One of the most visited sites in Israel can be found practically in the middle of nowhere. And that is the main reason this site has “made history.”
King Herod, the great architect that lived over 2000 years ago and that redesigned the Temple in Jerusalem, created two of his personal palaces on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea – Masada. Yes, he had two luxurious palaces on one mountaintop. They included frescos, bath houses and a swimming pool. This was Herod the Great afterall.
One of the most amazing parts of Masada is the water system. There was an almost limitless amount of water to use for the bathhouses, swimming pools, water cisterns – and they were in the desert! Herod built an intricate water system with aqueducts using the winter floodwater in riverbeds and drew it up to the reservoirs in the mountain side. See the model at the National Park to see how it worked.
The site was originally populated after the Jews defeated the Greeks (the story of the Maccabees and Hanukah), but soon after Herod used it to hide his family from the Parthians while he fled to Petra. Only years later did he build it up for her personal use. Masada, however, became famous because of the next group of people to populate the plateau – the Sicarii.
In the beginning of the Great Revolt (67-73 CE) when the Jews opposed the Romans (which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem), a band of rebels called the Sicarii took to the desert and fought using their special dagger, or sica, to take over Masada from the guards that remained on watch after Herod died in 4 BCE. In 70 CE after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple hundreds of Jews joined them on the mountain top. They were known as the Zealots because they were dedicated to eliminating the pagan rule in the Holy Land.
Thanks to Herod and his paranoia, there was enough food and water for all of the Zealots for years. They repurposed some of Herod’s buildings for their own interests like enlarging the synagogue area and adding ritual baths or mikvas. Even though they were living on a mountaintop in the desert they were living quite comfortably.
In 73 CE the Romans concluded it was finally time to destroy the last pocket of Jewish defenders and headed for the desert. They built ramps and battering rams to attack the small mountaintop settlement. Once the Romans were close the Jews made an important decision that would become the legacy of the site for years to come.
According to Josephus Flavius, the famous historian from this time, Elazar Ben-Yair was the leader of the Zealots. He called to the 967 men, women and children living with him on Masada to explain that the end was near. As they had come here to protest against living under pagan rule, this was the chance to show the Romans that they would not serve anyone else but God. They conducted a mass suicide, and burned all of their food, belongings and weapons to prove that they had not died from starvation, but of their own free will.
This site, with all of its tragic history, has become a symbol of bravery and courage and for this reason many Israeli soldiers were sworn in on this mountaintop. It is also a symbol of perseverance and faith for the many Jewish boys and girls that have come from all over the world to celebrate their connection with God during their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony.