I am often asked, “What is your favorite site to guide?” I usually answer first, that as an educator, the site is less important than the connection between the site and the person. My favorite site to guide is whatever site I am guiding with you.
Usually, they push on, wanting to know that favorite site for a guide. Although there are many sites to which I am personally connected, out-of-the way sites, like the Lido Cafe on the shores of the Dead Sea, Qesr al-Yehud in the Jordan Valley, and Beit Shearim overlooking the Jezreel Valley, my favorite site to guide is probably Masada.
Masada? Really? Doesn’t it get boring?
But it isn’t really the site of Masada which retains its freshness for me. Face it; stones are stones.
What draws me to love Masada every time, are the stories and the messages.
The first people to settle Masada according to Josephus are the Chashmonaim in the Second Century B.C.E. Those kings threw off the oppressive yoke of the Greek Selucid Empire to create an independent Jewish kingdom for the first time in 400 years. They needed to protect the eastern border of their small kingdom and built a series of desert fortresses. Masada, which means fortress in Hebrew, was one of this line of defenses. Masada sits about 400 m above the Dead Sea and is surrounded on all sides by valleys. The Chashmonaim dug massive cisterns to catch the rains in the winter – it rains only during 6 days a year here. They built storehouses to hold foodstuffs and wine.
After the Romans took over from the Chashmonaim, Masada is visited by Herod’s family. Herod, a brilliant politician as well as a master builder, leads his family to Masada during tumultuous times in the Roman Empire following the death of Julius Caesar. Herod, who was friends with Mark Anthony, did not want to be on the losing end of the power struggle between Mark Anthony and Augustus (Octavian). He makes his way slowly to Rome, with his family safely ensconced in the mountain fortress. Upon arrival, the war between the Roman rivals is over and Herod has a perfect excuse for why he did not participate in the battles – he was on vacation!
After being crowned King of the Jews, Herod goes on a massive building spree, including building many splendid buildings on Masada. These structures, the bath house, the palaces, the gates, the walls, columbaria, are what most visitors focus on at Masada. The abilities of Herod as a builder and an engineer are apparent from the beautiful frescoes, and mosaics, the massive storehouses, the water system and the palaces which seem to hang off the side of the cliff.
It isn’t the scale of Herod’s buildings, or even his story which make this site a UNESCO World Heritage site, in my opinion. It is because of the next residents of the fortress overlooking the Dead Sea – the Jewish rebels. Herod dies and the site returns to its state as a forlorn, abandoned mountaintop.
Eighty years later, the first Jewish rebels come to Masada. This group of people is added only a few short years later by Jewish refugees. The Jewish struggle against the Romans has left their homes and towns burnt to the ground. The Jews whom the Romans capture are tortured, raped, murdered, sold into slavery. And it is no secret that the Roman legions which are sent to put down the Jewish Revolt have no mercy. Everyone knows the score.
This disparate group of Jews who find their way to Masada needs to make a community. They represent differing social classes, religious practices, ages, political views.
Those individuals build structures for themselves. They take Herod’s beautiful floors and build ovens on them for cooking their food. They use Herod’s well-engineered water system for directing water into ritual baths, and the impenetrable double casement wall protecting the mountain fortress provides walls and spaces for homes.
What do they want? They want to build Jewish community and live in peace and safety.
Surrounded by a Roman siege, two and a half Roman Legions, siege wall, eight Roman army camps, it seems that their position is impossible. But the Jewish rebels know something that the Romans do not. Sitting in the cisterns of Masada is enough water for the thousand individuals on Masada. Resting in the storerooms is enough food for them all. They have no need to leave the mountaintop.
Maybe, just maybe, they can outlast the Roman legions.
Maybe, just maybe, the Roman legions will tire of waiting and leave.
Peace, continuity and community life.
But the Roman army has other orders. The rebels in Masada are to be dispersed, taken captive, lest revolt against the Romans burst forth from them. In the end, one-thousand Jewish rebels, men, women, children, elderly, cannot hold out against the Romans. And then they act as a community.
Two-thousand years later, young Jews will return to Masada looking for Jewish heroes. They take for themselves the motto: Masada will not fall again. Freedom, Bravery, Community.
Masada – a site with many themes, many messages, many stories. Timeless.
“Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry
Come visit Masada with me and touch the past, present and future. It’s my favorite site, especially when I am with you.