. . . your guide to visiting the holy places  
If you have found See the Holy Land helpful and would like to support our work, please make a secure donation.
The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

Machaerus

Jordan

 

The hilltop fortress of Machaerus, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea and 53 kilometres southwest of Amman, is recorded as the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded.

Machaerus

Herod’s stronghold of Machaerus (© Visitjordan)

John preached a baptism of repentance at the Jordan River and foretold the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who was his cousin.

He also criticised Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee and Perea, for unlawfully marrying his half-brother’s wife, Herodias — thereby earning her enmity.

Herod Antipas imprisoned John, but Mark’s Gospel says he protected him, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man”, and “liked to listen to him” (6:20).

The governor’s birthday banquet for the leaders of Galilee gave Herodias her opportunity to get rid of John. Her daughter, Salome, danced for the gathering and so enthralled Herod that he offered her whatever she wanted — “even half of my kingdom” (6:23).

Machaerus

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1531 (The Yorke Project)

Salome, who was probably no older than 14 (so her dance might not have been the erotic performance usually imagined), sought her mother’s advice and then asked for John the Baptist’s head.

Herod, “deeply grieved”, gave the order. John was executed and his head brought in “on a platter”. John’s disciples took away his body for burial. (6:26-29)

According to the historian Josephus, John’s execution took place at Machaerus. An early Christian tradition says his body was buried at Sebastiya in Samaria, which Orthodox Christians believe was also the venue for the banquet.

 

Herod built ‘breathtaking’ palace

Machaerus (the name means “black fortress”) was one of a series of hilltop strongholds established by Herod the Great — the father of Antipas — along the edge of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea.

Machaerus

Ruins of Herod’s palace on Machaerus (© Dan Gibson)

Protected on three sides by deep ravines, it afforded seclusion and safety in times of political unrest. Fire signals linked Machaerus to Herod’s other fortresses and to Jerusalem.

On top of the mountain, more than 1100 metres above the Dead Sea, Herod erected a fortress wall with high corner towers. In the centre he built a palace that was “breathtaking in size and beauty”, according to Josephus. Numerous cisterns were dug to collect rainwater.

When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, Machaerus passed to his son Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea (an area on the eastern side of the Jordan River) until AD 39.

 

Jesus appeared before Antipas

Herod Antipas had married Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas of Nabatea, the kingdom whose capital was Petra. But while visiting Rome in AD 26 he stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip I and fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias.

When Phasaelis learnt that Antipas intended to divorce her and marry Herodias, she obtained permission to visit Machaerus and from there fled to her father in Nabatea.

Machaerus

Herod Antipas, by James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Antipas’s rejection of Phasaelis added a personal note to existing disputes with King Aretas over the boundary of Perea and Nabatea. In AD 36 Aretas attacked Antipas and completely destroyed his army.

According to Josephus, some of the Jews saw this devastating defeat as divine retribution for killing John the Baptist.

Some time before the war with Aretas, Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and brought before Pontius Pilate. When Pilate learnt that Jesus came from Galilee, he sent him to Herod Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.

Luke’s Gospel says Antipas “had been wanting to see him for a long time” and “was hoping to see him perform some sign”. He questioned Jesus at length, but Jesus gave no answer. Antipas then mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate in an elegant robe. (23:8-11)

Romans captured fortress by deception

In AD 39 Herod Antipas was accused of conspiring against the Roman emperor Caligula, who exiled him to Gaul.

At the time of the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73), Machaerus was in the hands of Jewish rebels. Roman forces took the fortress only by deception — they captured a young Jewish defender and threatened to crucify him if the rebels did not surrender.

Machaerus

Columns from Herod’s palace on Machaerus (© Dan Gibson)

When the rebels agreed to abandon Machaerus, the Romans systematically dismantled the Herodian fortifications.

Excavations at the site have uncovered remains of Herod’s palace, including rooms designed around a central courtyard, an elaborate bath and floor mosaics.

Below the hilltop ruins on the eastern side is the village of Mukawir, where excavations have found evidence of three Byzantine churches built in the 6th century.

