The name says it all: Metzadah in Hebrew means “mountain” and “fortress,” and there is no other site in the entire region that deserves this name more than Masada. Like a giant aircraft carrier towering over the sandy waves of the Jordan Valley ca. 15.5 miles (25 km) south of En-Gedi, Masada’s flat, rhomboid plateau rises between the Dead Sea shore and the eastern edge of the Judean mountains, housing some of the most spectacular archaeological remains of ancient Judea. The saddle-like plateau, 1,968.5 ft (600 m) long and 984 ft (300 m) wide with the highest points in the west and north, is very difficult to access. In the west it drops 1,312 ft (400 m) down to the Dead Sea plain and in the east, where the Romans later built their siege ramp, still more than 328 ft (100 m).

Unlike any other site next to Jerusalem, Masada is also a product of myth and imagination, the symbol of Jewish tragic heroism in an ultimately futile fight against an overwhelming enemy, as well as of Judaism’s defiant resurrection as a nation epitomized in the line “Masada shall never fall again!” from the famous poem “Masada” by Isaac Lamdan (1899–1954). In the twenty-first century Masada is one of the most frequently visited national parks in Israel, with over 500,000 visitors annually, and was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2001 because of its unique importance for the history of the Jewish people.

The first to connect the ruins on es-Sebbe, as the barren mountain is known in Arabic, with Josephus’s detailed account (B.J. 7.275–406), was Edward Robinson in 1838. Various surveys on and around Masada were carried out in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before Yigael Yadin conducted his famous and groundbreaking excavations between 1963 and 1965. Following Yadin, only smaller examinations took place, focusing on various parts of the Roman siege works. Masada represents the most comprehensively documented and published assemblage of late Hellenistic and early Roman material culture in the eastern Judean desert (perhaps only next to the Hasmonean and Herodian Winter Palaces in Jericho), above all thanks to Yadin’s meticulous documentation of his excavation and swift publication of a detailed preliminary report in 1965 as well as his successful popular book (Yadin, 1966) but equally to the efforts of Joseph Aviram, Gideon Foerster, and Ehud Netzer to bring eight substantial volumes to press, written and edited by various authors between 1989 and 2007, supplemented by a lavishly illustrated popular summary of the results by Amnon Ben-Tor (2009).

The Pre-Herodian Fortress.

If not already under the Maccabean high priest Jonathan around 150 B.C.E. (r. 152–142 B.C.E.; Josephus, B.J. 4.399), Masada had certainly entered history in the days of Alexander Jannaeus (r. 103–76 B.C.E.) around 100 B.C.E. (Josephus, B.J. 7.285). When Jannaeus extended Judea’s influence toward the Dead Sea at that time, the flat rock appeared ideal for a stronghold to protect the southeastern flank against incursions by the Nabataeans, against whom Jannaeus fought a relentless war. During the first century B.C.E. Masada housed a garrison and played a crucial role in the defence of the Hasmonean kingdom together with Machaerus east of the Dead Sea, Dok, Threx, Taurus, and Hyrcania in the vicinity of Jericho, protecting the oasis and ascent toward Jerusalem from the east, and Alexandrion in the north, covering Samaria. Life on these outposts seems to have been quiet for most of the time until Aristobulus II (ca. 100–49 B.C.E., r. 67–63 B.C.E.) lashed with the Romans and procurator Gabinius in 58 B.C.E. captured Machaerus, Hyrcania, and Alexandrion. Significantly, Masada is not mentioned in this context: Did the Romans fail to conquer it or simply not care about the stronghold so far out in the desert? Unfortunately, Josephus’s remarks are only brief, and very few archaeological remains, such as a cistern and a large cave north of the synagogue, can securely be ascribed to this early phase.

Herodian Masada.

Basically, all that has been discovered on Masada is from the Herodian period, plus a few later additions. The Herodian remains fall into three phases.

The first phase of Herodian Masada: a residential refuge.

