Masada, Ancient Drama

by Janene W. Baadsgaard

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    Early morning freshness lingered in the air as I rounded yet another corner on the long road from Arad to Masada, a city of mystery. The hours before dawn are so peaceful in the desert. Israel seems to reach eternally outward, a scorched vastness of brooding rocks and crawling sands. Thousands of years of war have left areas of desolation and buried cities of grandeur.

    Each new turn in the road, until now, had brought little more than another view of dry stillness and more dust-filled road ahead, but this corner was different. In contrast to the miles of desert behind me, an immense blueness of sun-reflecting water now lay open to my eyes. Stretching into the horizon, the water met the sun that was gently rising to bring the dawn. The sun’s dripping yellow fingers splashed light against the sky and into my eyes. It was sunrise on the Dead Sea!

    We continued down the road until we reached the base of a huge diamond-shaped rock sticking out from the Judean plateau. With massive sheer drops on all sides, Masada stands like a great ship overlooking the Dead Sea. This is the place where one of the most moving stories of Jewish history took place over 1,900 years ago.

    As I stood at the base looking up at this immense piece of stone, my mind wandered back in time to the first century A.D. when this land of the Jews was known as Judea and was one of the provinces of Rome. It was at this time, around A.D. 66, that the Jews started a revolt that was to become known as the Great Jewish War against Rome. After bloodshed and fighting that continued for five years, the Romans believed the end had finally come when they took over Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish temple, the people’s holiest shrine. Thousands of Jews were either slaughtered or taken captive; but a few managed to escape. Eleazar Ben-Ya’ir was the leader of these few, and they were known as Zealots. They had escaped to this remote spot in the desert called Masada. It was the story of these men, women, and children that filled my mind as I looked up at their rock fortress, Masada.

    The climb to the top of Masada is not an easy one, but once on top I could see clearly for miles around. In the vastness of this huge desert panorama, I felt very small yet uniquely alive. Huge barren mountains curled and rolled in all directions beneath me, thousands of feet below. I felt a strange feeling of strength inside of me, as if I were an eagle perched high in the sky, my nest dangling from the side of a cliff as I surveyed the world beneath me before leaping into the air and gracefully winging into the horizon.

    As I began to wander through the remains of the fortress, I could feel the quiet dignity that seems to accompany it. I was surprised to find palaces and elaborate baths but learned that before this Jewish war, Masada was a Roman garrison where Herod the Great had built a fortress in fear that the Jewish people would dispose of him and also in fear of Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. Herod strengthened and fortified Masada into a mighty stronghold able to withstand a long siege. Ironically Herod never occupied the fortress, and it came to serve the very people he had built it to protect himself from.

    The story of Masada gradually seemed to come alive as I walked through the magnificent palaces, Roman baths, storerooms, and water cisterns. The Jews had taken over Masada early in the revolt and were holding it. Not long after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Romans turned their thoughts to the rebels who were still holding out in Masada. They were an embarrassment to the great Roman empire and had to be taken care of. Rome sent out possibly as many as 20,000 soldiers and prisoners of war to lay siege on them, a small group of 967.

    Looking down from on top of the cliff, I could still see the clearly visible remains of the Roman camps circling around me and could imagine the feeling of the Zealots after months of being surrounded. The Romans built a siege wall and camps all about, but with the help of their supplies and water cisterns, the Zealots withstood the siege for two years. Then came the tragic fall of Masada.

    I walked slowly beside the outer wall of the fortress as what I knew of the fateful day came to my memory. The lonely wailing of the wind around me seemed to cry from the dust. I looked over the edge of the cliff to where the Romans had built a ramp and had finally broken through the outer wall surrounding the fortress. The defenders had quickly improvised an inner wall that could withstand the battering ram, but the Romans soon flung fiery arrows onto the wall, and the wooden staves began to burn. A gust of wind came up behind me as I was remembering that moment. The Jewish rebels too had been surprised by this strange, lonely wind. Just at the moment their wall was about to be burned, the wind suddenly changed direction and blew the flames into the faces of the Romans. The defenders of Masada thought they had been delivered, but just as suddenly as before, the wind changed back and the fire continued its destruction of their wall. The Romans descended from the ramp and returned to camp to prepare for the dawn when they would finally conquer Masada. The power of their numbers assured them of victory over their enemies, the rebel Jews.

