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Aerial view of Masada
Masada is located in Israel
Shown within Israel
Location Southern District, Israel
Region Judea
Type Fortification
Builder Alexander Jannaeus
Founded 1st century BC
Events Siege of Masada
Site notes
Excavation dates 1963-1965
Archaeologists Yigael Yadin
Official name: Masada
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iii, vi
Designated 2001 (25th session)
Reference No. 1040
Region Asia and Oceania

Masada (Modern Hebrew מצדה metzadá "fortress"[1]) is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau (akin to a mesa) on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE. According to Josephus, the Siege of Masada by troops of the Roman Empire towards the end of the First Jewish–Roman War ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Sicarii rebels and their families hiding there. Masada is located 20 kilometres (12 mi) east of Arad.

Masada is one of Israel's most popular tourist attractions.[2]


  • Geography 1
  • History 2
  • Archaeology 3
  • Modern tourism 4
  • Layout 5
  • Gallery 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • External links 10


The cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 400 m (1,300 ft) high and the cliffs on the west are about 90 m (300 ft) high; the natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult. The top of the plateau is flat and rhomboid-shaped, about 550 m (1,800 ft) by 270 m (890 ft). There was a casemate wall around the top of the plateau totaling 1,300 m (4,300 ft) long and 4 m (13 ft) high, with many towers, and the fortress included storehouses, barracks, an armory, the palace, and cisterns that were refilled by rainwater. Three narrow, winding paths led from below up to fortified gates.


Almost all historical information about Masada comes from the 1st-century Jewish Roman historian Josephus. The site was first fortified by Alexander Jannaeus in the first century BCE.[3] Herod the Great captured it in the power-struggle that followed the death of his father Antipater.[3] It survived the siege of the last Hasmonean king Antigonus II Mattathias, who ruled with Parthian support.[3] In 66 CE, a group of Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison of Masada with the aid of a ruse.[3] After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, additional members of the Sicarii fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop after slaughtering the Roman garrison.[3] According to Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist Jewish splinter group antagonistic to a larger grouping of Jews referred to as the Zealots, who carried the main burden of the rebellion. Josephus said that the Sicarii raided nearby Jewish villages including Ein Gedi, where they massacred 700 women and children.[3][4][5][6]

In 73 CE, the Roman governor of Iudaea Lucius Flavius Silva headed the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to Masada.[3] The Roman legion surrounded Masada, and built a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau.[3]

According to Dan Gill,[7] geological investigations in the early 1990s confirmed earlier observations that the 375-foot (114 m) high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock. The ramp was complete in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16.[8] Romans took the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 troops in order to crush Jewish resistance at Masada. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. Originally, Jewish rebels on top of Masada threw stones at those building and constructing the ramp. When this plan was realized, the Romans put captured Jewish prisoners from previously conquered towns to work the ramp. The Jewish people on top of Masada stopped killing those who built the ramp, choosing not to kill their fellow Jews, even though they understood this might result in the Romans penetrating the fortress. The walls of the fortress were breached in 73 CE.[9] According to Josephus, when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that its 960 inhabitants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide or killed each other. Josephus wrote of two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader had made to convince his fellows to kill themselves.[3] Only two women and five children were found alive.[3] Josephus presumably based his narration upon the field commentaries of the Roman commanders that were accessible to him.[10][11] There are significant discrepancies between archaeological findings, and Josephus' writings. Josephus mentions only one of the two palaces that have been excavated, refers only to one fire, while many buildings show fire damage, and claims that 960 people were killed, while the remains of only 28 bodies have been found.[12]

The year of the siege of Masada may have been 73 or 74 CE.[13]

Masada was last occupied during the Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) period of rule, when a small church was established at the site.[14]


Thermal baths on Masada

The site of Masada was identified in 1838 by Americans Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, and in 1842, American missionary Samuel W Wolcott and the English painter W. Tipping were the first moderns to climb it.[15] It was extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by an expedition led by Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin. Due to the remoteness from human habitation and its arid environment, the site remained largely untouched by humans or nature for two millennia. The Roman attack ramp still stands on the western side and can be climbed on foot. Many of the ancient buildings have been restored from their remains, as have the wall-paintings of Herod's two main palaces, and the Roman-style bathhouses that he built. The synagogue, storehouses, and houses of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored. The meter-high circumvallation wall that the Romans built around Masada can be seen, together with eleven barracks for the Roman soldiers just outside this wall. Water cisterns two-thirds of the way up the cliff drain the nearby wadis by an elaborate system of channels, which explains how the rebels managed to conserve enough water for such a long time.