Masada’s real career began when Herod I (the Great, r. 37–4 B.C.E.), fearing for his life and that of his family, had to flee from Antigonus II (r. 40–37 B.C.E.) and his Parthian allies in 40 B.C.E. and ordered his loved ones to take refuge at this remote stronghold after nearly escaping death at Herodion, while he himself rushed on to Petra and from there farther to Rome (Josephus, Ant. 14.361–362). There was not much in terms of luxury that Masada could offer at that time to Herod’s family and the men defending it, but it did offer at least enough protection to hold out against Antigonus’s siege army. Eventually, it was not Masada’s strong walls but a miraculous desert rain that saved Herod’s entourage: being on the brink of death from thirst, the family planned a desperate night escape when a sudden downpour refilled the reservoirs and helped them to stand firm (Josephus, B.J. 1.286f.), an event that can still be witnessed in the twenty-first century. Upon his return from Rome in 39 B.C.E. as officially appointed “King of the Jews” and “Friend of the Roman People,” Herod was able to rescue his family.

When Herod had reestablished his power over Judea in 37 B.C.E., he immediately set out to repair, enlarge, and strengthen the old Hasmonean fortresses as part of a huge building program to stabilize his rule against external and internal threats. During the chaotic days of the last years of the Roman republic, Cleopatra’s hunger for power and land was an imminent danger to Herod (Josephus, B.J. 7.300). As Masada already had proven its value in 40 B.C.E., there was every reason to make sure it could continue to fulfill this task. Between 37 and 30 B.C.E. he therefore turned the former hill fort into a strong refuge, a backdrop able to endure long sieges and deter enemies from threatening his life and those of his closest relatives. In contrast to all other fortresses, which are mostly rather small and offer little room for an extensive display of royal luxury, Masada was built primarily as an impregnable mountain palace with bathhouses, verandas, and dining halls.


Aerial view with Roman camp in foreground. Baker Photo Archive

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According to Netzer, who published the final report on the stratigraphy of Masada, three mansions (Buildings XI, XII, and XIII) plus the core of the Western Palace, a mansion close to the northern tip of the plateau (Building VII), and another mansion closer to the center of the plateau (Building IX) belong to this phase. Basically, all these mansions follow the Hellenistic courtyard type and measure between 128 by 98.4 ft (39 by 30 m, Building IX) and 51 by 44.3 ft (15.5 by 13.5 m, Building XI), their layout strongly resembling the Twin Palaces in Jericho built in the 60s of the first century B.C.E. “It seems that architects who had previously been engaged in construction work at the behest of the Hasmonean court were commissioned by Herod to plan this series of small palaces on the summit of Masada” (Netzer, 2006, p. 27). Especially luxurious was the core of the Western Palace, with stuccoed guardrooms, a large courtyard, and opposite the entrance a vestibule (23 by 22 ft [7 by 6.7 m]) leading to a large reception hall (28.5 by 19.7 ft [8.7 by 6.0 m]). A “Greco–Jewish” bath complex with a mikvah and service rooms also belong to the mansion. Here, too, the walls were stuccoed with large, white panels imitating marble slabs. Although it remains unclear who exactly lived in these mansions, they certainly were not used only for elite habitation; many of them also served storage and administrative purposes or housed officials, servants, and soldiers. Two paths, one from the west and the other, the “snake path,” from the east, provided access to the plateau. Two or three columbarium towers provided food and fertilizer as well as cistern water, while a large swimming pool and a small bathhouse offered entertainment for the residents. Phase I nicely reflects Masada’s main character as residential refuge, reflecting the dramatic events of 40 B.C.E.

The second phase.

Substantial additions to phase-I structures, probably connected to a shift in functional focus, characterize the second building phase on Masada, carried out between 30 and 20 B.C.E. Just reaffirmed as king of Judea by Octavian following Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s demise, Herod was able to take full advantage of the political security and economic prosperity that the Pax Romana had brought to the empire. Herod demonstrated his key position within the eastern empire by donating large sums of money to foreign cities and at the same time strengthened domestic infrastructure by founding cities like Sebaste and increasing his royal role by commissioning the Second Palace at Jericho and another one in Jerusalem.

Herod’s building activities on Masada during phase II nicely fit the latter motivation and demonstrate his increasing intention to turn the residential refuge into a suitable residence for himself. While none of the mansions built during phase I (with the possible exception of the core of the Western Palace) had really shown the size or degree of luxury expected from a royal residence, evident, for example, in the First Herodian Palace in Jericho, Herod adorned Masada with another example of his daring and extravagant architectural taste. Construction during Masada II concentrated on three areas.

