The Last Stand

Dearest Rachel –

We’re back at Masada yet again; and although it doesn’t factor into the Biblical record, it seems to be de rigeur for a tourist in Israel to visit, it would seem.

It’s a symbol of heroism for Israelis, despite involving what was effectively mass suicide, a serious breach of Jewish morality. However, given the fact that capture meant death or slavery (and the loss of their identities as Jews), this seemed a case of ‘better to die on our feet than live on our knees,’ which, in the context of the Holocaust that was beginning as it was being excavated, makes a certain form of sense.

Masada stood for four years after the fall of Jerusalem (the Jewish revolt actually began in 66-67 AD in Galilee, with Gamla being one of the first casualties, before the sack of Jerusalem in 70). It had been once of Herod’s winter palaces (because it was always warm, even what passed for winter here in Israel), so it was both well-built and well-stocked. And, of course, it dominates the mesa upon which it was built, making assault by climbing the mesa all but impossible. In short, it was the perfect spot to weather out a long siege.

Another topographical map, this time of Masada. Daniel observes that it was very much ‘a city on a hill’ – not unlike Gamla – itself.
The ‘Snake Path’ is available for climbing (evidently we have enough time here to do so), although only a handful opt to do so. It is some 1,200 feet up, after all. Yael suggests that we “pray for them” as we ascend past them.
The view from here is unquestionably vertiginous. Daniel marvels at the modern setup of scaffolds and cable car, but the ancient structure is impressive as well.
The materials weren’t brought up from somewhere else; they were quarried from here, within the mountain itself
We’ve heard it before on previous trips, but below the little black line are all original materials, including the plaster and paint. Benjamin Moore should be so lucky to last so long.
The enormous storerooms of the Masada fortress. Recently, a horticulturist managed to grow some palm trees out of the date seeds found here.
The fortress was big enough to house nearly a thousand people (969, to be exact) for eight years, from the beginning on the revolt to its fall
The largest of the eight Roman camps that Flavius Plautus surrounded Masada with. From here, he had the 10th Legion build a ramp to assault the fortress from the west, rather than taking the arduous and vulnerable Snake Path from the east.
As this was a residence of King Herod the Great, the mosaics only include geometric patterns, in keeping with the Jewish proscription against images
The floor of the ‘cauldarium’ or hot room in Herod’s bathhouse. Hot air would be generated in the oven on the other side of the wall, and circulate between those little pillars, thereby heating the floor above them. While I prefer the electric heating system we have in our own bathroom floor, you can’t help but admire the ingenuity of Roman engineering in creating something like this.

The rebellious Sicarii (named for their curved daggers) were no angels. Prior to taking their last stand, they raided En Gedi (one of the wealthier villages in the area) for food and other supplies, killing 700 women and children in the process. It would seem they justified this with the motto ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ with lethal consequences for the unfortunate people of En Gedi.

As the Romans sweltered at the base of the mesa, they would wash their clothes, letting them drip dry in the sight of the Romans in a form of psychological warfare (“Hey, we have so much water here, we can waste it by washing our clothes in it like this!”)

They also sent down rocks on the Romans, in a form of actual warfare.

When the Romans breached the wall (although they were thwarted by a fire that burned their equipment on their first assault), Eleazer Ben-Ya’ir convinced the rebels he commanded that it would be better to die than be killed, raped or sold. Amidst the bodies were quantities of food and water, just to give one last middle finger to the Romans: “we didn’t die because we ran out of supplies; we killed ourselves, because we’d rather be dead than lose to you.”

One of twelve large cisterns (in fact, this one is relatively small, just to give you an idea) from which Herod, and later the rebels, were supplied. Two women and five children hid out in one of these, and thus survived to tell the tale to Josephus, who was embedded with the Roman army.
The cisterns were filled through channels, such as this one running down the edge of the mountain (you can see two such inlets near the bottom right of this picture). These would come down periodically via flash floods, like the one that prevented us from getting to En Gedi yesterday.
The ramp from the camp (on the far right) to the fortress (or the left). The siege works have been removed, of course, and the man-made hill has worn down over time, but it’s still fairly clear after nearly two thousand years.

Why, Yael asks, would the Romans bothered to attack such a small pocket of resistance?  In the words of an American general of the Indian wars, “Nits breed lice.”  Any rebels may potentially be able to recruit more, so the thought was to completely eradicate them before considering the area pacified.

However, there is also the question of the few survivors; what happened to them? Unfortunately, there is no record of that; whether they were killed, sold or set free. It could well have been a propaganda coup if the Romans were to choose the final option: “Look at what these idiots did in order to ‘escape’ us. We’re not monsters, by Jupiter. They did this all for nothing.” Granted, it could then be argued that the few that survived were spared precisely because they were so few and helpless, but since we’ve no idea what happened to them, it’s rather a moot point.

Speaking of being all for nothing (and of last stands, for that matter)… They have a factory outlet store here at the foot of Masada for the very thing I’d been shopping for at the Dead Sea Mall. To think, I didn’t need to go there last night. And what with being an outlet store – and thus likely to be cheaper than retail – I’m almost dreading to see the prices in comparison to what I paid.

But it turns out they’re only cheaper by about 5%, so I feel pretty good about my decision, all in all.

Anyway, I need to get going; the bus is waiting for us. Keep an eye on us, honey, and I’ll check in with you later on.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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