Who Knew? Masada: The Truth Be­hind the Leg­end

The story of mass sui­cide is part of Jewish lore. But arche­ol­o­gists are still dig­ging into the site’s his­tory.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ilan Ben Zion Ilan Ben Zion is a free­lance writer based in Is­rael. He has worked as a re­porter at The As­so­ci­ated Press and a news ed­i­tor at The Times of Is­rael.

Tour guides lead­ing thou­sands of vis­i­tors to Masada each year fol­low a sim­i­lar rou­tine: Where Ro­man troops breached the walls, they retell Jose­phus Flav­ius’s ac­count of how a group of ob­ses­sive, fa­nat­i­cal Jewish rebels re­fused to con­cede to servi­tude or slaugh­ter, and com­mit­ted sui­cide in­stead.

For decades, ar­chae­ol­ogy at the site has been call­ing the story of the sui­cide, so cen­tral to Is­rael’s na­tional myth, into ques­tion. Now new dis­cov­er­ies sug­gest that the group atop the fort was much more di­verse than the heroic band of brig­ands cel­e­brated by the cher­ished story.

“We’re ac­tu­ally ex­ca­vat­ing a refugee camp,” said Guy Stiebel, the ar­chae­ol­o­gist lead­ing ex­ca­va­tions car­ried out ear­lier this year by Tel Aviv Univer­sity. Masada’s in­hab­i­tants dur­ing the seven years of the re­volt were “a sort of mi­cro­cosm of Judea back then,” com­pris­ing refugees from Jerusalem and across Judea, in­clud­ing priests, mem­bers of the enig­matic monas­tic group from Qum­ran that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and at least one Samar­i­tan.

“What my ex­pe­di­tion in­tends to do is to re­con­struct life at Masada, with­out even re­fer­ring to the death and what hap­pened at the end,” Stiebel said.

Around three years af­ter Jerusalem fell to Ti­tus’s army in 70 C.E., a Ro­man army be­sieged the last rebel hold­outs on Masada, a royal plea­sure palace-turned-fortress built a cen­tury ear­lier by King Herod. Flav­ius Jose­phus, a Jewish rebel turn­coat who be­came a Ro­man im­pe­rial court his­to­rian, wrote about the desert siege in his book, “The Jewish War.” He re­counted that the rebels at Masada, mem­bers of a rad­i­cal group called the Si­carii, com­mit­ted mass sui­cide be­fore the Ro­mans en­tered the fortress.

Ac­cord­ing to Jose­phus, they killed them­selves in an act of de­fi­ance rather than be­come slaves to Rome.

Though Jose­phus wrote his work years af­ter the events, and likely didn’t wit­ness the siege first­hand, his writ­ings are of­ten treated like scrip­ture. Th­ese new finds fur­ther un­der­mine Jose­phus’s ac­count and call into ques­tion his cred­i­bil­ity.

Nev­er­the­less, the Masada story has been mythol­o­gized, dra­ma­tized in film and trans­formed into a na­tional sym­bol of Jewish in­de­pen­dence. The Jewish rebels are por­trayed as free­dom-fight­ing war­riors de­ter­mined to re­main free at all cost. The slo­gan “Masada will not fall again” is a He­brew ex­pres­sion sig­ni­fy­ing the mod­ern state’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to over­come ad­ver­sity and sur­vive threats to its ex­is­tence. The im­pres-

‘We know peo­ple by name, we know peo­ple by pro­fes­sion. We can learn about the way this group of rebels lived.’

sive ru­ins, scene of Jose­phus’s great drama, are one of the most vis­ited tourist sites in Is­rael. UNESCO en­shrined Masada as a world her­itage site in 2001, not­ing its “ma­jes­tic beauty” and sig­nif­i­cance as a “sym­bol of the an­cient king­dom of Is­rael, its vi­o­lent de­struc­tion and the last stand of Jewish pa­tri­ots in the face of the Ro­man army.”

Like many who visit Masada, Alan Harkavy, a Jerusalem-based tour guide, took a group of Amer­i­cans around the site with Jose­phus’s “Jewish War” in one hand. As the sun beat down, he read quo­ta­tions from a speech by the Jewish rebel leader the night of the sui­cide pact. Harkavy as­serted that de­spite the in­con­gruity, Jose­phus’s ver­sion holds up.

“You have enough con­sis­tency with what Jose­phus writes about, that at least most of the story that Jose­phus writes has been proven by ar­chae­ol­ogy. Maybe they’ll find some­thing else,” he said.

But for decades, mod­ern schol­ars have ques­tioned the ve­rac­ity and ac­cu­racy of Jose­phus’s ac­count, the only one that doc­u­ments Masada. Since the first ma­jor ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions in 1963 un­der for­mer Is­rael De­fense Forces chief of staff and He­brew Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Yi­gael Yadin, mount­ing ev­i­dence has chal­lenged Jose­phus’s nar­ra­tive. Most prob­lem­atic, per­haps, is that although Jose­phus said nearly 1,000 rebels were found dead when Ro­man troops broke through the walls, the re­mains of just 28 peo­ple turned up in ex­ca­va­tions.

In Fe­bru­ary 2017, Stiebel headed the first ex­ca­va­tions atop Masada in over a decade. He and his team broke ground at some pre­vi­ously un­touched ar­eas of the site, in­clud­ing an un­touched sec­tion of Herod’s fresco and mo­saicbe­decked north­ern palace in search of its gar­den, a col­lapsed cave be­lieved to pos­si­bly house rare scrolls, the Byzan­tine monastery, and open ar­eas of the plateau once used for agri­cul­ture.

Cut­ting-edge ar­chae­o­log­i­cal tech­niques helped glean a more de­tailed pic­ture of the past than would have been im­pos­si­ble dur­ing Yadin’s time. The pic­ture emerg­ing from th­ese new data about Masada’s in­hab­i­tants is far more com­plex than pre­vi­ously as­sumed.

“It’s not one mono­lithic group,” Stiebel ex­plained, de­scrib­ing the peo­ple liv­ing at Masada be­fore its fall. “We have the op­por­tu­nity to truly see the peo­ple, and this is very rare for an ar­chae­ol­o­gist,” he said. Among them are women and chil­dren, who are too of­ten un­der­rep­re­sented in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal record. Through his re­search, he and his team have even been able to iden­tify where dif­fer­ent groups orig­i­nated from be­fore com­ing to Masada.

“We know peo­ple by name, we know peo­ple by pro­fes­sion. We can learn about the way this group of rebels lived,” he said.

Stiebel was loath to dis­close too many par­tic­u­lars about his team’s finds un­til they could be pub­lished in a sci­en­tific jour­nal. He di­vulged, how­ever, that he and his team have man­aged to ex­tract “tremen­dous amounts of data” from the newly ex­ca­vated ar­eas. They have learned about Masadans’ diet, stud­ied pollen sam­ples to learn what crops they raised, and scru­ti­nized metal and ce­ramic frag­ments, test­ing the lat­ter for clues in 2,000-year-old residues.

Th­ese tech­niques have al­lowed Stiebel to de­ter­mine that the Jewish rebels sub­sisted on food they cul­ti­vated atop the moun­tain, and kept cat­tle and goats. He also de­ter­mined that a cen­tury be­fore the rebels ar­rived, King Herod im­ported fine wine that orig­i­nated from a vine­yard in south­ern Italy.

The ex­treme arid­ity atop Masada, which was largely va­cant fol­low­ing the siege (ex­cept for 200 years of oc­cu­pa­tion by Byzan­tine monks), per­mits preser­va­tion of ar­ti­facts “beyond words.” Pre­vi­ous ex­ca­va­tions have turned up del­i­cate or­ganic ma­te­ri­als: wood, parch­ment, leather and hu­man hair. Stiebel’s lat­est dig yielded ad­di­tional pot­sherds bear­ing He­brew in­scrip­tions of Masada’s fi­nal Jewish res­i­dents.

Stiebel’s re­cent ex­ca­va­tions also turned up more ves­sels made out of dried dung that had been found in pre­vi­ous digs at the site, the only ex­am­ples from Sec­ond Tem­ple-era Judea. The Mish­nah, an early le­gal code based on the five books of the Bi­ble, men­tions the ex­is­tence of such con­tain­ers and use among Jews, be­cause un­like ce­ramic, dung ves­sels can­not be­come rit­u­ally im­pure. The text doesn’t ex­plain why dung is eas­ier to keep pure than clay.

Th­ese dis­cov­er­ies have helped shed light on the day-to-day lives of Masada’s Judean refugees, of­fer­ing a glimpse at a cross-sec­tion of Jewish so­ci­ety dur­ing the nascent years of Chris­tian­ity, and the twi­light of Jewish in­de­pen­dence.

Stiebel plans to pub­lish at least two pa­pers de­scrib­ing the re­sults of th­ese digs in greater de­tail in the near fu­ture, and the Tel Aviv Univer­sity team will be re­turn­ing to Masada for another sea­son of ex­ca­va­tions in Fe­bru­ary 2018.

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