 

In Scripture

Herod Antipas executes John the Baptist: Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 14:1-12; Luke 3:18-20

Jesus appears before Herod Antipas: Luke 23:8-11

 

References

Brisco, Thomas: Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
Cox, Ronald: The Gospel Story (CYM Publications, 1950)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Kilgallen, John J.: A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land (Loyola Press, 1998)
Maier, Paul L. (trans.): Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel Publications, 1988)
Meyers, Carol L., Craven, Toni, and Kraemer, Ross S. (eds): Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)

 

External links

The Fortress of Machaerous (Franciscan Archaeological Institute)
Mukawir Fortress (Nabataea.net)

Sebastiya

West Bank

In the Palestinian village of Sebastiya, Christians and Muslims alike honour a connection to John the Baptist at a location earlier known for the worship of Phoenician gods and a Roman emperor.

Sebastiya

Cathedral of St John the Baptist, with tomb crypt under dome in centre (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Sebastiya (with various spellings including Sebaste and Sebastia) is about 12 kilometres northwest of Nablus, to the east of the road to Jenin.

An early Christian tradition, from the first half of the 4th century, says John the Baptist’s disciples buried his body here after he was beheaded by Herod Antipas during the infamous banquet at which Salome’s dance enthralled the governor (Mark 6:21-29).

An Orthodox Christian tradition holds that Sebastiya was also the venue for the governor’s birthday banquet, though the historian Josephus says it was in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, in modern-day Jordan.

Sebastiya

Village of Sebastiya (Shuki / Wikipedia)

Overlooking the present village of Sebastiya are the hilltop ruins of the royal city of Samaria. The city is mentioned more than 100 times in the Bible. Excavations have uncovered evidence of six successive cultures: Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine.

The surrounding hill-country, its slopes etched by ancient terracing, has changed little in thousands of years.

When the early Christian community dispersed during the persecution that followed the martyrdom of St Stephen, the deacon Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria and was joined there by the apostles Peter and John.

 

City renamed by Herod the Great

Omri, the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built his capital on the rocky hill of Samaria in the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ.

His son Ahab fortified the city and, influenced by his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, built temples to the Phoenician gods Baal and Astarte. Ahab’s evil deeds incurred the wrath of the prophet Elijah, who prophesied bloody deaths for both Ahab and Jezebel.

Sebastiya

Steps to where the Temple of Augustus stood (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

During its eventful history, Samaria was destroyed by Assyrians in 722 BC (ending the northern kingdom of Israel), captured by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, destroyed by the Maccabean King John Hyrcanus in 108 BC, and rebuilt by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC.

Herod the Great expanded the city around 25 BC, renaming it Sebaste in honour of his patron Caesar Augustus (Sebaste is Greek for Augustus). Herod even built a temple dedicated to his patron, celebrated one of his many marriages in the city, and had two of his sons strangled there.

The pattern of destruction and rebuilding continued during the early Christian era. Sebaste became the seat of a bishop in the 4th century, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century, flourished briefly under the Crusaders in the 12th century, then declined to the status of a village.

 

Pagans desecrated John’s tomb

Christian sources dating back to the 4th century place John the Baptist’s burial at Sebastiya, along with the remains of the prophets Elisha and Obadiah.

Sebastiya

Crypt of the reputed tomb of John the Baptist (bottom centre) and other prophets (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Around 390, while translating the Onomasticon (directory) of the holy places compiled by Eusebius, St Jerome describes Samaria/Sebaste as “where the remains of John the Baptist are guarded”.

By then, according to a contemporary account by the historian Rufinus of Aquileia around 362, pagans had desecrated the tomb during a persecution of Christians under emperor Julian the Apostate. The Baptist’s remains were burnt and the ashes dispersed, but passing monks saved some bones.

In the 6th century two urns covered in gold and silver were venerated by pilgrims. One was said to contain relics of John the Baptist, the other relics of Elisha.

Two churches were built during the Byzantine period. One was on the southern side of the Roman acropolis (on the site the Orthodox Church believes John was beheaded).

Sebastiya

Greek Orthodox church, with apse at right and entrance to underground cave in centre (© Sebastiya Municipality)

The other church, a cathedral built over the Baptist’s reputed tomb, was just east of the old city walls and within the present village. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, it became the second biggest church in the Holy Land (after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).

