Although the site of the mountain fortress of Masada, the history of which was recorded by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, was “discovered” in 1842, the site was not excavated until the 1960s. The dig was led by Israeli Archeologist Yigael Yadin, who was joined by thousands of volunteers. Today, this incredible archeological site is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel.
According to Josephus, Masada was built around 35 BCE by Herod the Great, the Roman appointed king of Judea (of questionable Jewish heritage). Unpopular with the Jews (and extremely paranoid), Herod built the fortresses for his own protection–as a refuge in case of a popular uprising against him. When Herod died, a Roman garrison was established there.
In 66 CE, Jewish zealots in Jerusalem began the popular uprising that would ultimately result in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. During the initial revolt, a group of Jewish fighters overthrew the Roman garrison on Masada and occupied the fortress. When Jerusalem fell, four years later, they were joined by other Jewish refugees.
Fortified as Masada was, their store houses and supplies were limited and the rebels of Masada took to raiding other communities. They also used their stronghold as a base for guerilla attacks on the Romans. Within two years of the fall of Jerusalem, the Romans had had enough and laid siege to Masada.
Less than a year later, according to Josephus (who received his information from two women who hid during the slaughter), the Jews of Masada committed mass suicide by sword. Josephus’ account, in which his disagreement with the rebels’ choice of suicide is palpable,* occurred on the 15th of Nisan (the first day of Passover). Modern historians calculate this date as April 16.
*Indeed, Jewish law states that one may only sacrifice his/her life to avoid murder, idolatry or sexual immorality.
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