Masada PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Water Supply
Herodian Structures
Northern Palace
First Jewish Revolt
Masada and revolt

Masada's Water Supply

The cisterns in the sides of Masada can hold 10 million gallons. Before we answer the question of the source, we may ask why Herod needed so much water? This question touches on his motive for building here. Impressed with the mountain's natural defenses, according to Josephus:

Herod ...prepared this fortress on his own account, as a refuge against two kinds of danger; the one for fear of the multitude of the Jews, lest they should depose him, and restore their former kings to the government; the other danger was greater and more terrible, which arose from Cleopatra queen of Egypt, who did not conceal her intentions, but spoke often to Antony, and desired him to cut off Herod, and entreated him to bestow the kingdom of Judea upon her. And certainly it is a great wonder that Antony did never comply with her commands in this point, as he was so miserably enslaved to his passion for her; nor should any one have been surprised if she had been gratified in such her request. So the fear of these dangers made Herod rebuild Masada, and thereby leave it for the finishing stroke of the Romans in this Jewish war. (War VII 8.4.)

If his enemies ever got the upper hand, all Herod would have to do was reach the place that had earlier given his family refuge. Here he could live out the rest of his natural life, no matter what happened outside. He left the southern part of the mountain free, says Josephus, for agriculture. The water wasn't only for drinking, then, but for irrigation: to ensure a permanent food supply. The storehouses on the northern end also testify to this motive of independence. Here we have an island of self-sufficiency, a bunker of last resort.

Masada has no spring, and the annual rainfall comes to less than 100 mm., a fifth of what Jerusalem gets. Where then did he get 10 million gallons - that is, 40,000 cubic meters?

About a tenth of the supply came from the rain that fell here. On entering from the east, we can see that the central part of the plateau dips and narrows in our direction. Herod's architect gathered the run-off and led it to a cistern on the mountain's east side (visible upon leaving the cable car), by means of a drainage canal (also visible).

Yes, but where did the other 36,000 cubic meters come from?

To answer, we need to combine a little information with what we can see from the western side.

Information: It rains little here indeed, but it rains five times as much or more along the peak of the Judean mountain block from Jerusalem to Hebron. Half of this water flows downhill to the east -- into the desert, whose surface is chalk. At the touch of moisture, the molecules of the chalk swell up, becoming waterproof. The water flows on the surface, uniting and forming mighty flash floods near the Dead Sea a few hours later. (See photo below. For a biblical reference to the floods, see 2 Kings 3:4-27.)


What we can see: Looking west from Masada, we can see a gorge. Here Herod's engineers built a dam to catch the floods.


Near the top of the gorge they attached an aqueduct. They also dug and plastered cisterns in the western side of the mountain.They placed these over an abyss, high enough to be beyond an attacker's reach but low enough to catch the water, which flowed by gravity through the aqueduct. When one cistern filled, the overflow would go into its neighbor, and so on. In fact, they dammed two gorges (the other is around the corner of the cliff to the north) creating two such systems.


People would have to descend to the cisterns and bring the water up (to more cisterns on the plateau). For this purpose Herod had slaves. He provided them with a secret staircase and a wall, so that no one standing west of the abyss could see them.

An enemy could destroy the aqueduct! Indeed, but what good would it do them? The defenders of Masada would already have water enough in the mountain, much more than the besiegers. Until the Romans arrived in 73 AD, no major army had ever been able to stay for long in the desert.

How then did the besieging Romans, with ten or fifteen thousand soldiers, solve their water problem? After putting down the Jewish revolt in 70 AD, they had so many prisoners and pack animals, they could form a "bucket brigade" from springs in the Tse'elim river three miles to the north. We can still see the path of the "brigade."