and they found the two women and five children in the cave, who had not obeyed the decision of their leader, Eleazar Ben Yair and his men to end their life, and who would live to tell about the event. The Zealots, the radical resistance fighters against Roman rule, had chosen by lottery ten men to complete the order, each one had to kill his family and his kin and then they would kill each other, till the last one who had to take his own life.
Before it they had burned down everything, all their modest belongings, except the stores with the remaining supplies, to let the Romans know that they were not desperate for food and that hunger was not the reason for giving up their battle.
The knowledge and only written source about the events at Masada we owe to the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, a rebel at first by himself, who was captured by the Romans, betrayed his people and worked from there on in Roman services.
He gave a fictional speech from Eleazar Ben Yair, putting those words in his mouth: "...Let our wives die before they get abused, and our children before they have tasted slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually and preserve ourselves in freedom as an excellent funeral monument for us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I am well assured that this will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fail to our wealth also: and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we are not subdued for want of necessaries; but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery."
And he writes upon the conquerors after breaking the wall: "The Romans advanced to the assault... seeing none of the enemy but on all sides an awful solitude, and flames within and silence, they were at a loss to conjecture what had happened. Here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death display by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution."
The Heriodian fortress Masada was built as a refuge for the spoiled ruler, on a high rock not far from the western shore of the Dead Sea, about 450 m high, which is shaped as a table or mesa, situated in an incredible beautiful, wild and harsh landscape, the turquoise blue salt lake at its foot, but very inaccessible and almost impregnable. It was a sensational architectural achievement by the builders of Herod the Great to fortify this mountain. The work was done during the years 36 till 30 BCE. A circular almost four meters wide double wall, 1.3 km long, beginning end ending at the Northern Palace with the magnificent view on the desert and the Dead Sea, circumferenced the hill top, interrupted with many towers. The interiors of the two palaces were of superb luxury, with fake marble walls, colorful mosaics, baths in the typical Roman style, painted frescoes, and high columns decorated with beautiful capitals. Nothing was missing to support the decadent life style of this megalomaniac regent. The location included villas for staff and visitors, huge ware and storage houses, and cisterns with immense proportions, able to hold millions of liters of water, the result of a very sophisticated water system, relying solely on rainwater.
Yes, imagine, what kind of human workforce was needed to accomplish all this, in the middle of nowhere, on top of an almost 500 m high free standing rock, with sharp straight down falling sides, no natural path leading up!
After the death of Herod in the year 4 BCE, Roman legionnaires took hold of the plateau. Many years later at about 66 CE Zealot rebels who had waged a guerrilla war against the Roman occupation conquered Masada and drove the Romans out from it. They lived in the case mate wall, which they divided into rooms and built a synagogue. After Jerusalem was destroyed and went up in flames, more desperate resistance against the Roman legions aroused and Masada, which had been previously on the edge of the combat zone, became the center again. But after three years of fighting against a superior force of about 10.000 soldiers under Flavius Silva, and surviving the Roman siege it became clear that further defense was impossible which led to the fatal and heroic decision of choosing death in order not to fall into the hands of the Romans.
This is the story of Masada, the introductory scene narrated by me, but the basic facts remain.
There are many discrepancies between historians and excavators about the events there, they argue about the details - those three skeletons found on the steps of the palace, were they really Zealots? - but the core of the happenings is known, two women lived to tell, and the tale is quite chilly.
Photographs of the braids and the sandals from the book about Masada by Ygal Yadin.
The first photograph is from the Internet, I hope it is copyright free.
The remaining photographs by Uri Eshkar.