), a very strong fortress of Palestine, mentioned by Strabo and Pliny, but much more fully described by Josephus. Strabo mentions it in connection with the phaenomena of the Dead Sea, saying that there are indications of volcanic action in the rugged burnt rocks about Moasada (Μοασάδα
). Pliny describes it as situated on a rock not far from the lake Asphaltis. (Strab. xvi. p.764
; Plin. Nat. 5.17
The description of Josephus, in whose histories it plays a conspicuous part, is as follows :--A lofty rock of considerable extent, surrounded on all sides by precipitous valleys of frightful depth, afforded difficult access only in two parts; one on the east, towards the lake Asphaltis, by a zigzag path, scarcely practicable and extremely dangerous, called “the Serpent,” from its sinuosities; the other more easy, towards the west, on which side the isolated rock was more nearly approached by the hills.
The summit of the rock was not pointed, but a plane of 7 stadia in circumference, surrounded by a wall of white stone, 12 cubits high and 8 cubits thick, fortified with 37 towers of 50 cubits in height.
The wall was joined within by large buildings connected with the towers, designed for barracks and magazines for the enormous stores and munitions of war which were laid up in this fortress.
The remainder of the area, not occupied by buildings, was arable, the soil being richer and more genial than that of the plain below; and a further provision was thus made for the garrison in case of a failure of supplies from without.
The rain-water was preserved in large cisterns excavated in the solid rock.
A palace on a grand scale occupied the north-west ascent, on a lower level than the fortress, but connected with it by covered passages cut in the rock.
This was adorned within with porticoes and baths, supported by monolithic columns; the walls and floor were covered with tesselated work.
At the distance of 1000 cubits from the fortress a massive tower guarded the western approach at its narrowest and most difficult point, and thus completed the artificial defences of this most remarkable site, which nature had rendered almost impregnable. Jonathan, the high-priest, had been the first to occupy this rock as a fortress, but it was much strengthened and enlarged by Herod the Great, who designed it as a refuge for himself, both against his own disaffected subjects, and particularly against the more dreaded designs of Cleopatra, who was constantly importuning Antony to put her in possession of the kingdom of Judaea by removing Herod out of the way.
It was in this fortress that the unfortunate Mariamne and other members of Herod's family were left for security, under his brother Joseph and a small garrison, when he was driven from Jerusalem by Antigonus and his Parthian allies.
The fortress was besieged by the Parthians, and Joseph was on the point of surrendering for want of water, when a timely shower filled the cisterns and enabled the garrison to hold out until it was relieved by Herod on his return from his successful mission to Rome.
It next figures in the history of the Jewish revolt, having been occupied first by Manahem, son of Judas the Galilean, a ringleader of the sicarii,
who took it by treachery, and put the Roman garrison to the sword; and afterwards by Eleazar and his partisans, a rival faction of the same murderous fanatics, by whom it was held for some time after Jerusalem itself had fallen; and here it was that the last scene of that awful tragedy was enacted under circumstances singularly characteristic of the spirit of indomitable obstinacy and endurance that had actuated the Jewish zealots throughout the whole series of their trials and sufferings.
It was the only stronghold that still held out when Flavius Silva succeeded Bassus as prefect in Judaea (A.D. 73).
The first act of the general was to surround the fortress with a wall, to prevent the escape of the garrison. Having distributed sentries along this line of circumvallation, he pitched his own camp on the west, where the rock was most nearly approached by the mountains, and was therefore more open to assault; for the difficulty of procuring provisions and water for his soldiers did not allow him to attempt a protracted blockade, which the enormous stores of provisions and water still found there by Eleazar would have enabled the garrison better to endure. Behind the tower which guarded the ascent was a prominent rock of considerable size and height, though 300 cubits lower than the wall of the fortress, called the White Cliff. On this a bank of 200 cubits' height was raised, which formed a base for a platform (βῆμα
) of solid masonry, 50 cubits in width and height, on which was placed a tower similar in construction to those invented and employed in sieges by Vespasian and Titus, covered with plates of iron, which reached an additional 60 cubits, so as to dominate the wall of the castle, which was quickly cleared of its defenders by the showers of missiles discharged from the scorpions and balistae.
The outer wall soon yielded to the ram, when an inner wall was discovered to have been constructed by the garrison--a framework of timber filled with soil, which became more solid and compact by the concussions of the ram.
This, however, was speedily fired.
The assault was fixed for the morrow, when the garrison prevented the swords of the Romans by one of the most cold-blooded and atrocious massacres on record.
