Towering 430 m. above the Dead Sea, Massada (Hebrew for fortress) is a boat-shaped, craggy mountain. Upon it one of the greatest epics in the history of mankind was played out.
When the Jewish rebellion erupted in 66 CE, a group of Zealots headed for Massada. They knew that Herod had built, about 100 years earlier, an impregnable fortress on its summit which he intended to use as a sanctuary in the event of Cleopatra or local dissidents trying to usurp his throne.
The Zealots seized it from the Roman garrison and settled into the sumptuous palaces, hanging villas and rooms within the casemate wall surrounding its heights. It seemed they could not be dislodged. Herod had built well. There were giant cisterns hacked within the rock to receive the flood waters following the rains. There were barracks, defence towers and arsenals.
With the fall of Jerusalem four years later in 70 CE they were joined by survivors fleeing the capital and some Essenes from Qumran. Their numbers swelled to 960 men, women and children.
During the next two years they remained the only pocket of resistance in Palestine, continuing to harass the Romans by using the royal citadel as their base.
In 72 CE the Roman Governor, Flavius Silva, arrived at the foot of Massada, with the Tenth Legion, auxiliaries and 10,000 Jewish slaves. He built a dyke around the base of the mountain and eight siege camps to prevent escape. On the western side, he later built a ramp of beaten earth, stones and logs. While he did this, the Jews hurled down boulders and rounded rocks and fired arrows from their bows. In time the Romans positioned a siege tower on the ramp and then a battering ram. The year was 73 CE. The siege was approaching its denouement.
The Romans set fire to the wall, but wind drove the flames into the face of the attackers. The defenders took heart, but then the wind changed and the wall burned.
All this has come down to us through the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who recorded the events after he became a turncoat and joined the Romans. His account of what happened next makes compelling reading, and the oration of the leader of the defenders, Eleazar Ben Ya´ir, ranks with Henry V´s electrifying summation before Agincourt, and Churchill´s galvanizing war-time speeches. ``Let our wives die before they are abused,´´ he implored, ``and our children before they have tasted of slavery and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us.´´
He then exhorted them to destroy their money and burn the fortress but to spare their provisions ``for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessaries, but... preferred death before slavery.´´
Josephus´ account of the drama notes that after this speech there were some who balked at the idea of killing their families. Ben Ya´ir again appealed to them. He reminded them that Jerusalem had fallen and that the great Temple had been burned. ``Now, who is there that revolves these things in his mind, and yet is able to bear the sight of the sun?´´ he asked. ``Let us die before we become slaves under our enemies, and let us go out of the world, together with our children and our wives, in a state of freedom. Let us therefore make haste and instead of affording them so much pleasure, as they hope for in getting us under their power, let us leave them an example which shall at once cause their astonishment at our death and their admiration of our hardiness therein.´´
Josephus writes that before Ben Ya´ir had finished they ``all cut him off short and made haste to do the work...´´ They ``gave the longest parting kisses´´ to their wives and children and then slew them. Then they cast lots to choose 10 men to despatch the remainder. Again they cast lots to select one to kill the survivors. With this done, the lone Jew ``ran his sword entirely through himself.´´
Details of the mass suicide and the oration were provided later by two women and five children who hid in the underground caves and lived to tell the tale.
Massada was excavated by Professor Yigael Yadin for 12 months from 1963 to 1965. The Israeli army and thousands of volunteers from 28 countries came to help sift the rubble and restore what was found. While discovering much evidence of those fateful hours, they also determined that the Romans maintained a garrison on Massada for several decades after its capture. The last inhabitants were a handful of reclusive 5th-century monks.
Today Massada has become a symbol for men who cherish freedom. The defiant cry of recruits to the Israel Defence Forces Armoured Unit swearing the oath of allegiance in an annual ceremony on its summit: ``Massada shall never fall again!´´