Glimpses of Israel - Massada

by Joseph Hunting

2,000 years ago Massada was chosen by Herod the Great to be the site of an almost inaccessible fortress-palace that was perched like an eagle's eyrie over an almost perpendicular drop of 1,000 feet. Herod's palace was truly magnificent and can best be described as a three-tiered hanging palace built on the very edge of a precipice. The living quarters were located on the upper terrace. The centre terrace was mainly for relaxation and leisure. This terrace consisted of a circular pavilion commanding a magnificent view to the north, east and west. The southern section of this terrace was built into the rock of Massada itself which formed a roofed pergola for shade and coolness.

But it was in the midst of all this luxury that one of the greatest tragedies in Israel's history was enacted. When we returned to Massada in 1972 the entire area had been excavated and partly reconstructed by archaeologists and the full story of Israel's last stand against the might of Imperial Rome had been uncovered.

After the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 a Jewish garrison of 960, including their wives and children, held out to the very end against the Roman general Silva. Silva circled Massada, thus cutting off any possible escape to the wilderness beyond. Then he used Jewish slaves to construct a huge earthen causeway reaching to the summit. Just before the Romans breached the walls the entire Jewish garrison committed mass suicide rather than be taken prisoner. Among the ruins archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of a man, a girl of about 18 and a boy aged about 12. Well preserved dark brown plaits were still attached to the girl's scalp, and her sandals were nearby. Josephus, the historian who lived at that time recorded: " ... and the one man left till last surveyed the serried ranks of the dead, in case amidst all the slaughter someone was still left in need of his hand; then, finding that all had been dispatched, set the palace blazing fiercely and summoning all his strength drove his sword right through his body and fell dead by the side of his family."