Fortress at Masada


For the most part, I was fairly disinterested in parts of our tour that were not directly related to the life and teaching of Jesus or at least other Biblical events. Although general history interests me, my focus in Israel was on the life of Christ, not on wars or nation boundaries or earthly kingdoms. Our tour of Masada was probably my favorite thing on the trip that didn’t fall under the heading “Life and Times of Jesus Christ”, and certainly would have been one of my brother Mike’s favorite parts of the trip.

What is Masada?

Masada is a fairly large plateau – about 1,800 ft by 900 ft on top – in the valley between two mountain ranges overlooking the Dead Sea. The plateau is 1,400 ft tall on the east side overlooking the Dead Sea. The valley in which it sits was evidently formed when part of the tectonic plate supporting this whole region of the earth suddenly collapsed downward, creating a large valley with mountain ridges on either side. The Dead Sea is in this valley, 1385 ft below sea level. There are a number of results of these bizarre conditions, including a lot of details about the Dead Sea that I’ll share in my post about it later. But another interesting fact is that it pretty much never rains there. This is because the temperature and pressure don’t permit moisture in the air to condense into precipitation between the mountain ridges over this area; hence, desert and the saltiest body of water in the world (33.7% salinity). On all sides of the Masada plateau are natural defenses – other mountain ridges, the sea, great expanses of desert, etc – making it an obvious place to built a fortress … and build they did.

The Fortress at Masada was built by Herod the Great (as were many of the places and things Jesus would have been and seen when He walked these lands) about 35 years before Jesus was born. He basically converted the top of this large plateau into a state of the art Roman fortress, complete with luxurious palace, two bath houses, lots of food and water, and all the other amenities the super rich of the time could have hoped for. He built giant storehouses and created an ingenious water storage system. Masada was not only highly defensible, but the reserves of food and water that could be kept there made it the ideal place to hold out against a siege. It reminded me of Helm’s Deep, from the Lord of the Rings.

We visited Masada as our first stop on Friday, 11/13. There is a national park there now. We rode a gondola up to the top of the plateau to a modern station of sorts built on the western rock face. From the gondola, you could easily see the winding path leading up the side of the mountain to the top which the ancient Jews would have taken to go up and down the mountain. It would have taken an hour or two to make the climb, I’d think. Of course, an invading force would have to come up this path one or two at a time, being wailed on by arrows and anything else the defenders on top of the fortress could throw at them. Needless to say, that would have been a failing proposition. And I was certainly glad that we as tourists didn’t have to hike our way up that mountain.

Once on the top of the plateau, we toured the massive storehouses, the living quarters, the general assembly rooms, the Roman bath house, and the post office. I took a picture of the post office for my dad (who carried mail for decades). This is me standing in the post office. The incroppings in the wall behind me are where they kept the postal pigeons used to deliver messages to Herod’s other strongholds at Jerusalem, Caesarea, or wherever else.

The bath house, called a Thermae, was amazing. It consisted of three separate chambers – the Frigiderium, the Tepidarium, and the Caldarium. The Frigiderium was cold, containing cold baths. The Tepidarium was simply a moderately-temporate transitional room between cold and hot rooms. The Caldarium was the hot bath room. To get it heated to temperatures of even 120-150 degrees F, fires would be built outside the bath house and hot air pumped into the Caldarium. But not just into the room. The floor was raised, and the walls were hollow. Slaves would use billows to pump air into the walls and sub-floor while Roman citizens bathed. Large three-tier water boilers called miliarium were used to heat the water for the actual baths in the Caldarium.

Herod’s palace was built on the side of the mountain. Only ruins remain today, of course, and we were unable to go down there. But they was evidently quite the posh digs in his day, even containing a secondary private bath house. Herod definitely lived the rough life.

Herod's palace at Masada

One of the most fascinating aspects of the fortress at Masada for me was how Herod stored so much drinking water. They were in the middle of the desert, yet he had enough supplies to last for months in a siege, not to mention the luxury of roman baths and a fully-stocked palace. The key was in the annual big rains over the mountains to the east. There are several Wadi over the mountain range which are dry all year long, but once a year during the rainy season, a tsunami-like flood of water pours over the mountains (the tops of which are just about at sea level, remember), filling these Wadi river beds to overflowing. When he built the Fortress at Masada, Herod built a set of large cavernous cisterns into the mountain, and an intricate system of waterways connecting the Wadi with the cisterns. So, when the waters would roar up over the mountains once a year, the manmade waterways would catch as much of the water as possible, and channel it into the mountain, filling Herod’s many cisterns. This massive supply of water was enough to provide “clean” (by their standards) drinking water for the entire year until the next rainy season. Quite ingenious. Here’s a picture that shows the water paths and the openings to the cisterns in the mountain. Click on the picture to expand it. On the expanded picture, I’ve circled a few of the openings for the cisterns, and added arrows pointing to the aqueducts Herod built to connect the cisterns to the Wadi in the eastern mountains.

Masada Water Storage

What happened at Masada?

The Jews were constant trouble for the Romans before, during and after the time of Christ. In 70 AD, the Romans finally got fed up and razed Jerusalem (and the 2nd temple) to the ground. This time it was pretty much all out war – the First Jewish-Roman War – and resulted in the destruction of much of Israel at the hands of the Romans, including many of the wonders that Herod the Great had built. A number of Jewish zealots, led by the Sicarius, subsequently fled Jerusalem and took refuge at Masada.

