Masada: King Herod’s Refuge

Visit Masada, a mountaintop fortress overlooking the Dead Sea built by King Herod of Judea: Palaces, Roman baths, food storerooms, and impressive waterworks. See remains of the Roman army & Tenth Roman Legion Fretensis: In 73 AD the Romans spent six months to to defeat less than one thousand Jewish zealot freedom fighters.



Masada’s got it all!
Great archaeology, dramatic setting, and a powerful story! Out in the middle of the mountainous Judean desert, hanging on the edge of a cliff over 1500′ (450 meters) above the valley floor overlooking the Dead Sea.

What does Masada mean?
Masada keeps to its name. It means “fortress” in Hebrew and it is the ultimate palace-fortress complex with two palaces, Roman baths, food warehouses, synagogue, and even a swimming pool! And all of this in one of the driest areas of Israel that receives only 50 mm (2 inches) of rain a year! How did the builders over 2000 years ago do it?

Who built Masada?
Now that’s a very good question. It was built by none other than King Herod the Great, who ruled over the Roman province of Judea and the Jews in the 1st century B.C. In the New Testament Herod is infamous for the “killing of the innocents” in his attempt to find and kill the baby Jesus. But he was also one of the greatest builders in the history of the Roman Empire and he aptly left his mark in monuments, palaces, fortresses, temples, and cities across the land. A remarkable accomplishment for one king in under 40 years! Our major source of info are the writings of his self-appointed biographer – Josephus Flavius (Yosef ben Matityahu in Hebrew). He lived after Herod, but not too long. Here was a “renaissance” man some 1500 years before the Renaissance. Born and raised in Judea (Israel today), he was a Temple priest, historian, and military general, writer, and politician rolled into one.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus in his book Jewish Wars,  Masada was built by Herod, the Roman king over Judea, as a personal place of refuge- his “just-in-case” hideaway. Located S.E. of Jerusalem, some 2-3 days over rough desert terrain, who would bother even trying to get in? And if you made it that far, getting up the sheer cliffs and overcoming the guards was neigh impossible.

Who was King Herod afraid of?
But who was King Herod afraid of? Once again Josephus volunteers that info: The the local Jews or Judeans (same thing back then) of course. You see, King Herod, a local yokel of Idumean and Nabatean descent, had aided and abetted the Romans – Mark Anthony and Octavian (later on hailed as Augustus Caesar) in securing their domination of Judea- God’s Promised Land – and with it the end of Jewish independence and sovereignty. But Herod also feared Cleopatra, the miss-universe beauty queen of Egypt. She just so happened to be the girlfriend of Mark Anthony (remember – he helped put Herod into power over the Jews to begin with) and she wanted Judea for her own as well. She especially wanted to control Herod’s royal Balsam herb plantations – the key ingredient in rejuvenation cream beauty products at the time. Cleopatra obviously didn’t want any competition from any other ladies on that score! Now add to all of that the fact that Herod was a raving mad paranoiac who ended up killing his own wives and children and you can begin to understand why he needed his own private asylum!

Death of Herod
King Herod dies in the year 4 B.C., Masada reverts to the role of Roman military fortress, as things go from bad to worse in terms of Roman relations with Judea. The Jews wanted their independence and full unhindered rights to worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem without Roman influence and corruption. The Roman procurators such as Pontius Pilate were professional administrators along for the ride- to milk the country, get rich, and had the authority to judge and execute capital punishment, including perceived cases of insurrection or opposition to Roman authority. They were even involved in the appointment of the Jewish High Priest – such as Caiaphas.

Fall of Masada: Tragic ending
In the year 66 C.E., things came to a head and revolt erupted in Caesaria- the Roman administrative capital of Judea. It spread like wildfire throughout Judea and in the year 70 C.E., under Titus, the Roman general, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was burned to the ground. The Jewish zealots, some 1000 Jewish men, women, and children, slipped out of Jerusalem, made their way across the desert and captured Masada, preparing themselves for a last stand against the Romans. In the year 73 C.E., after 6 months of siege the Roman army Tenth Legion Fretensis managed to breach the walls and capture Masada. Rather than be taken as slaves, the Jewish zealots decided to kill their families, then kill each other, leaving the last one to commit suicide. For them, slavery was not an option and life was little worth living if they couldn’t live a biblical Torah life as free Jews in God’s Promised Land.

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