Masada is a tall mountain with a flat plateau on top, longer than it is wide, rising high above the surrounding dry and arid desert. Hundreds of tourists per day now roam around the ruins on top of the mountain – half a million visit every year. It is the second most popular tourist site in Israel, after Jerusalem.
What we know about Masada relies largely on the reliability of Josephus. The first Jewish rebellion began in 66 CE, when the Jews in what is now Israel rose up against the Romans who were occupying their land. The revolt lasted until 70 CE, at which point the Romans captured Jerusalem and burnt most of it to the ground, including the Temple that had been built there by Herod the Great to replace the original one constructed by King Solomon, which had been destroyed by the Neo-Babylonians centuries earlier. It is said that both the First and Second Temples – that is, those built by Solomon and Herod, respectively – were destroyed on the same day of the year, which is today a Jewish day of mourning known as Tisha B’Av.
Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and it is thus believed to be a day which is destined for tragedy. Ironically Tisha B’Av is celebrated on the 9th of Av, which is the 11th month of the Hebrew civil year. Thus some have speculated that this points to Israel’s involvement in 9/11, the day two of America’s financial “temples” were destroyed, as if Israel was somehow vindicating itself by using this event to launch all out war in the Middle East.
Well, back to Masada. When the rebellion ended, a group of rebels managed to escape the destruction of Jerusalem and settled at Masada. Led by a man named Eleazar ben Ya’ir, these were the Sicarii. They took over the fortified buildings and palaces that Herod had originally built on top of Masada as a place of last refuge.
The Romans then laid siege to Masada. In the midst of the siege, the Jewish defenders decided to kill themselves rather than be killed or taken prisoner and enslaved by the Romans. Josephus wrote that Eleazar asked each family man to kill his own wife and children, declaring: ‘[I]t is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom, which has not been the case of others, who were conquered unexpectedly.’
The men then drew lots, choosing 10 of their number to kill all the others. The 10 then drew lots and selected one to kill the other nine. He then killed himself, thereby becoming the only person to commit suicide, technically speaking, which is against Jewish law. In effect, though, it was a mass suicide and when the Romans entered the next morning, they were greeted by a vast silence. Only when two women and five children emerged from their hiding place in a cistern did the Romans learn the truth of what had happened, for the women told them of Eleazar’s speech, repeating it word for word. According to Josephus, 960 people died that night.
The dramatic story has reverberated through the ages until the present day. read the rest of the article