But after the Islamic conquest of 1187 the cathedral was transformed into a mosque dedicated to the prophet Yahya, the Muslim name for John the Baptist. The mosque, rebuilt in 1892 within the ruins of the cathedral, is still in use.

Tomb is under cathedral ruins

Sebastiya

Walls of Cathedral of St John the Baptist (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Pilgrims still visit the tomb associated with John the Baptist and other prophets. Under a small domed building in the cathedral ruins, a narrow flight of 21 steps leads down to a tomb chamber with six burial niches set in the wall. Tradition places John the Baptist’s relics in the lower row, between those of Elisha and Obadiah.

The remains of the cathedral’s huge buttressed walls dominate Sebastiya’s public square.

In the extensive archaeological park at the top of the hill are remnants of Ahab’s palace, identified by the discovery of carved ivory that was mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 22:39). The ivory pieces are displayed in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

Sebastiya

Visitors and residents during Sebastiya’s first Heritage Day in 2010 (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Also to be seen are the stone steps leading to Herod the Great’s temple of Augustus, an 800-metre colonnaded street, a Roman theatre and forum, and a city gate flanked by two watchtowers.

Interest in Sebastiya’s heritage and community — now entirely Muslim except for one Christian family — has been revived in the early 21st century by a project involving the Franciscan non-profit organisation ATS Pro Terra Sancta, funded by Italian aid.

 

In Scripture

King Omri moves his capital to Samaria: 1 Kings 16:23-24

Ahab erects an altar for Baal: 1 Kings 16:32

Ahab’s ivory house: 1 Kings 22:39

John the Baptist is beheaded: Mark 6:21-29

Philip preaches in Samaria: Acts 8:5

Peter and John go to Samaria: Acts 8:14

 

 

References

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brisco, Thomas: Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Saltini, Tommaso (ed.): Sabastiya — The fruits of history and the memory of John the Baptist (ATS Pro Terra Sancta exhibition catalogue, 2011)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)

 

External links

Sebastia in the news (ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

 

Magdala

Israel

 

Magdala was a major first-century port on the Sea of Galilee, a centre of trade and commerce, and an exporter of salted fish to markets as far away as Europe. Archaeological discoveries early in the 21st century have made it a burgeoning pilgrimage destination.

Magdala

Mary Magdalene by Pietro Perugino (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)

Magdala’s fame down the centuries rested on one notable person, Mary Magdalene. This enigmatic woman — revered as a saint by the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches — was one of the few persons named in the Gospels as being present at Christ’s crucifixion and the first recorded witness of his Resurrection.

Whether she lived in Magdala or was simply born there is unknown, but she was apparently a wealthy woman.

The city, on the western side of the Sea of Galilee between Tiberias and Capernaum, is mentioned only once in the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew (15:39) says Jesus went there by boat — but even this reference is uncertain, since some early manuscripts give the name as Magadan.

Synagogue uncovered at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Synagogue uncovered at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Both Matthew and Mark say Jesus preached in synagogues “throughout Galilee”, and Magdala was only 10 kilometres from Capernaum, where he based his ministry.

The Jewish historian Josephus says Magdala had a population of 40,000 people and a fleet of 230 boats about 30 years after Jesus died.

 

Mary was called ‘apostle of the apostles’

Magdala

Carved stone decorated with menorah (© Moshe Hartal, Israel Antiquities Authority)

All four Gospels refer to a close follower of Jesus called Mary Magdalene. Luke says she had been cured of “seven demons” and he lists her first among the women who accompanied Jesus and supported his ministry from their own resources (8:2-3).

After Jesus died she was one of the women who took spices for anointing to the tomb. They found the tomb empty, but “two men in dazzling clothes” gave them the news that Jesus had risen. (Luke 24:1-12)

Later Jesus appeared to Mary. At first she thought he was the gardener, but she recognised him when he spoke her name. Then she announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”. (John 20:1-18)

By the 3rd century, Mary Magdalene was described by the theologian Hippolytus of Rome as the “apostle of the apostles”.

 

Identity became confused

Jesus casting seven demons from Mary Magdalene, mosaic in Magdala church (Seetheholyland.net)

Jesus casting seven demons from Mary Magdalene, mosaic in Magdala church (Seetheholyland.net)

But Mary’s identity became confused in 591. In that year Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon which expressed his belief that the Mary who had been cured of seven demons was the same person as the penitent prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment (Luke 7:37-50) and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume (John 12:3-8).