First, the triangular tip of Masada’s northern plateau just north of preexisting Building VII became the home of a new palatial complex including a fancy bathhouse, while immediately to the east of Building VII a storage complex was added as well. All these elements formed a single unit that certainly was under the direct control of the king. The long southern wall of the magazines and the western wall of Building VII virtually closed the new northern complex off from the rest of the plateau, creating something like a private royal quarter that offered all of the supplies and amenities the king would need. As in Caesarea Maritima (Promontory Palace) and the palace on the Upper Herodion, Herod seems to have liked such secluded structures.

The Northern Palace is no doubt the most breathtaking example of Herod’s ingenuity as an architect, the “crowning glory of Herodian construction at Masada” (Ben-Tor, 2009, p. 51). Because of the gentle winds, the northern cliffs are certainly the most pleasant place at Masada. Secluded from the sprawling luxury on the plateau by a large wall cutting off its northern end and accessible via only a single entrance, the palace crouches on the cliffs like a swallow’s nest extending down over three terraces, each of which housed a separate part of the palace. “The location of the Northern Palace was superb. It offered a commanding view in three directions, west, north and east. Facing north, it enjoyed maximum shade, an obvious advantage on hot days” (Netzer, 2006, p. 29). Again, Herod demonstrates his audacity and will to overcome the limitations nature posed to his plans, duly praised by Josephus (B.J. 7.289–292):

"There, too, he built a palace on the western slope, beneath the ramparts on the crest and inclining towards north. The palace wall was strong and of great height, and had four towers, sixty cubits high, at the corners. The fittings of the interior—apartments, colonnades and baths—were of manifold variety and sumptuous; columns, each formed of a single block, supporting the building throughout, and the walls and floors of the apartments being laid with variegated stones. He also had cut many and great pits, as reservoirs for water, out of the rocks, at every one of the places that were inhabited, both above and round about the palace, and before the wall; and by this contrivance he endeavored to have water for several uses, as if there had been fountains there. A sunken road led up from the palace to the summit of the hill, imperceptible from without."

The highest level covers the very tip of the plateau and probably “served as sleeping quarters and for reception purposes” (Netzer, 2006, p. 30). On the southern side two apartments decorated with geometric mosaics and frescoed walls flanked a rectangular courtyard with two columns (distylos) opening toward the north. Farther to the north, on the cliff side, a semicircular balcony with two rows of columns offered a magnificent view across the Dead Sea valley, the Judean desert, and the Transjordanian highlands. Ben-Tor suggests that the architectural arrangement on the upper terrace followed models adopted from Marcus Agrippa’s Villa della Farnesina in Rome (2009, p. 56).

The middle and lower terraces seem to have been reserved for enjoyment and entertainment. Located 65.6 ft (20 m) below the upper terrace and accessible via a daring staircase along the western cliff, the middle complex consisted of an almost square platform of about 55.8 ft (17 m) on which two concentric circles (the outer circle measuring 49 ft [15 m] in diameter, the inner one 9.8 ft [3 m] less) were built with great technical skill and effort. Because of later damage by zealots and earthquakes, it is difficult to say much about the original function of this tholos (beehive-shaped, conical)–like, circular building. Was it a temple to Aphrodite (the protector of Ashkelon, the supposed hometown of Herod), a monumental reception hall, or simply a belvedere? A staircase on the northwestern corner of the middle platform gave access to the lowest, best-preserved level, situated another 42.6 ft (13 m) deeper.

Here, Herod’s architects constructed a huge, square central hall of ca. 33.8 by 29.5 ft (10.3 by 9.0 m, i.e., ca. 1,076 ft² [100 m²]), the “largest and grandest room on Masada” (Ben-Tor, 2009, p. 59). Colonnades surrounded the hall on all sides and provided shade to the king and his most intimate friends and guests. Again, the king knew how to create the greatest effect from little resources. The columns followed the Corinthian order on Attic bases and were not made of the usual marble but of bricks and small stone blocks plastered and painted with marble patterns—gold, white, or purple—typical for Herodian architecture. Next to this banquet hall, a small but sumptuous bathhouse was built, made up of the standard elements apodyterium (dressing room), tepidarium (warm bath), caldarium (hot bath), and frigidarium (cold bath) plus two bedrooms above, certainly the most private part in Herod’s private palace.

