Since 2001 • Cultural
Masada is a rugged natural fortress, of majestic beauty, in the Judaean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army, in 73 A.D. It was built as a palace complex, in the classic style of the early Roman Empire, by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, (reigned 37 – 4 B.C.). The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.
Masada is a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora. The palace of Herod the Great at Masada is an outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the early Roman Empire, while the camps and other fortifications that encircle the hill constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day.
The towering hill of Masada, with its precipitous flanks, overlooks a natural landscape of savage beauty. To the west lies the Judaean Desert, with its hills and terraces. To the east is a wildly broken terrain, running down to the brilliant colours of the Dead Sea. A giant scarp stretches to the south away to the horizon - the western wall of the Syrian-African rift valley - and Masada forms part of this scarp.
In the northern area (Herodian period), the main structure is the Northern Palace, which in its present form is from the main phase (late 1st century BC). It was built on three slightly modified natural rock terraces. The upper level was mainly used for residential purposes, all originally decorated with mosaic floors and wall paintings. To the north there is a semi-circular colonnaded terrace surrounding what was probably a garden. On the two lower levels are to be found imposing colonnaded reception halls, both had bathing facilities. The lower reception level is the best preserved of the three. Access was through a trapezoid courtyard, with storerooms, meal preparation facilities, and a small bathhouse below and around it. There are two rock-hewn cisterns underneath. On a small hill just to the south of the Northern Palace is the large bath-house.
In the western area (Herodian period), the Western Palace was substantially enlarged and rebuilt in the main phase. To the nucleus, which consisted of a courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and reception rooms, were added two extensive service wings. The palace was expanded once more in the final phase, with the addition of new wings. Its size and layout, together with the opulence of its decoration (mosaic floors and walls of white plaster painted to imitate marble panels). This confirms the hypothesis that this was the ceremonial palace, the Northern Palace being the private palace for the king and his family.
The casemate wall was built in the final phase. This massive defensive wall, 1,290 m long, contains about 70 rooms on its inner side and has 27 towers. Three gates pierce the wall: the Western Gate, the Southern Gate, and the Snake Path Gate (the eastern gate). A number of deep cisterns were dug into the rock of Masada in all three phases. The small ones dug during the first phase were filled by runoff from the hilltop. During the main phase two rows of cisterns were dug beneath the hilltop. Water was delivered through a network of dams and channels during the winter floods in the wadis to the west of Masada.
Most of the buildings on the hilltop were occupied by the around 1,000 people who lived there in the Zealot period. The most important new feature from this time was the synagogue, a square building from the Herodian period that was probably used as a stable. Three rows of benches, characteristic of early synagogues, were built round the walls, and the genizah (depository for superseded scrolls) under the floor of the back room. Seven or eight ritual baths (mikveh ) were identified, including one large stepped immersion pool to the south of the Western Palace.
There is a network of eight Roman military camps around Masada. A striking feature of all the Roman camps are the hundreds of contubernia (messing units), consisting of walls of stones 1-1.5 m high on which the soldiers erected their leather tents. The great ramp used for the final assault was built from soil and stones braced by an armature of timber beams.
The Byzantine church is located virtually in the centre of the summit, and its walls still stand to a considerable height, built from coursed dolomite robbed from the Herodian buildings. The floor was originally covered with a mosaic, but much of this was removed to the Louvre in the 19th century. The walls were plastered and with designs of coloured stones and potsherds. The plan is the characteristic rectangular hall with an apse at the east end and a narthex at the west end.
The history of Masada is known principally from the work of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, and from the excavations of 1963-65.
According to Josephus, the site was first fortified by the High Priest Jonathan. There were two High Priests of this name in the 2nd century BCE and it is not certain to which he was referring. The only material from the Hasmonaean period (103-40 BCE) so far discovered in excavations at Masada is a number of coins of Alexander Jannaeus, from the early part of the period. There is evidence in the form of archaeological finds in a cave that there was human settlement there in the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE) and then in the Early Iron Age (10th-7th century BCE).
Herod the Great (ruled 37-4 BCE) selected the virtually impregnable site of Masada to build a refuge for himself and his family at a period when he felt himself threatened both internally by the Jews of his kingdom and externally by Cleopatra, who wanted to add Judaea to her Egyptian kingdom. At first the buildings were relatively modest, though conforming with classical Roman architectural forms. They were progressively enlarged and lavishly decorated, to become a luxurious royal palace. Towards the end of his reign Herod felt himself threatened once again and so the fortifications were rebuilt and reinforced.
To the early phase (c 35 BCE) belong the nucleus of the Western Palace, three small palaces, an administrative building, a barracks, three columbaria (also used as watchtowers), several large cisterns, and a swimming pool. These buildings are scattered all over the hilltop, without any apparent overall plan. The architects had previously served the Hasmonaean court, and the early buildings are strikingly similar to those at Jericho.
The main phase is dated to the mid 20s of the 1st century BCE. The most important new construction was the large Northern Palace; close by was the large bath-house, for the use of the king and his family and guests. Also close to the palace was a large storage complex composed of eighteen long store-rooms. This group, together with an administrative building, are located at the highest point of the hilltop and constitute a defensible acropolis or citadel.
The Western Palace was considerably enlarged at this time. A series of very large cisterns was dug and new access paths were laid out. By contrast with the early period, the new works carried out in this period appear to have been carried out in accordance with a plan. They are integrated into two complexes, one around the Northern Palace and the other around the Western Palace. The architecture is also different in that it is in the full Roman style and tradition.
In the final phase, dated to around 15 BCE, the most important new construction was the casemate wall, 1290m long, which surrounds the entire summit. In addition, some small modifications and additions were made to the northern complex.
With the end of the Herodian dynasty in 6 BCE Judaea came under direct Roman rule, and a small garrison was installed at Masada. At the beginning of the Jewish Revolt in 66 a group of Zealots led by Menahem, one of the Jewish leaders, surprised and slaughtered the garrison. The Zealots held Masada throughout the revolt, and many Jews settled there, particularly after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70. They occupied some of the Herodian palace buildings, and added more modest structures of their own, such as a synagogue, a ritual bath, and small houses.
Two years later Flavius Silva, the Roman Governor, decided to eliminate this last remaining centre of Jewish resistance. He sent the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units there, with many prisoners of war for manual duties. The Jews, led by Eleazar Ben Yair, prepared for a long siege as the Romans and their prisoners built camps and a long siege wall (circumvallation) at the base of the hill. On a rocky site near the western approach to Masada they constructed a massive ramp of stones and rammed earth. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. It succeeded in breaching the wall of the fortress in 73, allowing the Roman soldiers to enter.
The Zealots defended stoutly, but there was no hope of resisting the Roman attack for long. Josephus reports that Ben Yair talked to the 960 men, women, and children who survived, telling them that 'a glorious death is preferable to a life of infamy.' All but two took their own lives on 2 May 73.
A Roman garrison was once again installed at Masada and stayed there for some forty years. It occupied both the hilltop and the fortress constructed by Flavius Silva for the besiegers. After the withdrawal of the Roman garrison, the site was abandoned until the 5th century. Following a powerful earthquake, which caused most of the surviving Herodian buildings to collapse, a small community of Christian monks established themselves on the hilltop. They built a modest chapel and lived in primitive cells constructed from the ruins and in caves. After some decades this community was disbanded and Masada was deserted until excavations began in the 1960s.
Justification for being a World Heritage Site
Criterion (iii): Masada is a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora.
Criterion (iv): The palace of Herod the Great at Masada is an outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the Early Roman Empire, whilst the camps and other fortifications that encircle the monument constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day.
Criterion (vi): The tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.