A revision of the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969 reverted to the Eastern tradition of distinguishing Mary Magdalene from the reformed prostitute. By then, however, this persona had endeared her to artists down the centuries.

More recently, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code mined a rich lode of pseudo-Christian texts to present Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and co-founder of an arcane dynasty at odds with the institutional Church and its beliefs.

And what really became of Mary? A Greek tradition has her dying in Ephesus, with her relics preserved in Constantinople. A French tradition says she converted Provence to Christianity and her relics ended up in Vézelay Abbey in Burgundy, where they are still venerated.

 

City fought Romans on the sea

Magdala

Single-handled jug found at Magdala, dating to the Roman period (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The city that gave its name to Mary Magdalene became a fortified base for rebels during the First Jewish Revolt in AD 66-70, even engaging the Romans in a disastrous sea battle.

According to the historian Josephus — who commanded the Jewish forces in Galilee — the Sea of Galilee became red with blood and “full of dead bodies”. Of the survivors, emperor Vespasian sent 6000 to build a canal in Greece and ordered more than 30,000 to be sold as slaves.

Magdala continued as a much-reduced Jewish village during Roman and Byzantine times, and in more recent centuries as an Arab village until 1948. Mark Twain visited it in 1867, calling it “thoroughly ugly, and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable, and filthy”.

In the 4th century a church was built on the reputed site of Mary Magdalene’s house. Destroyed in the 7th century, it was rebuilt by Crusaders in the 12th century but was converted into a stable when the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land.

 

Port and city uncovered

Mosaic including boat discovered at Magdala (© Magdala Project)

Mosaic including boat discovered at Magdala (© Magdala Project)

Beginning in the 1960s, Franciscan archaeologists discovered Magdala’s ancient port and a city grid, with paved streets, water canals, a marketplace, villas and mosaics — one depicting a sailing boat.

Buried in the mud covering a thermal bath complex were ceramic crockery, perfume jars, jewellery, hairbrushes and combs, and bronze applicators for make-up.

The discovery of the massive foundations of a tower may account for the city’s name. Both Magdala in Aramaic and Migdal in Hebrew mean “tower”.

First-century synagogue identified

More archaeological remains were uncovered in 2009 on an adjacent property newly acquired by the Legion of Christ to establish a hotel, institute for women and retreat centre. The Legion, a Catholic congregation, manages the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.

Ritual baths at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Ritual baths at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Three interconnected ritual baths were discovered, the first found in Israel using groundwater from springs — which for purification purposes was considered “living water” — rather than rainwater.

In the remains of one building, under a thin layer of soil, excavators found a stone block engraved with motifs including a seven-branched menorah, the type of lampstand used in the Temple. This significant find led to the identification of the building as a synagogue.

Boat-shaped altar in Duc in Altum church at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Boat-shaped altar in Duc in Altum church at Magdala (Seetheholyland.net)

Unlike other first-century synagogues found in Galilee, the Magdala building had ornate mosaics and frescoes.

In 2014 the Legion opened a new church on the site, simple in design but also rich in mosaics and murals, focusing especially on women in the Bible. It is named Duc in Altum (Latin for “Put out into the deep”, from Christ’s words in Luke 5:4). The altar is in the shape of a first-century boat, standing in front of an infinity pool leading the eye to the lake beyond.

In the crypt is an ecumenical worship space, called the Encounter Chapel, paved with stones from Magdala’s first-century marketplace.

 

Jesus Boat found nearby

Magdala’s port, now submerged in the beach, had a stone breakwater that extended into the sea and curved around the harbour to protect boats from the sudden storms that buffet the Sea of Galilee.

In 1986 the hull of the so-called Jesus Boat, a fishing boat old enough to have been in use during the time of Christ, was found in the lakebed near the ancient port of Magdala.