Inside the synagogue, an ostracon bearing the inscription me'aser cohen (tithe for the priest) was found, as were fragments of two scrolls; parts of Deuteronomy 33–34 and parts of Ezekiel 35–38 (including the vision of the "dry bones"), found hidden in pits dug under the floor of a small room built inside the synagogue. In other loci fragments were found of the books of Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms, and Sirach, as well as of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.

In the area in front of the northern palace, eleven small ostraca were recovered, each bearing a single name. One reads "ben Yair" and could be short for Eleazar ben Ya'ir, the commander of the fortress. It has been suggested that the other ten names are those of the men chosen by lot to kill the others and then themselves, as recounted by Josephus.

The skeletal remains of 28 people were unearthed at Masada. The remains of a male 20–22 years of age, a female 17–18 and a child approximately 12 years old were found in the palace. The remains of two men and a full head of hair with braids belonging to a woman were also found in the bath house. Forensic analysis showed the hair had been cut from the woman's head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive (an old practice for captured women) while the braids indicated that she was married. Based on the evidence, anthropologist Joe Zias believes the remains may have been Romans whom the rebels captured when they seized the garrison.[16]

The sparse remains of another 24 people were found in a cave at the base of the cliff. Although the excavator Yigal Yadin was unsure of their ethnicity, the Rabbinical establishment concluded that they were remains of the Jewish defenders, and in July 1969 they were reburied as Jews in a state ceremony.[17] Carbon dating of textiles found with the remains in the cave indicate they are contemporaneous with the period of the Revolt and pig bones were also present (occasionally occurring for Roman burials due to pig sacrifices); this indicates that the remains may belong to non-Jewish Roman soldiers or civilians who occupied the site before or after the siege.[17] Zias also questioned whether there were so many as 24 individuals present, since only 4% of that number of bones was recovered.[17]

According to Shaye Cohen, archaeology shows that Josephus' account is "incomplete and inaccurate". Josephus only writes of one palace, archaeology reveals two, his description of the northern palace contains several inaccuracies, and he gives exaggerated figures for the height of the walls and towers. Josephus' account is contradicted by the "skeletons in the cave, and the numerous separate fires".[18]

According to Kenneth Atkinson, there is no "archaeological evidence that Masada's defenders committed mass suicide."[19]

The remnants of a Byzantine church dating from the 5th and 6th centuries have also been excavated on the top of Masada. The Masada story was the inspiration for the "Masada plan" devised by the British during the Mandate era. The plan was to man defensive positions on Mount Carmel with Palmach fighters, in order to stop Erwin Rommel's expected drive through the region in 1942. The plan was abandoned following Rommel's defeat at El Alamein.

The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony of Israeli Armoured Corps soldiers who had completed their Tironut (IDF basic training), on top of Masada. The ceremony ended with the declaration: "Masada shall not fall again." The soldiers climbed the Snake Path at night and were sworn in with torches lighting the background.[20] This ceremony is now held at Latrun, outside Jerusalem.

A 2,000-year-old seed discovered during archaeological excavations in the early 1960s was successfully germinated into a date plant. At the time it was the oldest known germination,[21] remaining so until a new record was set in 2012.[22]

Modern tourism

Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Visitors can hike up, or pay to take a cable car to the top of the mesa. There are two very steep hiking paths up – the Snake Trail leaves from the eastern (Dead Sea) side at the Masada Museum and gains approximately 300 metres (980 ft) in elevation. The Roman Ramp trail is also very steep, but has less elevation gain, and is accessed from the western side of the mountain (access by car from the Arad road. Hikers frequently start an hour before sunrise when the park opens, to avoid the mid-day heat, which can exceed 43 °C (109 °F) in the summer. While a dawn hike up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain (access via the Dead Sea Highway) is considered part of the "Masada experience," a cable car operates at the site for those who wish to avoid the physical exertion. There is a visitors center and museum at the base of the cable car. Visitors are encouraged to bring drinking water for the hike up; however, water is available at the top. An audiovisual light show is presented nightly on the western side of the mountain (access by car from the Arad road or by foot, down the mountain via the Roman ramp path). Masada is an Israeli National Park and there is a park entrance fee.

