ASSIST News Service (ANS) - PO Box 609, Lake Forest, CA 92609-0609 USA
Visit our web site at: -- E-mail:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Masada: Give me liberty or give me death

By Stan Wilson
Special to ASSIST News Service

MASADA, ISRAEL (ANS) -- The Ministry of Tourism of the state of Israel invited publishers of 10 American Christian newspapers to tour Israel this June, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the visitors. I've heard many people say, "Visit Israel and you will never be the same." Without a doubt, this has to be the understatement of the millennium.

In my tour of Israel, nothing took my breath away like my first view of

The view of Masada is absolutely breathtaking (not in a beautiful sense, however.) This photo was taken on the viewing deck of the guest center at the base camp. The cable car (ski-lift) ascends to a ramp near the top of the mountain. Visitors who prefer can take the "snake trail" climb to the top, but it recommended only for the very physically fit. The remains of the Roman encampments around the mountain can be seen in the lower right of the photo

Masada. Three questions popped into my head almost immediately: Why would someone build such a fortress in such a desolate and inaccessible location? How did they get the materials and supplies on top of the mountain? Why did the Romans build a ramp rather than just waiting them out?

Masada is actually Hebrew for fortress and that name is most appropriate. After all, a fortress is supposed to be protected. It is located at the western end of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. The top plateau is some 1300 feet above the Dead Sea.

In most simplistic terms, Masada was the last hold-out of the Jews against the Romans during the Jewish rebellion in 66 AD. Most of us remember that the Jews chose death rather than being taken captive by the Romans.

The site remained a mystery until 1842, but excavations only started in 1963-65. The top plateau measures some 1800 feet by 900 feet with a 16-foot thick wall around the plateau. There were originally several winding trails that led from the Dead Sea level to fortified gates atop the mountain.

The state of Israel has done a wonderful job of excavating and protecting the remaining structures atop the mountain. The visitors' center at the base is complete with relics from the fortress, educational displays and a video depicting the monument to the determination of the remaining Jews of that time. There are also restaurants and a several "souvenir shops". Visitors may ascend the mountain via the "snake path" or the ski-lift. (The snake path is recommended only for the physically fit as it is quite a hike up the mountain.)

Herod the Great built the fortress of Masada around 35 BC as a refuge for himself. He had been made King of Judea by his Roman overlords and became hated by many of his Jewish subjects. It included a casemate wall around the plateau, storehouses, living quarters, a Synagogue, a large bathhouse, a swimming pool, a palace and twelve cisterns which were filled with rainwater, barracks and an armory.

Herod's palace was separated from the fortress by a wall, affording him total privacy and security. The remaining buildings were all wonderfully built, appointed and "fit for a king."

The two lower terraces were intended for entertainment and relaxation. In addition to protective walls, they included a courtyard and a small private bathhouse. Under a layer of debris, three skeletons were discovered during the excavation; a man, a woman and a child.

Josephus Flavius provides us with the only written source about Masada. He was a Jew and had been appointed governor of Galilee, but surrendered after the battle of Jodfat. Afterwards, he became a Roman citizen and successful historian.

One of the stories tells that Herod the Great built the fortress atop Masada as his winter home. The view of the Dead Sea is awesome, but hardly what I would consider a "room with a view." Further research indicated that Herod actually built the fortress as an escape; perhaps when he felt too much heat from the Jews in Jerusalem. Many of the buildings are in surprising good physical condition while others have undergone restoration

Almost one thousand men, women and children were atop the mountain, under the leadership of Eleazar ben Ya'ir. When the end was in sight, they burned the fortress and took their own lives. Flavius recounts the story as told to him by two surviving women.

The Jewish revolt began some 75 years after his death when a group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. More zealots joined them after the fall of Jerusalem. Masada became their home and they made many changes and additions to the facilities built by Herod. For two years, they raided and harassed the Romans from the base atop Masada.

Roman governor Flavius Silva then built camps around the mountain and marched against Masada with thousands of Roman soldiers and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war. They established camps at the base and laid siege to Masada. Rather than just wait them out, they built a huge ramp against the western approach, and in the spring of 74 AD, they moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the wall.

Rather than being taken prisoners, the zealots cast lots to determine ten executioners, and then to execute themselves. The last Jew killed himself. Although the zealots burned the buildings, Josephus writes that they left the stores so that the Romans could see that starvation was not a factor in the mass suicide. In addition to the three skeletons, hundreds of artifacts have been discovered. They include pottery, arrowheads, textiles, foodstuffs and coins.

After the conquest, soldiers of the Roman garrison lived atop the mountain for a brief period. Byzantine Christian Monks also lived atop the mountain from the 5th to 7th century AD, and the remains of their Byzantine church and monastery are also well preserved.

Just as Texans "Remember the Alamo," Masada symbolizes the determination of the Jewish people to be free in their own land.

For further information about Israel and tour information, I suggest that you visit This is the official website of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. They offer several "virtual tours" online and you can get complete information and find links to help you make your plans. You can actually spend days just navigating the website in preparation for your "trip of a lifetime."

Yes, I'll go back...and take my wife. Tours are much less expensive that I had thought. One of the tourism magazines that we received featured several all-inclusive tours including airfare from New York for $1200 to $1500. Of course, putting together a tour with members of your church would just be the icing on the cake. Shalom!

Stan Wilson is a lifetime journalist after graduating from college in 1970 with a B.A. in journalism. He worked in various positions in newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas prior to starting Southwest Kansas Faith and Family in 2001. Faith and Family is a monthly Christian newspaper serving Dodge City, Garden City and 18 other surrounding communities. He can be contacted by email at

** You may republish this story with proper attribution.
Send this story to a friend.

If this story has been forwarded to you, click here for your own subscription to Assist News.
If you no longer wish to receive Assist News via e-mail, click here to unsubscribe.

ASSIST News Service is Sponsored By