the battle(s) for Masada

Last year when I was in Israel, I was able to visit the site of Masada. They take archaeology seriously over there, and a lot of sites are made into national parks. They are all informative and well-kept, but Masada is clearly something special. Most sites had a small shed where you stopped to buy entry permits, Masada had an enormous, very nice building with multiple ticket windows, a large gift shop, concesssions, and so forth. Masada is, of course at the heart of Israeli nationalism, based on Josephus’ stirring account of the small group of Zealots who bravely defended Masada against a Roman siege, and finally preferred to die rather than become slaves to the Romans.

The Zealots were vastly outnumbered by the Romans, but when you are there it is clear that this site was eminently defensible: sheer cliffs rise nearly straight up from a wide plain. The Zealots re-used the wall and structures which had been built by Herod the Great as an oddly-located royal resort. The view is beautiful, and you could see incoming troops many miles in advance of their arrival. It is hot, breezy, and very dry up there, and it’s easy to start getting dehydrated in a very short period of time, so access to water was important, but Masada had a vast capacity for water and food storage.

The heroic tale of Masada based on Josephus’ account and supported by the work of the great Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin goes something like this, but there are some naysayers to this narrative. Nachman Ben-Yehuda deconstucts the Masada Myth and discusses how it has been used to bolster nationalism. Ben-Yahuda has also cast aspersions on archaeological work at Masada.

Whatever the truth of the story of the Zealots, Masada is a beautiful and impressive place; and one would have to be at least somewhat heroic to attempt to live there (currently, the two choices to ascend to the top of the site are the Snake Path, 900 feet in elevation–remember the temperature tops a dry 100 out there–or by cablecar). The main thing I wanted to post in regards to Masada, however, was this picture of the Roman seige tower from Masada. A picture like this was on display at the site, and we all commented on the resemblance to the Lord of the Rings.

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