Masada National Park, Southern District, Israel
October 3, 2019
“Masada shall not fall again,” Dad used to say when we, kids, failed at something. The reference went over my head until I reached 50 when I was literally standing on it. So it had. Masada, the majestic plateau of rock, still dominated the Judean Desert in present-day Israel. It earned its place in history as a site of the display of human excess, both in luxury and in loyalty.
The visit started on a cable car that whisked us 400 meters up the barren mesa. Despite the height, the summit was only 33 meters ASL, making this ride the lowest aerial tramway in the world. This nifty Swiss technology saved us from hiking up the steep and winding Snake Trail. Setting foot on the flat top, we were greeted by black starlings to their habitat for centuries. These squawking, foraging birds were the only sign of life I had seen in this desert.
John, our Korean-born tour guide, gathered the group under a reed awning and launched into his spiel on the incredible history of Masada. Herod the Great chose to build his palace on this natural fortress some two millennia ago. Its inaccessibility was ideal as a refuge, but building his lavish palaces and turning the scorching, arid mountain into lush gardens required a feat of engineering. Sadly, I lost the plot at that point when another group of tourists swarmed us, led by their particularly loud Spanish-speaking guide. His booming voice drowned out John’s gentle storytelling. Modern-day Masada turned out to be a battlefield for tour groups. That unrepentant guide’s voice box was a weapon of mass distraction.
I broke away to explore the plateau on my own and scanned the valley below to the Dead Sea and beyond. The views all around were unobstructed as far as the eyes could see. No urban skyline or forest canopy concealed the horizon. There was only bare earth and all its topographical corrugations. I stared at it with an acute awareness of looking at Earth as a planet, that I was on this ball of rock suspended in space. How high, how deep, and how wide was the perspective, not just the view, from Masada.
From this vantage point, it was a no-brainer why Herod saw Masada as a strategic and formidable refuge. The nearly vertical slopes and inhospitable environment served as a natural barrier for invaders. The ingenious Roman Jew that was Herod defied nature by damming up the surrounding wadi to collect rainwater. His army of builders, then, installed aqueducts to convey it up the mountain. How telling that very little remained of his glorious palaces compared to the ruins of his granaries and cisterns. These stone structures stored food and water that could sustain the population of a thousand for a decade. His refuge was built to outlast any siege.
Apparently, there was enough to go around for luxury, Roman-style. Even on this wilderness mountain that received no more than two inches of annual rainfall, the royal family and guests enjoyed swimming pools and heated baths. Our group did not explore the large underground reservoirs, but we did peek into the remains of the bathhouses. There must have been constant movement of slave labor on donkeys carrying vats of water from cliffside aqueducts to the main cisterns. They were tasked to fill each with the capacity of over a million gallons. I would also accord credit to both human and animal labor for their effort in this enterprise.
Masada went to the hands of the Jews after Herod’s death. It once again came to prominence in history after the time of the Christ. The Roman invasion in 70 CE pushed hundreds of Jewish revolutionaries and their families to take refuge at Herod’s fortress, a stand-off that lasted three years. It took that long to breach the defenses that Romans of a few centuries before put up. Their final assault came through a 120-meter ramp, the location of which could still be seen, to reach the summit. The only way the sneaky Romans could take that ramp to the top was with the use of Jewish POWs. The rebels could not kill their own countrymen, at least not yet.
The Jews would not hand over their final bastion so easily and the Romans could not savor the sweet taste of victory. Eleazar ben Yair the Zealot led his cornered people to a mass murder and suicide the previous night. What a very Japanese way, I thought. The victors found their supposed captives as corpses totaling to almost a thousand. The Romans won the battle, but the Jews stood their ground and defended their freedom to the end. Generations of Jews thence had vowed that “Masada shall never fall again.”
Perhaps finally war-weary, the Romans abandoned Masada and it remained so for centuries. A few Christian monks during the Byzantine era settled there, hence the floor and wall mosaics, but not for long. The historic mountain lay desolate until the reinstatement of the State of Israel in the 20th century. It had since become a symbol of Jewish courage and their historical claim of the Holy Land. The former was according to tour guide John, the latter to content creator Hananya Naftali.
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