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What Is Masada?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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Masada is a group of palaces and ruins in Israel. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2001. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Israel outside of Jerusalem.

The site is built at the edge of the Judean Desert, on top of an enormous mesa, overlooking Dead Sea and giving a clear and unobstructed view for many miles. Herod the Great is attributed with the fortification of Masada near the end of the first century BCE. It is said that he built up the walls and the palace to hide away in, should there be a massive revolt, which was becoming more and more of a possibility each year.

Despite this, a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii defeated the small number of Roman troops defending Masada, and took control of it for themselves. The Sicarii held it for over a century, and it eventually became a haven for the Sicarii who were cast out of Jerusalem by another group of Jewish rebels, the Zealots.

Near the end of the first century, the Roman governor of Judea finally decided to take back Masada. The Romans first tried to breach the walls, but when that failed, they built an enormous assault ramp. Thousands of tons of earth was removed in the process over the course of almost three months.

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When the Romans finally breached the walls, they found the structures on fire, and all of the inhabitants dead. Rather than allowing themselves to be captured, the Sicarii had committed mass suicide. A history by Josephus states that rather than each man or woman killing his or her self, they drew lots and killed one another, to avoid the prohibition on suicide. It should be noted, however, that aspects of the story of the siege are murky at best, and while it is certain the Romans did lay siege to the fort and capture it from the Sicarii, nearly everything else comes from questionable histories.

In the mid-19th century Masada was rediscovered by the modern world, and identified as the location of the siege given in Josephus’ history. In the early-1960s Israeli archaeologists began to excavate the region, and work continues on the site. Cable cars were eventually added to the site, to allow tourists to access it without having to climb the rather grueling Snake Path from the bottom.

Masada offers an excellent opportunity to experience firsthand the location of a widely-known tale from Jewish history. In spite of its relatively isolated location, a significant number of tourists visit the site each year, exploring the ruins, climbing over the same wall the Romans used to storm the fortress, and examining historical artifacts. Since 2007 a museum has also been available on site, showcasing some particularly interesting artifacts, and giving a detailed history of the site.

There is an oath taken by some Israeli soldiers at the site, as well: “Masada shall not fall again.” This expresses a commitment to protecting the modern state of Israel, reflecting the site's popular status as the final holdout of the Jewish resistance against the Romans. Although it was largely forgotten for centuries, in the 1920s a popular Hebrew poet, Isaac Lamdan, wrote an epic poem entitled Masada, which gave a stirring account of the fight.

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