Masada: Israel’s Alamo or vice versa

Masada is a site in Israel that should be on every visitor’s must-see list.


MASADA, Israel, Jan., 23, 2016 – Most travelers journey to the Holy Land to view landmarks that are familiar from their knowledge of the Bible. But there is another site in Israel that should be on every visitor’s must-see list. Masada is an ancient fortress situated on the crest of an isolated plateau overlooking the Dead Sea.

Located at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, Masada is where a band of approximately 960 Jewish Sicarii rebels held off the Roman army for three years before it was breached in 73 AD.

Ancient ruins of Masada fortress (Taylor)
Ancient ruins of Masada fortress (Taylor)

Like so much of the historical accuracy in the Holy Land, Masada is the subject of considerable architectural debate, but there can be no question about the existence of fortress itself, and therein lies much of its appeal.

Much of the controversy centers around the accounts of a first-century Jewish Roman historian named Josephus, who is responsible for nearly all the written information about the story of Masada. The problem arises from the fact that most scholars regard Josephus as a less than reliable source for the details surrounding Masada.

Masada sits atop a 1,400-foot desert plateau that spreads over an area of 23 acres. Though never occupied by Herod the Great, he built a palatial villa there on three descending terraces at the northern end of the rock. Due to the angles, there are only partial views of the palace from above.

Partial view of Herod the Great's three tiered villa at the northern end of Masada (Taylor)
Partial view of Herod the Great’s three-tiered villa at the northern end of Masada (Taylor)

In 2001, Masada became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It can be reached by walking up the Snake Trail from the Dead Sea side, by the Roman Ramp Trail on the western side or by cable car.
According to Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist group that split from a larger Jewish assembly known as the Zealots. They fled Jerusalem in 70 AD and settled at Masada after the massacre of a Roman garrison.

A model of Herod's Palace (Taylor)
A model of Herod’s Palace (Taylor)

The governor of Rome pursued the Sicarii and surrounded Masada but soldiers were stalled in their siege due to the strategic location of the fortress. Thanks to an ingeniously designed system of cisterns, the Jews often taunted their enemies by drenching them with fresh water in the severe desert heat of the region.

Eventually, the Romans began constructing a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. Construction of the ramp was frequently stopped because the Jewish defenders were able to pelt the Romans from above with rocks.

In the end, the Romans succeeded by using Jewish captives to build the ramp. The Sicarii halted their stone bombardments in order to keep from killing their brethren.

The Snake Path leading up to Masada on the Dead Sea side of the plateau (Taylor)
The Snake Path leading up to Masada on the Dead Sea side of the plateau (Taylor)

After three long years, the Roman legion eventually breached Masada and captured the fortress. Upon their arrival, however, the Romans discovered that most of the 960 inhabitants were dead and all the buildings except for the food storerooms had been burned. Only a handful of women and children survived.

Josephus writes that the Jews of Masada either chose suicide or killed each other rather than suffer capture by the Romans.

Whether the Jews committed mass suicide remains a topic for conjecture. Other details that have proven to be either inaccurate or omitted are also subject to scholarly debate.

Cisterns were a key to Jewish survival (Taylor)(
Cisterns were a key to Jewish survival (Taylor)

What is known however, is that the elaborate system of channels that provided an ample water supply for the inhabitants does exist, as do the remnants of Herod’s northern villa. The siege did take place and the defenders were dead when the Romans entered the fortress.

As the debate continues, so does the symbolism of Masada in modern day Israel. For Jews, Masada is a sign of unity against its adversaries. The site was regarded as so significant that the former Israeli military leader, Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding swearing-in ceremonies for various units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at Masada.

Over time the practice has fallen off, but Israel’s paratroopers still commemorate the Six Day War of 1967 at the Western Wall of Masada.

Like so many places throughout the world, Masada is a site that must be visited in person for a full understanding of its meaning.

A cable car is the fastest and easiest way to access the Masada fortress (wikipedia)
A cable car is the fastest and easiest way to access the Masada fortress (Wikipedia)

For Americans Masada is, in its own way, much like the Battle of the Alamo. Jews, given the historical chronology, would likely tell us that the Alamo is like Masada.

In this instance, the specifics will emerge as archaeology uncovers them. In the meantime, the importance of Masada can never be diminished by the lack of information. The site itself is simply too powerful to ignore.

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About the author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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