The Fall of Masada

Photo by James L. Stanfield for National Geographic.
The doomed fortress of Masada. Photo by James L. Stanfield for National Geographic.

I. The End
Masada, long destroyed and long forgotten, was an ancient Jewish city that was stormed and taken nearly 2,000 years ago. Sitting at the banks of the Dead Sea and located high atop winding canyon ridge, Masada was the last stronghold of Jewish people in ancient Jerusalem.

Roman and Jewish historians remember the wars ending with a final Roman siege and sack of Jerusalem near 70 AD to 73 AD. A series of strategic victories expelled Jews from the Holy City and many portions of Israel. Israel's remaining military forces were cornered. Among these survivors were the Zealots, a group of fanatical fighters sworn to protect Israel. The Zealots and the remaining military forces and their families retreated to the canyon topped city fortress of Masada.

"Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom."
- Elazar ben Yair, Josephus, 73 AD.

The city sat atop a desert plateau. The canyon walls were soon surrounded but held the Roman legions at bay for a time. In this fortress, facing tens of thousands of Roman soldiers, the remaining Zealots must have known that there would be no escape. The war between the Hebrews and Romans would leave Israel destroyed for nearly 2,000 years (from roughly 73 AD to 1948 AD). The Siege of Masada was the final battle in that war.

Masada, the last stronghold of the Zealots after Jersalem fell, was a secluded canyon top fortress-city of the ancient world. The Roman empire, in seeking to control all aspects of the known world both geographically and religiously, sought to crush this last stronghold of the Zealots in 73 AD.

Masada, the Greek translation taken from the Hebrew word for fort: Metzuda, was the last refuge of the Judaic warriors known as the Sicarii. The Sicarii, whose name bears an uncanny resemblance to Judas Isacriot (interpreted to have distant family connections) but is roughly translated to "he from the townships", unwittingly brought doom to their people due their pursuit of fanatical obedience to forms of Jewish teaching that they interpreted as assassination orders for anyone who believed differently - including the entire Roman empire.

II. Master, Slave and Servant
Historically, in the three centuries of Roman rule over the ancient world prior to 70 AD, the relationship between ancient Hebrews and Romans was continually strained. Roman-Jewish history was full of rebellions and alliances and that were sometimes very contradictory. Ancient Hebrews and Romans sometimes lived close together - as close together as a slave and master can live.

Prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and Masada with it, many Roman rulers or senators and governors regularly employed Jewish scholars, philosophers and priests (rabbis) as lawyers and teachers. An extraordinary account of this strained and convoluted relationship is given in the Jewish New Testament called the Talmud in the book of Hullim.

This story recounts an unusually frank relationship a Rabbi had with the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 101 BC at court. Roman Emperors were known for extreme madness and cruelty - savagely executing centurions or rivals for the most minor of offenses. Challenging traditional the pagan Roman gods was included as a lethal offense.

100 years prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the Emperor Hadrian asked a respected Hebrew philosopher about the existence of one God in 101 BC:

"'An emperor said to Rabbi Joshua ben Hananya: "I want to see your God.' The Rabbi replied: 'You cannot see Him.' 'Nevertheless,' the emperor said 'I want to see Him!' Rabbi Joshua stood the emperor in the summer sun, and said, 'Look at the sun.'

'I cannot,' answered the emperor. Rabbi Joshua said, 'The sun is but one of the servants who stand in the presence of the Holy One, praised be He, and you cannot look at the sun. Is it not truer still that you cannot see God's Presence?'[0]

It must have been disconcerting for the Emperor Hadrian who was accustomed to seeing statues of the State Gods of Rome, such as Jupiter and Mars, in his lavishly appointed halls and in the public squares to conceptualize a Jewish God who present in everything.

This discussion took place 174 years before the end of Israel as a independent Jewish state. Israel, Jerusalem and Masada with it, was doomed to fall by 73 AD.

The interior of Masada.
The interior of the fortress of Masada contained storehouses, temples, and defensive positions.

IV. The Final Stand
Gathered in the canyon-city were the Zealots, priests and Sicarii. Among the surviving reports of the final siege of the canyon-top city there is a speech delivered by a rabbi named Elazar ben Yair. He is recorded as saying this:

“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice...We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.” - Elazar ben Yai

Masada was under siege for many months until the 900 remaining inhabitants commited mass suicide rather than suffer slavery or execution for defending the cause of Jewish independence. The Masada leaders set the city on fire as the Roman burst into the streets but left grain and food storage buildings standing to show the Romans that the people of Masada were still capable of holding out against the siege.

The Roman historian, Josephus Flavius recorded that only 7 people, two women and a handfull of children, survived the siege of Masada to tell the tale.

Today, Masada is still vividly remembered by Israelis and cranky historians, very much as Americans recall the Alamo, Saigon, Chosin Reservoir or Bunker Hill. In fact, many versions of modern loyalty oaths taken by members of the modern Jewish Army in the 21st century declare that: "...Masada will not fall again".

[0] = This account is taken from the book of Hullim 59-60a of The Talmud and included in Judaism edited by Arthur Hertzberg in 1962.

Wikipedia, Fall of Masada
Wikipedia, Joshua ben Hananiah
Wikipedia, Masada
Jewish Virtual Library, Masada
Street Prophets, Intro To Jewish Texts
Fr. Shawn P. Tunink, Masada: A Voice In the Wilderness
American Sociological Association, Volume 18, No. 1 (Fall 2003), The Masada Fraud by Nachman Ben-Yehuda

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