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

Rarely does a dramatic landscape combine so powerfully with a dramatic story.

Masada is a natural fortress, an isolated block on the western shore of the Dead Sea. The Hebrew name, metzada, is probably related to metzuda: fortress. To the east, north and south, the drop to the plain is 1200 feet. On the west, a narrow natural saddle reaches to within 240 feet of the top, thus binding Masada to the cliff that stretches the length of the Dead Sea's western shore. The only good access was via this saddle, and upon it the Romans built an assault ramp, still to be seen. 


One could also climb the zigzag "Snake Path" on the east, but this was dangerous and difficult before the modern authorities built it up. Well, it's still difficult.

The top is a plateau, 1900 feet from north to south and 650 from east to west.

One of the Hasmoneans first fortified it, but most of what we see is attributed to their successor, Herod . This energetic ruler first tested the virtues of Masada as a young man struggling for power. His foes were then the Hasmoneans (more exactly, that part of the family that refused to collaborate with Rome) and their ally, the Parthians. Both groups were besieging him in Jerusalem. He made a break for it, together with his family and army. After narrowly escaping capture at the site of the future Herodium, he and his followers reached Masada. Here he installed his family, trusting that the natural strength of the place would protect them. He then went out on his own, seeking help. His search led him to Rome, where Octavian (later called Augustus) and Marc Antony saw his potential and persuaded the Senate to name him King of Judaea. He returned  (the whole journey had taken a year) and found that Masada had indeed protected his loved ones. With Antony's help, he went on to defeat his rivals, winning the throne in 37 BC.


Once in power, Herod began restoring the ruined Hasmonean fortresses at the desert passes. He made of Masada a little paradise, replete with palaces, storehouses, pools, gardens and agriculture. Into this rocky hulk, which has no spring and gets hardly any rain, he dug and plastered cisterns with a total capacity of 40,000 cubic meters (about ten million gallons). Where did he get so much water? See the next article.