A large, sumptuous, Roman-style bathhouse was built just across a square courtyard to the south of the Northern Palace (“Large Bath”). Though sharing the palace’s axis, the bath complex was built as a separate architectural unit, probably to allow guests to enter the bathhouse without having to pass through the palace first. A large pool (natatio) in the palaestra (gymnasium) invited one to take a plunge, and the well-preserved bathing facilities were lavishly decorated with mosaic or opus sectile (decorative, polychrome cut stone) floors, stucco ornamentation, and colorfully painted walls.

The Northern Complex also featured blocks of spacious storehouses. The main cluster consisted of 16 long halls divided by a corridor into a block of 11 rooms measuring ca. 88.5 by 13 ft (27 by 4 m) to the south and five measuring 65.6 by 13 ft (20 by 4 m) to the north, covering ca. 43,055 ft² (4,000 m²) of storage space to be used for such items as oil, wine, grain, fruit, spices, and salt for permanent and temporal inhabitants. A service corridor of 853 ft (260 m) in length surrounded the storerooms on three sides, and administration rooms were attached on its southern end.

Though the excavated finds reflect only what survived Zealot habitation, siege, and conquest, they impressively show the wealth of provisions Herod originally had stored: remains from more than 300 species were found (among them pomegranates, dates, nuts, almonds, apricots, peaches, dried figs) as well as weapons and raw materials to arm the garrison. Thanks to irrigation, fresh vegetables, and meat from sheep, goats, and chickens could be produced in gardens and pastures on the large open spaces between the houses on the plateau. Supplies, of course, were always threatened by many kinds of pests; but the excavations show that they were carefully packed and sufficiently ventilated. During excavation, innumerable sherds from amphorae and other storage vessels were found. Inscriptions inked on the neck of amphorae indicating the type of food, its quality, and its origin provide telling information about the international trade connections and luxurious lifestyle of the Herodian court. Herod had not only pickled fish sauce (the famous garum) brought to Masada from Spain but also honey, apples from Cumae (one of the most famous regions for fruit), and wine from famed Italian vineyards. One consignment of wine dated to 19 B.C.E. mentions Herod’s official title “King of Judea/the Jews” (Regi Herodi Iudaic[o]).

Two protected gatehouses and an open square controlled access to the acropolis-like Northern Complex. The most important gate was situated on the western edge of the square and guarded the descent to the cluster of cisterns cut into the western cliff of the mountain. Two towers at strategic locations on the southern perimeter wall provided additional security.


Synagogue and study room. Kim Walton

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The second major effort concerned improved water supply. Since Masada housed three large bath complexes (one in the Western Palace, one inside the Northern Complex next to the storehouses, and one as part of the lowest terrace in the Northern Palace), a substantial enhancement of the water supply was necessary. Herod therefore ordered huge underground cisterns to be hewn into the limestone rock on Masada’s summit, as well as 12 others cut into the western slope of the rock with a joint capacity of ca. 10.6 million gallons (40 million liters, or 40,000 m³). In quiet times these cisterns could be filled with water carried to Masada via the “snake path” (Josephus, B.J. 7.282), but most water consumed on the mountain was collected when strong torrents flooded the plateau during the winter rains.

During phase II the Western Palace also underwent major alterations, probably corresponding to the construction of the Northern Palace and indicating a shift in function from a royal residence in time of need to a supplement to the new Northern Complex. With its ca. 43,000 ft² (4,000 m²) size and different parts (royal apartments with bath, service wing and workshops, storerooms, and administrative blocks), the Western Palace became the largest single building on the plateau. Mosaics with sophisticated geometrical patterns imitating textiles, colorful wall paintings, stuccoed decoration, and columns built with local material (no marble) displayed all of the luxury of an eastern Hellenistic royal residence.

Fortified luxury: the third building phase on Masada.