 

In Scripture:

Jesus visits Magdala by boat: Matthew 15:39

Mary cured of seven demons: Luke 8:2

Mary supports Jesus’ ministry: Luke 8:3

Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18

Mary announces the Resurrection to the disciples: John 20:18

 

Administered by: Legion of Christ

Tel.: +972 2 627-9111

Magdala Center: +972-057-226-1469 Tel/Fax: +972-04-620-9900

Open: 8am-6pm

 

 

References

Bagatti, Bellarmino: Ancient Christian Villages of Galilee (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, 1999).
Caffulli, Giuseppe: “Precious Fragrances”, Holy Land Review (Spring 2009)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Corbett, Joey: “New Synagogue Excavations In Israel and Beyond”, Biblical Archaeological Review (July/August 2011)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Lofenfeld Winkler, Lea, and Frenkel, Ramit: The Boat and the Sea of Galilee (Gefen Publishing House, 2010)
Merk, August: “Magdala”, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1910)
Nun, Mendel: “Ports of Galilee”, Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 1999)
Reich, Ronny, and Zapata Meza, Marcela: “A Preliminary Report on the Miqwa’ot of Migdal”, Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 64, no. 1, 2014
Shanks, Hershel: “Major New Excavation Planned for Mary Magdalene’s Hometown”, Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 2007)
Twain, Mark: The Innocents Abroad (Wordsworth, 2010)

 

 

External links

Magdala Center (Legion of Christ)
Magdala Project (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum)
Mary Magdalene (Wikipedia)

Masada

Israel

Masada

View from Masada to the Dead Sea (Tom Callinan / Seetheholyland.net)

The rocktop fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea has been invested with a quasi-religious significance as a symbol of resistance for the people of Israel.

Once a palatial refuge for Herod the Great, this massive plateau on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert is better known as the location of a Roman siege against Jewish rebels in AD 74.

The story of 960 defenders choosing self-inflicted death rather than surrender has achieved legendary status for the Jewish people, though scholars have questioned its credibility.

Masada’s symbolic status was boosted by a poem by Yitzchak Lamdan, published in 1927, and by extensive excavations by soldier-archaeologist Yigael Yadin.

Masada’s summit may be reached by a tortuous “snake path” (which takes a fit person 45 minutes), by a path up the Roman siege ramp (15 minutes) or by a modern cable car.

The view across the Dead Sea 450 metres below is spectacular. After Jerusalem, Masada is Israel’s most popular tourist attraction.

 

Herod lived in luxury

Masada

Bathhouse with under-floor heating (Seetheholyland.net)

Masada’s flat-topped shape has been aptly described by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor as “curiously like an aircraft-carrier moored to the western cliffs of the Dead Sea”.

The north-facing prow of this warship consists of the ruins of Herod’s luxurious residential palace. Elaborately designed and decorated, it cascaded in three tiers down the cliff face, each tier connected by a rock-cut staircase.

On the western side of the warship’s 550m by 275m deck are the remains of Herod’s ceremonial palace and administrative centre. The largest building on Masada, it covered nearly half a hectare.

Herod planned Masada as a palace stronghold and desert foxhole, and fortified it with walls, gates and towers. He wanted a place of refuge in case the Jews should rebel against him, or the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra (who coveted Judea) should try to have him killed.

Herod’s creature comforts include bathhouses and a swimming pool. The most elaborate bathhouse had a hot room with the floor suspended on low pillars. Hot air from a furnace was circulated under the floor and through clay pipes in the walls.

To supply water in this arid setting, a sophisticated system channelled winter rainfall from nearby wadis into huge cisterns quarried low into the northwest of the mountain. Water was then carried by men and beasts of burden up winding paths to reservoirs on the summit. The lower cisterns alone are estimated to have a capacity of 38,000 cubic metres.

 

Romans besieged the fortress

Masada

Seige ramp at Masada (Seetheholyland.net)

In AD 66, at the beginning of the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, a group of Jewish extremists called Sicarii overran the Roman garrison stationed on Masada. By then, Herod had been dead for 70 years.

According to the historian Josephus, the Sicarii were unlikely heroes who attacked local villages. In a night raid for food on the Jewish settlement of En-Gedi, 17km away, he says the Sicarii killed more than 700 Jewish settlers, including women and children, during Passover.

The Roman governor Lucius Flavius Silva waited until Jerusalem had fallen before taking the Tenth Legion to Masada in 72-73. Laying siege to the fortress, he established eight fortified camps linked by a ditch and wall around Masada, then built a ramp on top of a natural bedrock spur to reach the summit.

