Forged in History – How Masada Became a National Symbol
Masada is an archaeological site on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea in the southern part of the Judean Desert. The site also holds significance as a renowned Israeli national symbol. Every Israeli, as part of school trips, ascends to the summit of Masada, and various units of the Israeli army have conducted ceremonies at its peak. What exactly transpired at Masada? Why has it become a national symbol of the Zionist movement? And does it deserve such recognition?
Masada in the Light of Josephus’s Accounts
The historical evidence, primarily documented by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, vividly describes the dramatic events that unfolded at Masada around two thousand years ago. It narrates the intense period when Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire, and how they brutally quashed the Jewish resistance. At the climax of the revolt, in the summer of 70 AD, the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish sacred temple. Subsequently, Masada stood as the last fortress of the Jews, besieged by the tenth legion. But when the Romans breached through its walls, the Jews favored death to Roman enslavement and committed suicide.
Masada Becoming a Symbol of the Zionist Movement
Only two millennia later, Jews returned to Masada. In the 1930s, Jewish youth groups created a tradition of excursions deep into the desert, with one of its highlights being climbing to the top of Masada. The eerie desert silence and the scattered archaeological remains provided a perfect backdrop to vividly recount the tragic story of Masada. During this period, Masada evolved as a symbol of the Zionist movement. Its Jewish rebels were idealized as freedom fighters who clung to freedom and ultimately embraced death in defiance of enslavement. Moreover, the youth groups would also shout the repeated call “Masada shall not fall again”. They equated Masada with State of Israel that the Zionist movement sought to establish. And when the State of Israel was established, some Israeli military units conducted ceremonies atop Masada, further solidifying it as a national symbol.
The main excavations at Masada were conducted from 1963 to 1965, by an Israeli expedition headed by renowned archaeologist Yigal Yadin. Yadin and his team uncovered a wealth of finds, both of Herod’s magnificent palaces, the rebels’ residence, and the Roman siege. Many of these remains are visible at the site to this day, with the most significant smaller finds on display in a local museum. These findings affirm the general narrative of Masada’s story as presented by Josephus and sometimes to its smallest details. For example, Yadin published a group of pottery shards with names and nicknames inscribed on them, found together near the central bathhouse. One of the names was “Ben Yair”, who was the Rebels’ commander. Yadin suggested that these might be the “lots” that determined the order of the suicides, as indicated by Josephus. He also proposed that the human remains found in Herod’s northern palace belonged to the last family to commit suicide at Masada. This, too, was in line with Josephus’s testimony, who wrote that the last surviving warrior set fire to the northern palace and then took his own life next to his dear ones.
The archaeological finds, both architectural and small artifacts, seemed to validate Josephus’s account, thus confirming Masada’s status as a symbol. A symbol of fighting for Jewish freedom and identity. A symbol for a fight that was lost in antiquity, yet the modern Jewish state will ensure that this will never happen again.
Critique of Masada as a Symbol
Despite the historical, archaeological, and symbolic significance attributed to Masada, the Israeli army (IDF) does not conduct ceremonies on its mountaintop. Why?
Since Yadin’s excavations at Masada, additional research has been conducted, including critical examinations of Yadin’s work. The critique extends to both the historical evidence and Yadin’s interpretation of the findings.
Firstly, Josephus’s portrayal of the rebel leadership presents them more as zealots than freedom fighters. They targeted their political adversaries, massacred the Jewish neighbors in Ein Gedi, and did not confront the Romans at Masada. They relied on the natural formation of the mountain and its fortifications and believed that God would save them. And when the Romans breached the wall, they concluded that God had forsaken them and chose to commit suicide. Is this the symbol of a Jewish freedom fighter?
Secondly, the “lots” Yadin found did not match the number of participants in the final lot, according to Josephus. Moreover, dozens of additional potsherds with names or letter combinations were found throughout the mountain. Could these inscribed pottery shards be related to more mundane matters like food rations?
Additional critique relates to the lack of skeletal remains of those who supposedly committed suicide. There is also no evidence of fire at the breaching point, contrary to Josephus’ accounts. Perhaps Josephus fabricated parts of the Masada’s battle? It should be remembered that Josephus was not present at the battle and documented it only years later in Rome. Furthermore, in Roman times, historians allowed themselves literary freedom that is not accepted today.
Additionally, 2000 years after the events took place, the absence of certain findings is a weak argument. The lack of skeletons, for example, can be explained in different ways.
In my opinion, Masada still deserves to be a symbol. Hundreds of Jewish refugees sought refuge at Masada, escaping Roman persecution. Their fate was bitter, whether they committed suicide, died in battle, of captured by the Romans. Yes, Masada is also worthy of being a symbol of resilience and recovery. It preserved evidence of the tragic end of a group of Jews 2000 years ago. But this evidence was found 70 generations later by the same race of Jews who returned to their ancestral homeland and established a state.
And unfortunately, the slogan “Masada shall not fall again” is still relevant. There are still those who wish to eradicate the Jews and the State of Israel. This slogan in its broader sense is valid – the State of Israel will not perish.
Masada is a national park, open every day of the week from 8:00 to 17:00. A private guided tour is highly recommended, as it deepens the connection between the silent archaeological remnants and the dramatic human stories woven into them.
A private tour to Masada can be integrated in a day tour of the Dead Sea Region.