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MASADA Israel.

A naturally fortified rock on the W shores of the Dead Sea. According to Josephus (BJ 7.285), a fortress was built at Masada by “the high priest Jonathan.” This could have been either the brother of Judas Maccabeus, or Alexander Jannaeus, whose Hebrew name was Jonathan. In 42 B.C., when it was conquered by Malichus, an antagonist of Antipater, Herod's father, Masada was still referred to as a fortress (BJ 1.237). In 40 B.C. Herod established his family at Masada before leaving for Rome (AJ 14.280-303; BJ 1.238, 263-66). After Herod's accession to the throne, the fortress was completely rebuilt. Josephus, who must have seen this place in the years preceding the Roman siege, described it in minute detail (BJ 7.280-300). Little is known of what happened at Masada in the years following Herod's death. At the beginning of the war of A.D. 66, the place was occupied by a Roman garrison (BJ 2.408; 7.297). It was soon conquered by the Zealots, who held it until A.D. 73, when it was conquered by the Romans after long siege (BJ 7.303-6). The fortress of Masada is scarcely mentioned by other Classical writers. The region is described by Strabo (16.2.24), and the fortress is mentioned by Pliny (HN 5.15.73).

The first extensive excavations (1963-65) uncovered scanty remains of pre-Herodian times. Some sherds of the Chalcolithic period were found in a cave on the slope, and a very few Iron Age sherds were found on the mountain itself. Coins of Alexander Jannaeus were found. The earliest building remains discovered belong to Herod's fortress. The upper plateau of Masada has the form of a ship (600 x 300 m). The whole perimeter of the rock was surrounded by a casemate wall 4 m wide. There were 110 towers, from 6 to 35 m apart. Wall and towers were coated with white plaster. There were three gates: one on the E, where the snake path terminated; another on the W, not far from the W palace, and a water gate on the NW. Herod's buildings occupy the N half of the rock surface and the N slope, where stood the buildings identified by the excavators as the northern palace. It consists of three rock terraces. The lowest terrace is situated 35 m below the top of the rock, and was built on the brink of the abyss. By surrounding the rugged rock with huge retaining walls a platform 17.6 m square was formed. On this platform a rectangle (10 x 9 m) of low walls was erected. The inner side of the outer and inner walls on the platform had attached half columns, thus forming porticos all around. There were small rooms attached to the terrace on the E and on the W. On the E a miniature bath contained all the essential components; on the W a staircase tower led to the terrace above. The spaces between the columns were plastered and painted to resemble multicolored marble.

The middle terrace, 15 m higher, is also supported by massive retaining walls, consisting of two parallel circular walls, with an outer diameter of 15 m. They are smooth on top, so as to receive a cover of wood. Both walls probably supported columns to form a tholos. The rock wall to the S of this construction was smoothed, decorated with projecting pilasters, and plastered and painted with the same patterns as on the lower terrace. A staircase tower led from this to the highest terrace. This terrace included a large semicircular platform on the N, 9 m in diameter with, to the S, a dwelling of four rooms, arranged on two sides of a court. There was probably a portico in the court on the N. The rooms were paved with black and white mosaics, of simple geometric patterns.

A thick, sloping wall separated the northern palace from the rest of the buildings. Behind the wall was an open square, to the S of which stood a public bath. The building (11.6 x 10 m) contained the regular components of a Roman bath, of which the largest and most elaborate was the caldarium (6.8 x 6.5 m, with walls 2.6 m thick) covered by a barrel vault. The hypocaust consisted of a thick brick floor, on which stood 200 square and round brick colonnettes. The floor above was laid with opus sectile, and the walls were plastered and painted. To the N of the bath building was its court (17.8 x 8.4 m), the floor of which was paved with mosaics. The complex measured 25 by 20 m.

To the E and S of the bath extends the large complex of the two units of storerooms, to which Josephus made reference (BJ 7.295-96). The S block contains eleven oblong halls (each 27 x 4 m), all opening on a central corridor, which separates the two units. The second unit consists of four storerooms (20 x 3.8 m). Fragments of numerous storage jars were found in the rooms.