    Eleazar, the rebel leader who had lived so long on top of the mountain in spite of the thousands of soldiers Rome sent against him, faced the defeat that would come with the rising sun. He called together all of his followers and in a powerful, moving speech cried to them to choose death rather than surrender to the slavery that would follow defeat. These are the words he spoke that night on the top of Masada, with the blaze of the burning wall behind him and his enemies waiting below for the dawn to come:

    “My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither Romans nor anyone else but only God, who alone is the true and righteous Lord of men: now the time has come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it: we must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. For we were the first of all to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case it is evident the day-break will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honourable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle.

    “Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery: after that, let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames: it will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare—our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because, as we resolved, we chose death rather than slavery.

    “If only we had all died before seeing the Sacred City utterly destroyed by enemy hands, the Holy Sanctuary so impiously uprooted! But since an honourable ambition deluded us into thinking that perhaps we should succeed in avenging her of her enemies, and now all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate, let us at once choose death with honour and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness. After all we were born to die, we and those we brought into the world: this even the luckiest must face. But outrage, slavery, and the sight of our wives led away to shame with our children—these are not evils to which man is subject by the laws of nature: men undergo them through their own cowardice if they have a chance to forestall them by death and will not take it. We are very proud of our courage, so we revolted from Rome: now in the final stages they have offered to spare our lives and we have turned the offer down. Is anyone too blind to see how furious they will be if they take us alive? Pity the young whose bodies are strong enough to survive prolonged torture; pity the not-so-young whose old frames would break under such ill-usage. A man will see his wife violently carried off; he will hear the voice of his child crying ‘Daddy!’ when his own hands are fettered. Come! While our hands are free and can hold a sword, let them do a noble service! Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children.” (Flavius Josephus, “Wars of the Jews,” The Works of Flavius Josephus, book VII.)

    The defenders first slew their own wives and their children, then drew lots, leaving ten to execute the rest of the men. Each man went near the place where his family lay and willingly waited for the ten to carry out their job. Finally lots were cast for one of the ten to execute the other nine, leaving only one man to examine the masses of bodies to see if any needed his hand, then set fire to the royal palace. Then this one man, very much alone, with all the strength he had left, drove his own sword into his body and fell dead beside his friends.

    On the dawn of the next morning, the Romans reached the top as the sun was rising over the quiet waters of the Dead Sea. They found the fortress destroyed, with only the faint crackling of fire, the smell of ashes in the air, and the bodies of nearly a thousand men, women, and children. Surely they must have asked themselves, “Who are the victors here?” It was an empty victory.

    Although the defenders all died believing that none remained, two women and five children were found hiding in a water cistern. They lived to tell the story to the Romans.

    Masada is a universal symbol of dedication to a cause. It symbolizes men, women, and children who chose death rather than slavery. It is a heritage that its defenders have handed down from generation to generation. It would be unwise to suppose that all the qualities of the defenders of Masada were to be admired or that what they chose to do was the only solution, but they were surely a people of great strength and courage, and that is important for us to know.

    As I left the cliff, I thought of the words of Y. Lamdon: “Masada shall not fall again!” That expresses the heritage that the defenders of Masada have given to today’s generation. Yet as I looked at Masada for the last time, she seemed to say, “I will stand as I have always stood. It is only men that fall!”

    Masada whispers to me today. What she has to say is sometimes clouded with the winds of the past, yet unmistakably she speaks, sometimes so softly that you cannot hear unless you stop to rest and listen for her. She speaks of courage and an unyielding desire to be free, free of the hatred of men and wars that brought a creation and destruction at her heights, free of long-ago treasures of wealth, buried and rusted with age, free of men’s power and might that are now swept to and fro by the mocking winds. She is free at last to listen to the peaceful sounds of the land and behold the unmarred beauty of yet another sunrise over the Dead Sea.

    Photos by Janene W. Baadsgaard