After the alterations in phase II had granted the fortress a distinctly “royal” touch and even more increased its survivability, phase III, dated to ca. 20 B.C.E. to 6 C.E., including Herod Archelaus’s reign (r. 4 B.C.E.–6 C.E.), again improved Masada’s defensive potential by surrounding the entire edge of the mountain with a strong casemate wall. This massive defensive system measured ca. 4,600 ft (1,400 m) in circumference and was protected by 27 towers and bastions at irregular distances of 115 to 295 ft (35–90 m). The 13 ft (4 m) wide casemate was whitewashed on the inside and outside and certainly presented an impressive sight. Netzer estimates that its outer face could easily have measured 23 to 26 ft (7–8 m) in height. The casemate rooms (70 altogether, some no less than 115 ft [35 m] long) were used to house soldiers and supplies of arms and food and supplemented the regular storehouses in the Northern Complex. Four gates regulated access to the fortress.

Apart from the casemate wall, some minor additions were made to the southern end of the Northern Complex (more storerooms and a small bathhouse for the guards) and the Western Palace (four more storerooms and a guardroom with benches and white panelled stucco located at the northern end serving the entire complex), and Building VIII was added, maybe for the use of the commander of Masada and to cover the approach of the “snake path” from the east.

In the Hands of the Rebels.

After Herod’s death and the exile of his ill-fated son and successor Herod Archelaus, Judea was turned into a province and Masada fell to the Romans. A small garrison was stationed there, but generally times remained uneventful until Menachem took the fortress by surprise with the sicarii, an especially radical group of rebels, and established themselves in the Herodian palace-fortress in 66 C.E. (Josephus, B.J. 7.408). Apparently, the rebels found everything intact and full of supplies (Josephus, B.J. 7.295–296).

Netzer found evidence of rebel habitation basically everywhere on the plateau. Existing rooms in palaces or bathhouses were altered regardless of the precious decorations, to offer homes for as many people as possible. Rebel dwellings were found along and inside the casemates, attached to the Western Palace, Building XI, and Building XIII. Although the rebels basically shared the same Judean material culture, they seem to have paid special attention to purity, adding stepped pools to existing buildings or using some exclusively purity-oriented pottery types (“dung ware”) as well as stone vessels. Nabataean pottery is attested especially during the Zealot period (possibly plundered) and subsequent Roman garrison (possibly traded). The most frequent of the clearly rebel examples of material culture are the 2,348 coins from the First Revolt (ca. 50 percent of the Masada coins, consisting of 40 shekels, 33 half-shekels, and 2,275 prutot). The coins carry religious symbols (e.g., a chalice, pomegranate, date palms, grape leaves, amphora, lulav [branches of palm trees], etrog [citrus fruit]) and propaganda inscriptions (“for the freedom of Zion,” “Jerusalem is holy,” “for the redemption of Zion”). While the vast majority of the coins are dated to “year two” and “year three,” the Masada assemblage attests that rebel coins continued to be struck until “year five.”

The most precious objects the rebels and other refugees brought to the site were biblical and extrabiblical religious scrolls. Remains of at least 15 Hebrew scrolls were found by Yadin, all but one penned on valuable parchment. Apart from these religious texts, numerous others written on payrus or sherds were found, representing business activities, letters, lists of names, writing exercises, and scribbles for various everyday purposes. Since most of these texts were written in Aramaic and only few in Greek or Hebrew, it seems that Aramaic was the most commonly used language of Masada’s non-Roman inhabitants. Although it is difficult to date these writings exactly and therefore assign them to only one single phase of habitation, two groups very likely can be connected to the insurgents. The first group consists of ostraca mentioning priestly tithes and other biblical food regulations, thereby demonstrating the seriousness with which the Zealots followed Halakhah. The second, even more famous group consists of 12 small sherds, probably from the same vessel, each written by a single hand and carrying only a single personal name, among them a certain Ben-Yaʿir (Masada Ostraca 429–440). When Yadin found the ostraca, he was electrified and immediately connected them with the famous lots the 10 last defenders drew to commit suicide (Josephus, B.J. 7.395). Yadin’s hypothesis, though ingenuous, did not find unanimous acceptance. For example, these sherds could have been used as tokens for distributing rations or assigning turns for military duties.