In 72 AD, the Roman governor Lucius Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Roman legion and laid siege to the fortress. They set up camps (the ruins of which are still visible at the foot of the plateau), and settled in for a siege which would last for months. After several failed attempts to breach the wall with catapults and troops from the floor of the valley, the Romans finally built a circumvallation wall and then a rampart against the western face of the plateau, using thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth to build a ramp hundreds of feet up the side of the plateau. It’s widely thought that Sliva used Jewish slaves to build the rampart to attack their own people, which adds a level of irony to the story.

Once the ramp was in place, Silva eventually was able to breach the fortress. However, having ensured victory, he waited one more night for the final invasion. That night, the leader of the rebels, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, gave a rousing speech about freedom and nobility, which I was privileged to read to the other folks on the green bus with me while visiting Masada. Having been inspired by his speech, the rebels in Masada piled all their provisions in the middle of the courtyard, executed their families, and killed themselves as a final defiant demonstration to the Romans that they would rather die free than live as slaves. Two women hid with their five children in one of the cisterns, and were therefore the only survivors of the mass suicide. They relaid ben Ya’ir’s speech to the Romans after Silva invaded and are primarily the reason – along with Josephus Flavius, a well-red historian of the day – we know so much about what happened at Masada.

What did I learn at Masada?

MasadaWell, the first thing I learned is that a couple hundred rebels hauled up in a fortress (no matter how nifty) are pretty much no match for the Roman army.

I also learned that Jesus’ day wasn’t all that terribly different from the times in which we live. As the Romans did, we enjoy great prosperity and peace. We have traditionally felt fairly invincible. I know I have. Even when the economy is “slow” or we feel the uncertainty and anxiety of unemployment and deflated stock portfolios, we are still rich. These things are just hiccups for the majority of us. Even the poorest among us are kings by the standards of history and juxtaposed against the backdrop of the vast majority of the rest of the world.

We probably aren’t that different from the Romans of Jesus’ day. When Jesus comes among us, will we hear Him?

Another thing I couldn’t help but think about while standing on top of Masada is what I would do if my world was threatened. If the Hunns were invading from the north, would I haul up in a fortress in the dessert, shake my fist over the wall, and ultimately kill myself rather than become a slave? Would I charge out into battle like Aragorn and Theoden, shouting “Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the redeye dawn”? Would I be brave or filled with fear? Or both? Would I do anything? Would I act? Or, would I just sit in judgment over the “enemy” until the invading soldiers arrived at my door long after it was too late?

I guess for me it’s a question of what world is threatened. The older I get, the less concerned I am with America. I know that sounds horrible, but it’s true. This is just another country. It’s the best country in the world, and has been for hundreds of years. But those who hate it (whether they admit or realize it or not isn’t the issue) are destroying it, and we’ve long past the point of no return. The best days of America are behind it. The “equality” and “justice” and all that crap everybody talks about these days aren’t really equality or justice at all, they’re weakness, laziness, and dependence for some, and codewords for “takeover” for others. I could spend every cent I have and every hour of every day fighting for something that’s already gone. So, in that sense, I have not taken up arms against the invading Hunns. I guess, from the perspective of nationalism, I’ll just be sitting in judgment of the enemy until they ride right into town and take what I have.

OR … we could be talking about the Kingdom of God. The home God has built for me in heaven is increasingly where my heart is. My residence is not here, but there. As a stranger, an alien in this land, I am loath to take up arms to defend it. But as a citizen of heaven, I should be heeding a different call. There really is another world, and as Christians we really are part of it. God has called us to this other place to think and act and live differently. Here, a battle also rages, for the hearts and souls of men. My neighbors, coworkers, and friends are under assault by the enemy, and if I really cared for them and for God, I would rush to their defense long before I worried about running for political office or fighting to change the public school system.

I have for so many years had my priorities all screwed up. I worried about bank accounts and elections when I should have been worried about church and the gospel. Masada brought that back to me. First, God reminded me to pick my battles. Second, God called me to actually fight. No more sitting around being glad I’m on the right team. A battle is raging, and there is no neutrality for those who have eyes to see.

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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3 Responses to Fortress at Masada

  1. Phyllis Leidy says:

    Jeff, I am so blessed by your accurate account, and personal reactions to the experiences we had in Israel. I am stunned at how long I have been ruminating on the different sites, and their significance of the places we visited. I think the Holy Spirit is helping me to go over them individually now, instead of being overwhelmed by so much information and emotion at once. Thanks again that you shared this with us.


  2. Pingback: Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls « Jeff Block's Personal Idea Fountain

  3. JT Kelly says:

    Stumbled across your blog while googling masada. I was there with a school trip in 2007. A number of us on the track team had a race up that winding path to the top. Fastest guy did it in 15 minutes, I was at about 18. It is 2 miles if you stretched it in a straight line. And let me tell you it is painful. The stairs cut into the rock (if masada makes you think helm’s deep these stairs at times definitely should remind you of the stair’s to shelob’s lair) are uneven and quite high. Average step height was probably about 16-21 inches rise. Your guess of an hour /hour and a half is probably spot on for walking. The thing that that climb made me realize is- all the movies show roman soldiers being fat and pudgy, but the troops who climbed that path daily would give olympians a run for there money. (Oh and I took the gondala on the way down, one trip on the path is enough haha)


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