The alarms went off at 3 am and we threw our last pieces into our luggage, carried them down a hill to the waiting bus and our patient bus driver, and sought out our packed breakfasts hiding somewhere in the hostel premises. Finally, all loaded on to the bus, a sizable chunk of our group set off towards Masada. We arrived around 4am and began the climb up in total darkness, relying on those few prepared ones of us to guide the way with their flashlights. Looking up ahead, we could see other groups already zig-zagging before us, their flashlights bobbing up and down as they climbed.
In the dark, I didn’t quite see the large ticket office/gift shop building, I couldn’t quite tell where the cable car was (which the rest of our group would be taking up later in the day – at 8am) and the lights from the flashlights could very easily have been lights from a non-electric source. I felt, as we started the climb, that we could have been climbing in any time period, which was the beginning of a blending of space and time for me that lasted throughout the morning.
Josephus writes about Masada in his account of the Jewish War. He tells us that King Herod built the fortress of Masada from 37-30 BCE, one of several fortresses and palaces which Herod built all over Judea as places of escape. He never needed to use it, but there were storehouses, bathhouses, cisterns, barracks, palaces, and an armoury built on the top of this rock cliff.
During the First Jewish War against the Romans in 66 CE one of the great successes was the taking of Masada, which had been the site of a Roman garrison. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, many people – including the Sicarii – fled from Jerusalem to Masada. The Romans established camps around the base and began a siege which lased about a year. Finally, the Romans built a ramp against the western wall of the fortress, brought a battering ram up the ramp and breached the wall.
When it was clear that the walls of Masada would be breached, the Sicarii who decided that the only honourable thing to do would be to kill themselves. The story which Josephus recounts how ten men were chosen by lots to kill the population of the fortress – 960 men, women, and children – and then among those ten, one man was chosen by lot to kill the others before killing himself.
This story is monumental in Jewish history and consciousness. The Jewish Virtual Library article on Masada cites this story as an inspiration to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as a symbol for “the determination of the Jewish people to be free in its own land.” While visiting Masada, our guide, Danny, told us that when he was serving in the IDF, he received his beret at the top of Masada. Climbing Masada – just as we did – is a common activity for Birth Right groups and visiting Jewish Youth Groups. Bar mitzvahs are often held in the ancient ruins of a synagogue on the top of Masada as well.
However, there are some questions about whether Josephus’s account of the siege at Masada is entirely accurate. Shaye Cohen describes several instances where what Josephus records and what the archaeology shows are quite different. This includes whether possessions were burned in one pile or many piles, whether food and provisions were burned or not, which buildings were set on fire, and whether in fact the northern palace where Josephus states the Zealots gathered was large enough to hold a gathering of almost a thousand people. Furthermore only three skeletons were ever found in Masada, with another twenty-five being found in a cave on the southern face of the cliff. Cohen suggests that many of the inaccuracies and implausibilities of Josephus’s record were intended to amplify the dramatic effect of the narrative. He furthermore adds that embellishments and additions were not unusual for historians of antiquity, and that in fact it would have been necessary, as the Roman soldiers would not have known the events preceding a break through the fortress wall and discovery that the entire population of the fortress was dead.
Importantly, Cohen does not argue that the story of the siege and suicides at Masada is entirely fabricated. He states that it is plausibly, and perhaps too complex to be made up, and he questions also whether Josephus would have bothered to make up a story that did not make the Sicarii die at the hands of the Romans.
In light of the monument that Masada is to the State of Israel as a representation of the struggle for Jewish freedom, I can understand Cohen’s reluctance to outright deny the events Josephus records at Masada. But I found it interesting that in our visit, although our group was acknowledging some of the questions and debates around the harmony between archaeology and Josephus, other groups of tourists, youth groups, and BirthRight groups were not necessarily being given that narrative. I think that without an outright denial, with very strong evidence to back it up, the (popular) Josephus narrative of the events at Masada will drown out any other voices.
Even our guide, Danny, an archaeologist himself, provided us with an argument that would both accept Josephus’s narrative, and potentially explain its discrepancies when compared with the archaeology. He suggested that the bodies of the Sicarii were thrown over the walls of Masada, and the bones were over time washed away with flash floods. Although I can understand that this is plausible, it seemed to me to fit in with the pattern which we had encountered at the City of David, Qumran, and so many other places, which is the attempt to fit the archaeological evidence to an ancient written record, such as the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Josephus’s writing.