By Joe Boyles
During my recent trip to the Holy Land, one of the most fascinating sites we visited was the ancient fortress and palace of Masada, high atop a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Just before the birth of Jesus, King Herod had a magnificent three-tiered palace built into the north face of the plateau, with 4300 feet of fortifications built around the edge of the mountain top. From the west, the plateau rises 1300 feet about the valley floor.
Approach to Masada is in two forms, a switch-back “snake path” or a cable car. We took the easy way by cable car. The mid-February day we visited was clear, cold, and quite windy. High atop a plateau with no tree in sight, there isn’t anything to stop the wind.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the location of Masada was discovered and archeologists began to unearth what wind and sand had covered. The excavations of the ruins of Masada are extensive and show baths and worship sites that behold this once majestic site. Herod (known as the builder) ruled for a third of a century and commissioned many great sites which exist to this day. During his reign, the second Temple was built as the focus of Jewish worship in Jerusalem. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the great revolt. The remnants of the destruction are visible today.
That Jewish revolt against Roman rule occurred from 66-73 AD and is the focus of one of Masada’s most enduring stories. Nearly a thousand Sacarii rebels retreated to the fortress of Masada and stored food to await the siege they knew would come. The Roman Legions arrived under command of Flavius Silva and established garrisons (still visible today) to conduct their year-long siege. When the Sacarii realized that they would succumb, they committed mass suicide rather than face slavery. The handful of women and children who escaped told the story to the first century historian Josephus who recorded their zealous act. In the 1960s, a popular movie by the same name staring Peter O’Toole recounted this epic.
The engineers who designed the fortress two thousand years ago developed a marvelous way to collect water in a region that receives only four inches of rainfall each year. A series of gravity fed aqueducts collected rainwater off the rock and channeled it to cisterns. There is a model of their engineering today to demonstrate this creative method.
Today, Israeli military cadets regularly visit Masada to take their oath of allegiance. Like the defenders of old, they vow never to succumb to the threats they face from their neighboring enemies.
Perhaps it was more than symbolic that the day we visited the old fortress, four Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagles thundered overhead. They made two trips headed east, turning over the Dead Sea along the border with Jordan before heading south to their training areas over the Negev Desert. The Jews were destroyed by the Romans in the first century and by the Nazis in the last. They vow never again.