At the instigation of Eleazar, they first slew every man his wife and children; then having [p. 2.288]
collected the property into one heap, and destroyed it all by fire, they cast lots for ten men, who should act as executioners of the others, while they lay in the embrace of their slaughtered families. One was then selected by lot to slay the other nine survivors; and he at last, having set fire to the palace, with a desperate effort drove his sword completely through his own body, and so perished.
The total number, including women and children, was 960.
An old woman, with a female relative of Eleazar and five children, who had contrived to conceal themselves in the reservoirs while the massacre was being perpetrated, survived, and narrated these facts to the astonished Romans when they entered the fortress on the following morning and had ocular demonstration of the frightful tragedy.
The scene of this catastrophe has been lately recovered, and the delineations of the artist and the description of the traveller have proved in this, as in so many other instances, the injustice of the charge of exaggeration and extravagance so often preferred against the Jewish historian., Mr. Eli Smith was the first in modern times to suggest the identity of the modern Sebbeh,
with the Masada of Josephus.
He had only viewed it at a distance, from the cliffs above Engeddi, in company with Dr. Robinson (Biblical Researches,
vol. iii. p. 242, n. 1); but it was visited and fully explored, in 1842, by Messrs. Woolcot and Tipping, from whose descriptions the following notices are extracted.
The first view of it from the west strikingly illustrates the accuracy of Strabo's description of its site. “Rocky precipices of a rich reddish-brown colour surrounded us; and before us, across a scorched and desolate tract, were the cliff of Sebbeh,
with its ruins, the adjacent height with rugged defiles between, and the Dead Sea lying motionless in its bed beneath.
The aspect of the whole was that of lonely and stern grandeur.” So on quitting the spot they found the ground “sprinkled with volcanic stones.” The base of the cliff is separated from the water by a shoal or sand-bank; and the rock projects beyond the mountain range, and is completely isolated by a valley, even on the west side, where alone “the rock can now be climbed: the pass on the east described by Josephus seems to have been swept away.
The language of that historian respecting the loftiness of the site, is not very extravagant.
It requires firm nerves to stand over its steepest sides and look directly down.
The depth at these points cannot be less than 1000 feet. . . . . .
The whole area we estimated at three-quarters of a mile in length from N. to S., and a third of a mile in breadth. On approaching the rock from the west, the ‘ white promontory,’ as Josephus appropriately calls it, is seen on this side near the northern end.
This is the point where the siege was pressed and carried. Of ‘the wall built round about the entire top of the hill by King Herod,’ all the lower part remains. Its colour is of the same dark red as the rock, though it is said to have been ‘ composed of white stone ;’ but on breaking the stone, it appeared that it was naturally whitish, and had been burnt brown by the sun.” The ground-plan of the storehouses and barracks can still be traced in the foundations of the buildings on the summit, and the cisterns excavated in the natural rock are of enormous dimensions: one is mentioned as nearly 50 feet deep, 100 long, and 45 broad; its wall still covered with a white cement.
The foundations of a round tower, 40 or 50 feet below the northern summit, may have been connected with the palace, and the windows cut in the rock near by, which Mr. Woolcot conjectures to have belonged to some large cistern, now covered up, may possibly have lighted the rockhewn gallery by which the palce communicated with the fortress. From the summit of the rock every part of the wall of circumvallation could be traced,--carried along the low ground, and, wherever it met a precipice, commencing again on the high summit above, thus making the entire circuit of the place. Connected with it, at intervals, were the walls of the Roman camps, opposite the NW. and SE. corners, the former being the spot where Josephus places that of the Roman general.
A third may be traced on the level near the shere.
The outline of the works, as seen from the heights above, is as complete as if they had been but recently abandoned. the Roman wall is 6 feet broad, built, like the fortress walls and buildings above, with rough stones laid lossely together, and the interstices filled in with small pieces of stone.
The wall is half a mile or more distant from the rock, so as to be without range of the stones discharged by the garrison. No water was to be found in the neighbourhood but such as the recent rains had left in the hollows of the rocks; confirming the remark of Josephus, that water as well as food was brought thither to the Roman army from a distance. Its position is exactly opposite to the peninsula that runs into the Dead Sea from its eastern shore, towards its southern extremity. (Bibiotheca Sacra,
1843, pp. 62--67; Traill's Josephus,
vol. ii. pp. 109-115: the plates are given in vol. i. p. 126, vol. ii. pp. 87, 238.)
It must be admitted that the identification of Sebbeh
with Masada is most complete, and the vindication of the accuracy of the Jewish historian, narvellous as his narrative appears without confirmation, so entire as to leave no doubt that he was himself familiarly acquainted with the fortress.