To the W of the S block of storerooms extends a building (30 x 25 m) in plan typical of the Herodian buildings at Masada. It has a large open court in the center, with many rooms around it; on the S side is a double row of rooms. Three large storerooms abut the building on the S and W.

To the S of this building is another (37.5 x 27.5 m), also having a large rectangular open court, around which are apartments. Most of these consist of a small forecourt with two small rooms at the back. Another small building with a raised platform in front of it stood in the center of the court. Because of its plan, the building has been identified as a barrack. To the SW extends the large complex of the so-called western paace. The whole complex (70 x 50 m) consists of three units: 1) The SE block (33 x 24 m), which served as the palace for the king himself; 2) the NE block (34 x 23 m), which contained workshops and servants' quarters; 3) a complex of storerooms and several additional units (70 x 20 m).

The SE block has a central court (12 x 10.5 m), below which is a large cistern with a capacity of 120 cu. m. The S part of the court opens into a large hall that has two columns between two antae on its front. At the back of this hall stood the king's throne. On three sides of this hall were rooms, in some of which were colored mosaics of geometric and floral designs. The complex included a pool cut into the rock. Another room contained a bathtub. Three staircases found in this complex attest the presence of a second story. The NE block consisted of a central courtyard with rooms around it. The storerooms in the third complex were similar in form to those on the N. There were two other smaller buildings to the E of western palace.

The synagogue (15 x 12 m) was built against the NW section of the wall and in it two phases of construction were observed. In its original Herodian phase it had two rows of three columns each supporting the roof. The entrance was on the E. During the period of the Revolt a room was built into the NW corner of the building. Along the walls benches were built, thus eliminating two of the columns. The excavators believe that this building was originally built as a synagogue in the Herodian period, and that it was certainly used as a prayer house in the times of the Revolt.

Josephus described the abundant water supply at Masada (BJ 7.290-91). In order to contain the water of the wadi to the N of the rock of Masada, a dam was built across the wadi, from which an aqueduct led the water to 12 reservoirs cut into the rock. The capacity of these cisterns is 36,000 cu. m. From these cisterns the water was conveyed in jars to the bath buildings and cisterns on the rock itself.

To the period of the Revolt were attributed numerous small finds and remains of temporary dwellings in the casemate wall and most of the other buildings at Masada. There were also fragments of scrolls—Biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. Most important of these was a long scroll of Ben-Sirah. There also were numerous ostraca containing names or referring to tithes. The remains of the period of the Roman garrison, which was stationed at Masada after its conquest, are quite scanty.

According to Josephus (BJ 7.303-19), the Roman commander, Silva, surrounded the whole mountain by a siege wall and also built earthworks on the W, on which he placed a high tower close to the road leading up to the palace. The Roman siege works are in reality much more complicated than those referred to by Josephus. There were six camps built around Masada. Three were on the E: the largest (175 x 135 m) and two others to guard the E approach to the mountain. A fourth was on the N, where a path led up to the commander's camp, which was situated on high ground, opposite the NW part of Masada. To the S of this camp was another, thought to be the lodgings of the merchants, etc., who accompanied the Roman army. But it is hardly possible that outsiders should have been allowed to live within the siege works of the army. Two more small camps were situated on the high ground to the SW of Masada. All of the small camps were built on the line of the wall, while the two larger ones were outside. The wall was further strengthened by numerous towers. The latest finds, discovered in a series of trials, were of the early 2d c., i.e., before the Bar Kohba Revolt, in which Masada played no part. In the Byzantine period a small church, consisting of an atrium and one nave, was built close to the western palace. Other traces of habitation in this period were found elsewhere.


A. Schulten, “Masada die Burg des Herodes und die römische Lager,” ZDPV 56 (1933) 1-179; M. Avi-Yonah et al., “The Archaeological Survey of Masada, 1955-1956,” Israel Exploration Journal 7 (1957) 1-60; Y. Yadin, The Excavations of Masada 1963-1964. Preliminary Report (1965).


hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Strabo, Geography, 16.2.24
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.15
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