Many years ago, in the small hours of a steaming hot August night, I drove my battered 19-year-old Renault 16, a car envisioned to get the French farmer to his stoney vineyards, to the Roman ramp at Masada. Something in Josephus Flavius’s description of the Roman siege of this mountain fortress simply did not make sense to me. The evidence of the battle has survived, laid out clearly in the dry desert environment around the stark rock: eight Roman camps; a wall interspersed with towers that ran around the mountain to prevent any of the Jewish rebels from escaping; and the huge, wooden-framed assault ramp. At the top of the ramp, Josephus writes a few years after the events occurred, the Romans had built a “platform of great stones fitted closely together, fifty cubits broad and as many high” on which the massive siege engines were placed. “In addition a sixty-cubit tower was constructed entirely cased in iron, from which the Romans by volleys of missiles from numerous quick-firers and ballistae quickly beat off the defenders on the ramparts,” he continues (Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, Book VII, 307-308, from H. St. J. Thackeray’s translation from the Greek, Loeb Classical Library, 2004). Once all these preparations were finished, he adds, a great battering ram was “directed without intermission against the wall, and having, though with difficulty, succeeded in effecting a breach, brought it down in ruins.” However, according to my personal calculations, Josephus’s vivid description did not match the topography.
As the first rays of light glimmered over the cliffs of Masada, I took a long climbing rope from the trunk of my car and hauled it to the top of the ramp, to the spot where the ramp touches the edge of the fortress cliff. I looked up, trying to feel what the Romans felt nearly 2,000 years ago. I climbed to the top of the fortress and unfurled the rope in order to measure the height from the top of the ramp to the summit. I still could not get Josephus’ figures to add up.
Masada is an enigma – and a place of powerful emotions. Herod, who built the fortress, did so out of fear, creating a shelter for his stormy soul and his very real fears of being deposed. The Jewish rebels, who held it for seven years and took their lives when the Romans conquered the mountain, also were very complex personalities. The excavations conducted at Masada uncovered personal information about many of them: their names, occupations, and even the nicknames by which their friends called them. The excavations revealed how much bread cost on the mountain during the Roman siege, what kind of wine Herod stored in his massive storerooms, what was read in the synagogue, and what prayers were recited by those who did not participate in the congregational services. Despite all these intimate details, it still is not clear what really happened on Masada during the fifteenth night of the Hebrew month of Nisan, Passover eve, in the year 72 or 73 CE, when, according to Josephus, all the 960 men, women, and children on the mountain, except for seven who hid in the cisterns and thus lived to tell the tale, killed themselves rather than be enslaved by the Romans.
Since that hot August night when I drove to Masada to measure the ramp, I have climbed to the summit hundreds of times, each time pondering over its dramatic history. Who were the rebels who hid out on the mountain: were they the perpetrators of horrible deeds, as Josephus paints them, who were ready to kill their families and themselves for the ideal of a free life? Why did the Romans, two or three years after the end of the rebellion, take thousands of soldiers and march them into the desert to besiege this remote fortress? Why was it so important to stamp out this vestige of Jewish independence in a faraway corner of the Roman Empire? I am not a historian or an archaeologist and have no new theory to formulate over the fate or history of this mountain. However, over the years, I have delved into the stories of those who loved this mountain: Israel-lore people, tour guides, archaeologists, and volunteers – tens of thousands who were touched in some way by this place. The drama of the towering mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, together with its dramatic story – some would say shocking story – has enthralled them.
How was Masada explored and uncovered? Who were the people who did it – the travelers, the volunteers, the adventurers, and the archaeologists that form the Masada family? How did this fortress and its dramatic story become a cornerstone in the heritage of Israel? This album, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the grand excavations launched by professor Yigael Yadin, is dedicated to these people, the lovers of Masada, generation after generation. This album tells their story, the story of the discovery of Masada – a foundational event in the rebirth of the Jewish nation.
Tel Aviv, Spring 2014