Shared July 1, 2017
Although almost twenty-five years have passed since the end of Israel’s most ambitious archaeological undertaking, the name of this site, Masada, still exerts romantic appeal. For many Israelites and visitors to Israel, the isolated, flat-topped rock in the Judean Desert remains the most visible symbol of the power and significance of modern archaeology.
Excavations at Masada from 1963 to 1965 revealed the magnificent fortress-palace of King Herod the Great of Judea (37 to 4 BC). These excavations also exposed tragic evidence of the unsuccessful attempt by Jewish rebels to prevent Masada’s capture by the Romans in 74 AD.
Yet, in focusing almost entirely on the defenders, the modern archaeological explorers of Masada may have overlooked its true historical significance: Masada was the site of a brutally efficient, though cruelly successful, exercise in the techniques of Roman siege warfare.
And even today, we are still uncertain of the central event in the Great Revolt: the mass suicide of the Jewish Zealots. Did 960 defenders submit willingly to executioners chosen from their own number by lot, preferring death to surrender? According to recent archaeological research, the story of the mass suicide on Masada was the product of the creative imagination of a Jewish historian who sought to impress his educated audience with a chronicle written in an acceptable literary style.
Yet it may be that historical facts are only a small part of the great rock’s mystique. The tale of Masada remains such a meaningful parable for the modern, besieged state of Israel that it seems to have taken on a life of it’s own. And perhaps the discovery, preservation, and presentation of the mountain’s archaeological remains can reveal as much about modern Israel as they can about the country’s ancient history.
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