In 2007, a new museum opened at the site, in which archeological findings are displayed in a theatrical setting.[23]


An example of Herodian architecture, Masada was the first site Herod the Great fortified after he gained control of his kingdom.[24] The first of three building phases completed by Herod began in 35 BCE. During the first phase the Western Palace was built, along with three smaller palaces, a storeroom, and army barracks. Three columbarium towers and a swimming pool at the south end of the site were also completed during this building phase.[25]

The original center of the Western Palace was square and was accessed through an open courtyard on the northwest corner of the building. The courtyard was the central room of the Western Palace and directed visitors into a portico, used as a reception area for visitors. Visitors were then led to a throne room. Off the throne room was a corridor that was used by the king, with a private dressing room. The dressing room also had another entrance way that connected to the courtyard through the mosaic room. The mosaic room contained steps that led to a second floor with separate bedrooms for the king and queen.[25]

The second building phase in 25 BCE included an addition of the Western Palace, a large storage complex for food, and the Northern Palace. The Northern Palace is one of Herod's more lavish palace-fortresses and was built on the hilltop on the north side of Masada and continues two levels down, over the end of the cliffs. The upper terrace of the Northern Palace included living quarters for the king and a semi-circular portico to provide a view of the area. A stairway on the west side led down to the middle terrace that was a decorative circular reception hall. The lower terrace was also for receptions and banquets. It was enclosed on all four sides with porticos and included a Roman bathhouse.[25]

In 15 BCE during the third and final building phase the entire site of Masada, except for the Northern Palace, was enclosed by a casemate wall. The casemate wall included a double wall with a space between that was used as living chambers for the soldiers and as extra storage space. The Western Palace was also extended for a third time to include more rooms for the servants and their duties.[26]

1. Snake Path gate. 2. rebel dwellings. 3. Byzantine monastic cave. 4. eastern water cistern. 5. rebel dwellings. 6. mikvah. 7. southern gate. 8. rebel dwellings. 9. southern water cistern. 10. southern fort. 11. swimming pool. 12. small palace. 13. round columbarium tower. 14. mosaic workshop. 15. small palace. 16. small palace. 17. public immersion pool.
Western Palace: 18. service area. 19. residential area. 20. storerooms. 21. administrative area. 22. tanners' tower. 23. western Byzantine gate. 24. columbarium towers. 25. synagogue. 26. Byzantine church. 27. barracks.
Northern Palace: 28. grand residence. 29. quarry. 30. commandant’s headquarters. 31. tower. 32. administration building. 33. gate. 34. storerooms. 35. bathhouse. 36. water gate.
Herod's Palace: 37. upper terrace. 38. middle terrace. 39. lower terrace.

A. Ostraca cache found in casemate. B. Herod's throne room. C. colorful mosaic. D. Roman breaching point. E. coin cache found. F. ostraca cache found. G. three skeletons found.


