Masada Falls Yet Stands

6 Apr

My family and I are stationed at the base of Mt. Masada to buy cable car tickets.  After a three-minute ride inside a crowded car with some one-hundred eager tourists, we’re whisked to the very top.  We are released into the thick, still air.  The Dead Sea shimmers in the east.  The sun pounds the chalk-white terrain.  To describe the landscape is to describe the craters of the moon.  Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 could have easily practiced his lunar walk around here.

Masada Cable Car

Masada Cable Car

Map of Masada

Map of Masada Plateau

Tourists disperse on the wide plateau, their maps unfolded, their eyes searching for 2000 year-old antiquities.  They follow their tour guides who speak of King Herod’s palatial rooms, mosaic floors, and bathhouses atop Masada.  French, Spanish and English is heard everywhere.  The guides are retelling the heroic story of the Jews against the Roman Empire.  The few against the many.  The narrative goes something like this: The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.  The remaining Jews escaped to the Judean Desert and took refuge on Masada.  The Romans lay siege to the place.  The Jews put up a good fight but in the end the Romans breached the fortress walls only to find that the 960 men, women and children had committed suicide, choosing death over slavery.

The End.

Or is it?

For years Masada stood for bravery in the Israeli consciousness.  The mountain and its story had forged a new generation of hard-core Israelis, much different from the submissive Jews of the Diaspora.  “Masada shall never fall again!” was chanted at school rallies, in the army.

Back view of Herod's Palace

The climb to King Herod’s palace

The drum beat today is not as loud.  Attendance by Israelis at Masada is at an all-time low.  Paratroopers who once celebrated the end of their training at the top of Masada choose today to celebrate the event at the Western Wall and elsewhere.

Why the change?

The seeds were already planted in 1946, by Ben Gurion, who was to be Israel’s first prime minister in 1948.  He didn’t care for all that “suicide” story.  To win the battle against the Arabs, he advised his men to fight to the bitter end.  To him Masada was a symbol of hopeless resistance.

In the 70s the American State Department urged Golda Meir, the then prime minister, to ditch the “Masada Complex.”  In other words, to ditch the view that everyone’s after the Jews, that they’re one step away from extinction.  Golda shot back and said, “We suffer from the Masada Complex, the Pogrom Complex, the Hitler Complex.”

Menachem Begin, the hard-line prime-minster who’d eventually signed a peace treaty with Egypt, he too didn’t care much for the suicide narrative.

The attitude towards Masada and its significance is changing.  Maybe it has to do with Israel now being all grown up.  It doesn’t need a hard-luck story to justify its existence.  And there’s also archeology and historical data.  They are now being questioned.

Take, for example, the number of Jews killed or committed suicide.  Yigael Yadin, Israel’s renowned archeologist of the 1960s, led a highly public excavation of Masada, partly funded by the English newspaper, The Observer.  Three human remains were found.  The hair braids of one woman were also found.  Yadin claimed they were Jewish.  After much Rabbinical debate, the remains were given a proper Jewish burial ceremony.  Years later, after further forensic investigation, it is believed they were Romans.  Twenty-eight other human fragments were also found.  With them, pig bones were buried, a typical Roman burial ritual.

View from Masada plateau

View from Masada plateau

So where are the Jews?  We live in an age when we want quick answers and want all the puzzle pieces to fit nicely.  Their absence doesn’t mean they weren’t there.  It just means, for now, they weren’t found.  Or they were carried away, disposed of, burned.  Or…put in your own theory.

And what about the drawn-out siege that lasted almost three years, until 74 A.D.?  It is now believed the siege lasted several weeks or months at best.  The slopes of the mountain are steep and impassable on all sides, except the western.  The Romans with their 10,000 warriors, auxiliary fighters, Jewish POW, and slaves dumped thousands of tons of rocks and stones to create a ramp to the top.  It was all over sooner rather than later.

Cooling off at Ein Gedi Falls

Cooling off at Ein Gedi Falls

And what about the heroic Jews who chose death over slavery?  The fighters were called the Sicarii, or the dagger-men.  For good reason.  The conventional story was that they fled burning Jerusalem and took refuge on King Herod’s abandoned place – MASADA.  Many now believe they were driven out, kicked out of Jerusalem, because they were blood-thirsty trouble-makers.  Before being holed-up in Masada, these Sicarii men had raided Ein Gedi, a Jewish desert oasis, killed its 700 inhabitants, then looted their food and provisions.

Then there’s the suicide?  Did it happen?  Eleazar Ben Yair, the Sicarii leader, proposed drawing a lot, a “Roman Roulette” of sorts.  The men would first kill off their wives so they will not be defiled by the Romans.  Then the men killed each other off.  Only the last man standing committed suicide.  The story tells of “one old lady” who survived to tell of the horror.  In fact, Josephus Flavius, the Jewish-Roman historian stationed in Rome and the only known person to write about Masada, in Greek, spoke of 7 survivors…

Lastly, what business did the Romans have in this desolate, remote, barren place?  Weren’t they better off splashing water on each other’s back in some bathhouse in Rome?  Weren’t they better off nibbling on a bunch of grapes and watching gladiators fight in the arena?  Why trek across a harsh desert to chase after a few hoodlums?  It can only be that it was all part of the Roman war machine.  No one takes over a fortress and calls it its own.  It all belongs to Rome.  The cost in human lives, in material was inconsequential.  Punish and all will learn.  All will fear.

For 1900 years Masada stood as a rock in a desert until it was “discovered”.

Rome fell and is long gone.

Yet Masada stands.

Israel stands.

Two hours later we take the cable car down, see the minerals fog lift off from the face of the Dead Sea.

“How about lunch?” I ask.

“Yeah, Dad, we’re hungry!”

“Roman pizza, anyone?”

Maybe something Roman did survive.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teen-age daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at or


9 Responses to “Masada Falls Yet Stands”

  1. Sandy Galfas April 6, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Good post, Maurice. As always. 🙂 Sandy

  2. Mark April 6, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    Very insightful interpretation and explanation modern day take on Israel’s view of Ghetto mentality. I never knew about the Sicariis. They sound like a biblical version of gangsters in the ‘hood.

  3. Alan Bockal April 6, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    How come in the pictures you don’t include your daughters and your wife?

  4. rachel bar April 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Little by little I learn that most of our known history is based on a myth. First it was Passover, and now Masada? Bummer.

  5. Meg April 10, 2013 at 1:40 am #

    “History” is always written by the winners – to their advantage. Like the blogs, keep ’em coming & cheers

  6. kenyaleohomes April 10, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    i loved it! especially where everything comes written in three languages….

  7. WALLY April 18, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    HI MA

  8. Michelle May 5, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    Does this mean that the pilgrims and Native Americans weren’t sitting around a campfire singing kumbaya? Thanks for bursting my bubble, Dad!

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