One week before Israel celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, its national independence day, we toured a 2,000-year old symbol of the awful sacrifice made to achieve it.
Masada rises like a golden monument above the Judean Desert, its proud columns and bright frescoes narrate an elegance more than 2,000-years old.
The sturdy stone walls that surround the Masada tell the contrasting story of a legend that gave birth to national rallying cries.
“Masada shall not fall again” and “Never again Masada.”
According to Roman historian Josephus Flavius’ 66 CE account, in 73 CE nearly 1,000 Jewish men, women and children, who by some accounts had fended off a three-year siege by Roman invaders, died on Masada when their leader determined that suicide would be more noble than defeat because life as a Roman slave was no life at all.
“I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom,” he reportedly said.
Some say a poem written in 1920 about Masada inspired the 1943 Warsaw Uprising in which a small group of young Polish Jews held off the massive German army for 63 days.
Our guide Asher, a retired Israeli combat soldier and father of two, led us through the majestic ruins and told the dramatic story of its tragic past. He eloquently noted that the Jewish faith does not condone violence.
“Jewish people prove their manhood with words, not weapons,” he said, referring to the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony in which 13-year olds read passages from the five books of Moses.
Modern Jews relate to Rabbi Johanan Ben- Zakai, who fled Jerusalem, came in front of Roman Emperor Vespasian and asked to be given a place where Jews can worship without fighting.
While Masada owes its legend to Flavius’ disturbing tale, it traces its permanence to Herod the Great.
Masada once served as Herod’s winter retreat and its sophisticated aqueducts with 12 cisterns provide an impressive glimpse into the king’s genius. He built a four-star retreat, complete with mosaic tiled bath houses, courtyards and an elaborate stone pigeon coop.
All of this rises above an intimidating stone cliff and amid the harshest terrain.
A Unesco World Heritage site, Masada offers profound insight into an ancient civilization determined to be free.