See also


  1. ^    ; the Hebrew term simply means "fortress"; in Biblical Hebrew מְצָד mĕtsad "mountain-fortress; stronghold" from a root meaning "to hunt, lie in wait for prey". Gesenius, Hebrew-English Lexicon (H4679).
  2. ^ Most popular during 2008; "Masada tourists' favorite spot in Israel".  . During 2005 to 2007 and 2009 to 2012 the second-most popular, behind the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome; Cunliffe, Barry. The Holy Land. Oxford Archaeological Guides (5th ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 378–381. 
  4. ^ The Wars of the Jews, or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Project Gutenberg, Book IV, Chapter 7, Paragraph 2.
  5. ^ Flavius Josephus, De bello Judaico libri vii, B. Niese, Ed. J. BJ 4.7.2
  6. ^ Ancient battle divides Israel as Masada 'myth' unravels; Was the siege really so heroic, asks Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem, The Independent, 30 March 1997
  7. ^ Gill, Dan. "A natural spur at Masada", Nature 364, pp. 569–570 (12 August 1993); DOI 10.1038/364569a0
  8. ^ Duncan B. Campbell, "Capturing a desert fortress: Flavius Silva and the siege of Masada", Ancient Warfare Vol. IV, no. 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 28–35. The dating is explained on pp. 29 and 32.
  9. ^ UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2001-12-13). "Masada - UNESCO World Heritage Centre". Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  10. ^ Stiebel, Guy D. "Masada". Encyclopaedia Judaica 13 (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 593-599. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 July 2013: Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 
  11. ^ Nachman, Ben-Yehuda. Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. p. 48. 
  12. ^ "Making History: Josephus And Historical Method". Zuleika Rodgers. p. 215. 
  13. ^ H. M. Cotton (1989). "The date of the fall of Masada: the evidence of the Masada papyri". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 78: 157–62. 
  14. ^ Glenda W. Friend and Steven Fine (1997). "Masada". The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East 1. Oxford University Press. pp. 428–430. 
  15. ^ My Promised Land, Ari Shavit, 2013, p 80.
  16. ^ Friedman, Matti (June 22, 2007). "Some Masada Remains Questioned by Study".  
  17. ^ a b c Joe Zias (2000). "Human Skeletal Remains from the Southern cave at Masada and the Question of Ethnicity". In L. Schiffman, J. VanderKam and M. Emanuel. The Dead Sea scrolls fifty years after their discovery. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society. pp. 732–738. 
  18. ^ Shaye J.D. Cohen. The significance of Yavneh and other essays in Jewish Hellenism. p. 143. 
  19. ^ Zuleika Rodgers, ed. (2007). Making History: Josephus And Historical Method. BRILL. p. 397. 
  20. ^ Dan Bitan, Mesada the Symbol and the Legend, the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert, 1960, Yad Ben Zvi
  21. ^ Connor, Steve (June 13, 2008). "2,000-year-old seed grows into 'tree of life' for scientists". London: Independent News. Retrieved 2008-06-17. 
  22. ^ Wade, Nicholas (February 20, 2012). "Dead for 32,000 Years, an Arctic Plant Is Revived". New York: New York Times. Retrieved 2012-02-20. 
  23. ^ "A new museum at Masada". Ynetnews. 2007-05-06. Retrieved 2007-05-06. 
  24. ^ Roller, Duane W. The Building Program of Herod the Great/ Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
  25. ^ a b c Netzer, Ehud. The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great. Jerusalem: Yed Ben-Zvi Press and The Israel Exploration Society, 2001.
  26. ^ Yadin, Yigael. Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand. London, 1966.


  • Avi-Yonah, Michael et al., Israel Exploration Journal 7, 1957, 1–160 (excavation report Masada)
  • Yadin, Yigael. Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand. London, 1966.
  • Yadin, Yigael. Israel Exploration Journal 15, 1965 (excavation report Masada).
  • Netzer, Ehud. The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great. Jerusalem: Yed Ben-Zvi Press and The Israel Exploration Society, 2001.
  • Netzer, E., Masada; The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965. Vol III. IES Jerusalem, 1991.
  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking In Israel, University of Wisconsin Press (December 8, 1995).
  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada, Humanity Books, 2002.
  • Bar-Nathan, R., Masada; The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965, Vol VII. IES Jerusalem, 2006.
  • Jacobson, David, "The Northern Palace at Masada – Herod's Ship of the Desert?" Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 138,2 (2006), 99–117.
  • Roller, Duane W. The Building Program of Herod the Great/ Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

External links

  • Photographs & footage of the Yadin excavations
  • The Myth of MasadaSacrificing Truth: Archaeology and
  • World Heritage Sites page
  • Stiebel, Guy D. "Masada." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 13. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 593-599. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Masada photos
  • Masada page on Israeli National Park website
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