A building on the northwestern section of the casemate wall, originally perhaps used as dining hall (triclinium, if not a synagogue in the first place), was changed into a synagogue (cf. Herodion, Gamla). This change included adding benches to the hall, rearranging the internal colums, eliminating a dividing wall, and adding a small room on the back of the building. Since fragments of biblical books (Ezekiel, Deuteronomy) were found under the floor of this back room, it is likely that it served as genizah (storeroom in a synagogue for books and other sacred objects).

In some especially secluded places, like the bathhouse adjacent to the lower terrace in the Northern Palace, remains of food and arrows were found, as well as the mortal remains of three individuals, “locks of hair, sandals, arrows and scales belonging to a suit of scale armor” (Ben-Tor, 2009, p. 65). At the time of the siege a real village existed, inhabited by rebels and refugees numbering 960 men, women, and children (Josephus, B.J. 7.252–253) who tried to save their lives and protect their goods as long as possible under the leadership of Elʿazar ben-Yacir and Shimcon bar-Giora (Josephus, B.J. 2.653).

The Roman Garrison between 73/74 and 111 C.E.

In 73 C.E., however, the Roman governor Flavius Silva led Legio X Fretensis and numerous auxiliaries, a force of up to 13,000 men, from Jerusalem to Masada with the clear order to wipe out the last rebel stronghold. Excavations on the fortress itself by Yadin, in Camp F, and on the siege works have revealed a stunning array of Roman military equipment and substantially advanced knowledge about Roman siege techniques and what a siege meant for the encircled population.

The siege may have lasted not more than four months and was a huge logistical undertaking. Paths had to be built, water brought to the camps in skins and bags (B.J. 7.278), and workshops set up; and an impressive 17.6 tons (16 metric tons) of provisions were needed every day to feed soldiers and animals. As soon as the Romans arrived they built a low siege wall around the entire fortress to isolate it from all incoming supplies and prevent inhabitants from fleeing in case food became scarce (circumvallatio). In connection to the wall, eight camps were erected at strategic locations to control the area around the fortress and house the assault troops until they were called to attack. Immediately after completing the circumvallatio, the Romans started to bombard the rebels on the plateau with arrowheads, bolts, and ballistae and erected a platform for the siege tower from which the defenders could also be taken under fire (B.J. 7.310–312). Then, a long siege ramp made of stones and the trunks of thousands of palm trees was piled up, over which the siege tower was moved. Sometime in the spring of 73 or 74 C.E. the ram broke through the walls and the legionaries stormed into the fortress under heavy bombardment. Traces of the siege were also found on the plateau itself, among them many metal and stone projectiles, as well as evidence that the besieged tried to maintain some kind of order (ostraca to organize food rations or guard shifts). Josephus’s narration of Elʿazar ben-Yacir’s famous speech and the subsequent mass suicide of the last defenders have become the cornerstone of the Masada myth and rightly found their way into world literature as well as into academic debates about the “credibility of Josephus.”

After the siege, the Romans cleared the site and set up a small garrison, like the ones at Qumran and En-Gedi, to guard the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. Remains of biblical and nonbiblical texts were found at various places on the mountain, some of them likely hidden by the defenders and others torn and dumped by the Romans in casemate rooms (Josephus, Ant. 20.115). But the Romans also left documents reflecting everyday activities, like a text referring to the payments and expenses of a soldier’s salary, on medical treatment in the army, and a literary text. Two documents from Murabbaʿat even suggest that a number of Jews lived next to the garrison.

After the Nabataean kingdom turned into Provincia Arabia, the post on Masada was no longer necessary. When the soldiers pulled out they left interesting documents (e.g., administrative papyri of a military character, literary works, imported pottery) and a couple of burials, which were previously and erroneously interpreted as remains of the last Jewish defenders.

No one lived on Masada until a community of Byzantine monks arrived at the plateau in the middle of the fifth century C.E., prepared the site for agricultural cultivation, and erected a church near the western gate together with a number of monastic cells for not more than 20 monks. The anchorites called the site Marda and lived there until shortly after the Muslim conquest. After that date, Masada remained uninhabited.

[See also GAMLA and HERODIUM.)]


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Jürgen K. Zangenberg