Up the ramp the Romans rolled an iron-sheathed siege tower, with rapid-firing catapults and a huge battering ram to breach the fortress wall.

According to Josephus, when defeat was inevitable the leader of the Sicarii, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, gave two impassioned speeches persuading his companions to cast lots to kill each other rather than be taken prisoner.

He argued “it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends . . . let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us”.

When the Romans stormed the summit, they found the bodies of 960 occupants. The only survivors were two women and five children who had hidden in a cistern.

 

Josephus’ account is questioned

The only account of the fall of Masada and the mass suicide of its occupants comes from Josephus. Surprisingly, the Jewish rabbis who wrote the Talmud did not record the event.

A former Jewish rebel who joined the Romans after he was captured, Josephus lived through the Great Jewish Revolt and knew Silva personally. Like other historians of antiquity, however, he was known for his literary embellishments, and scholars have questioned the credibility of his dramatic account.

Would there have been time for Eleazar’s speeches, the drawing of lots and the organized killings as Masada fell? Would the survivors have been able to repeat the speeches verbatim to the Romans?

More pertinently, modern historians point to parallels between Eleazar’s second oration and a speech Josephus himself gave in similar circumstances when the fortified village of Jotapata, in northern Galilee, fell to the Romans after a siege and bloody battle in AD 67.

Josephus, who commanded the Jewish rebels in Galilee in that battle, tells of hiding in a cave with other survivors who drew lots to kill each other rather than surrender. One of the last two men standing — “should one say by fortune or by the providence of God?” — was the wily Josephus, who persuaded his companion to join him in surrendering.

Rather than accept the rhetoric of Josephus, modern historians favour a more chaotic climax at Masada, with some Sicarii fighting to the death, some taking their own lives and others trying to hide.

Furthermore, a research report in 2016 concluded that the ramp was never completed and therefore could not have been used to capture the fortress.

 

Restored buildings can be seen

Many of the buildings on Masada’s summit have been restored, including Herod’s bathhouses (a black line on the walls indicates where restoration began). Some have mosaic floors.

Remains of a synagogue used by the Sicarii and a church built by Byzantine monks in the 5th century have also been excavated. The monks lived in cells dispersed round the summit.

Silva’s siege works and ramp, including remains of the Roman wall and camps, can still be seen.

The skeletons of 28 people excavated in the 1960s — whether Sicarii or Roman soldiers is not proven — were given a state funeral at Masada with full military honours in 1969.

In the early decades of the Jewish state, recruits to Israel’s armed forces — in which service is compulsory for most citizens, male or female — climbed the snake path for a torchlight swearing-in ceremony ending with the declaration: “Masada shall not fall again!”

The ceremony was abandoned in 1986, according to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, because “Its underlying message of heroes who commit suicide no longer captured the imagination of a Jewish state which emphasised life, not death, and victory rather than defeat”.

 

Administered by: Israel National Parks Authority

Tel.: 08-658-4207/8

Open:

April–September 8 A.M.–5 P.M. October–March 8 A.M– 4 P.M. Fridays and holiday eves, site closes one hour earlier than above.

Cable-car hours: Sat.–Thurs.: 8 A.M.–4 P.M.; Friday and holiday eves 8 A.M.–2 P.M.; Yom Kippur eve 8 A.M.–noon.

 

 

References

Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Goldfus, H., et al.: “The significance of geomorphological and soil formation research for understanding the unfinished Roman ramp at Masada”, Catena, 2016
Hoffman, Lawrence A.: Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998)
McCormick, James R.: Jerusalem and the Holy Land (Rhodes & Eaton, 1997)
Maier, Paul L. (trans.): Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel Publications, 1988)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

The Wars of the Jews, by Josephus (Christian Classics Ethereal Library; chapters 8 and 9 describe the siege of Masada)
Masada: Desert Fortress Overlooking the Dead Sea (Jewish Virtual Library)
Masada (Bible Pictures)

 

All content © 2017, See the Holy Land | Site by Ravlich Consulting & Mustard Seed
You are welcome to promote site content and images through your own
website or blog, but please refer to our Terms of Service | Login