A freestanding, sheer-sided plateau high above the Dead Sea, Masada (in Hebrew, Metzuda, meaning ‘stronghold’) was fortified sometime between 103 and 76 BC before passing into the hands of Herod the Great in 43 BC. He saw the fortress as a potential refuge in the event of either a Jewish revolt or trouble from Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Herod beefed up the defences with a casemate wall and towers, and added barracks, arsenals and storehouses. To make sure any enforced retreat would not be suffered in discomfort he added two luxurious palaces complete with swimming pools. After all that work, Herod died of natural causes in 4 BC without needing to use his desert hideaway. In AD 66 the Jews rose up against the Romans in what’s known as the First Revolt. A group called the Zealots captured the lightly guarded Masada, which became a sanctuary for fleeing Jews. After four years the uprising was finally suppressed and the Romans then turned their attention to the mountain-top stronghold.
The sole account of what happened next comes from the chronicles of Flavius Josephus, a 1st-century historian who was not a man to let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Josephus writes that under the command of Flavius Silva the Romans set up 8000 men in eight camps around the base of the mountain and, using Jewish slave labour, began building an enormous earthen ramp up to the fortress walls. Inside the walls, the defenders of Masada numbered 967 men, women and children with enough food and water to last them for months. Once the ramp was complete, the Romans brought up their siege engines and prepared to breach the fortress. It’s at this point that the Zealots, according to Josephus, began to set fire to their homes and all their possessions to prevent them falling into Roman hands. With that done, 10 men were chosen by lots and given the task of killing all of the others. Nine of the 10 were then executed by their companion before he finally despatched himself. When the Romans broke through they found alive just two women and five children, who had survived by hiding. The mass suicide of Masada marked the end of the Jewish presence in Palestine.
Byzantine monks occupied the site during the 4th and 5th centuries, after which Masada faded into legend. It was rediscovered in the early 19th century: in 1838 it was seen from Ein Gedi and correctly identified, and in 1842 it was climbed. It wasn’t, however, until 1963 that a major investigation was undertaken during which the site was excavated, preserved and partially rebuilt.