Lives, Above The Dead Sea…
The bright hot sunshine makes the soil dry… one will not find trees, or human beings in the plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. In the middle of the plateau, a fortress is seen standing alone, with blood stains on its walls! The locals have always tried to avoid the mysterious King Herod’s Fort at Masada in southern Israel’s Judean Desert!
The ancient fortress, built around 30 BC, is popularly known as King Herod’s Palace, sprawling over three rock terraces, and a Roman-style bathhouse with mosaic floors. The area, surrounding the fortress, was under the sea in the past. Slowly, the sea dried up, creating a diverse design on the soil…
There is a history behind building the fortress at such a height! Herod the Great had built two fortresses around 30 BC in order to protect his subjects from the enemies. However, only one of them has survived! Built 1,300ft above the sea level, the fortress had three parts: the ruins of the arsenal, army camp and the treasury building are still there! Visitors will also find the gigantic palace and a well inside the compound. Some hardline Jews, commonly known as Zealots, left Jerusalem during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-70 AD) and took shelter in the fortress. Later, they set up their base there!
The Romans made an attempt to enter into the fortress in 72 AD. However, they took one year to construct a wall and a slope in the western side of the plateau in order to reach the fortress. When the Romans arrived at the fortress, 960 Zealots, living inside the palace, decided to commit suicide by jumping from the top of the fortress, instead of surrendering themselves to the former. Only two ladies and five children remained alive! The Jewish people still regard the Zealots’ act to commit suicide as the symbol of glory, courage, heroism and martyrdom…
The wall & the slope
Historians claim that the Romans had burnt down a portion of the fortress before destroying the second one. Masada was under the Roman control till the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The Romans also built a church inside the fortress during this period.
Another feature or mystery of this place is the Yoram Cave (located in a cliff of the Masada fortress). It seems that it was almost impossible for the locals to enter into the cave, which was discovered 100m below the Masada plateau, at that period of time. Although the sunlight fails to reach the cave, there are many plants inside it. It is a mystery how those plants have lived without sunlight and water for so many years…. Earlier in 2019, the barley grains and tens of thousands of other plant-remains were retrieved from the remote Yoram Cave. Scientists are of the opinion that barley grains from the Chalcolithic period 6,000 years ago have become the oldest plant genome ever to be sequenced! According to researchers, the people used to farm this kind of barley 10,000 years ago in the Jordan Rift Valley.
The entrance of Yoram Cave in an almost vertical cliff, some four meters above the trail leading to the cave.
The plateau of Masada was identified first in 1838 by Americans Edward Robinson and Eli Smith. And in 1842, American missionary Samuel W Wolcott and English painter W Tipping were the first moderns to climb it. Later in 1959, Shmarya Guttman conducted an initial probe excavation of the site after visiting the place several times in the 1930s and 1940s. The area was extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by a team of specialists led by Israeli Archaeologist and former Military Chief-of-Staff Yigael Yadin. Yadin claimed that the site remained largely untouched by humans (or nature) for two millennia, mainly because of the remoteness from human habitation and its arid environment! The team managed to restore many of the ancient buildings from their remains. From the ruins, they also recovered the wall paintings of Herod the Great’s two main palaces and the Roman-style bathhouses built by the King. The synagogue, storehouses and houses of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored. The researchers discovered a deep well inside the compound that would have ensured the steady supply of water. According to the researchers, water cisterns two-thirds of the way up the cliff drain the nearby wadis by an elaborate system of channels proves how the rebels managed to conserve enough water for such a long time. During the monsoon, the rebels used to reserve water in the well through those channels.
The wall and the slope, made of soil by the Romans, are still there at the Masada Plateau. Visitors would also find eight military bases, built by the Romans, just outside the fortress! These structures help visitors realise the advanced techniques used by the Romans, thousands of years ago. The UNESCO declared the fortress and the military camps surrounding it ‘World Heritage Site’ in 2001.
Inside the synagogue, researchers discovered some pieces of pottery on which several letters were inscribed. It is called ‘Ostracon‘ in the terminology of Archaeology. They also found ‘Deuteronomy’ or the fifth book of the Christian Old Testament and ‘Book of Ezekiel’ or the third of the Latter Prophets in the Tanakh, and one of the major prophetic books in the Old Testament, beneath the synagogue. However, it’s still not clear why the Romans kept those in a secret place beneath the synagogue.
Archaeologists unearthed the remains of a maximum of 28 people at the fortress, possibly 29, including a foetus. While the skeletal remains of 25 individuals were found in a cave just outside and below the southern wall, the remains of another two males and a female were found in the bathhouse of the Northern Palace. The males were assessed to have been of an age of either 40 and 20-22, or 22 and 11-12. However, the dental remains of both seem to be between 16-18 of age. Meanwhile, the female was described as 17-18 years old. Interestingly, the skeletal remains of the males were incomplete, and only the hair (a full head of hair with braids), but no bones of the female were found. Forensic analysis showed the hair had been cut from the woman’s head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive, a practice prescribed for captured women in the Bible (Deuteronomy 21:10-12), while the braids indicate that she was married. On the basis of evidences, Anthropologist Joe Zias and Forensic Scientist Azriel Gorski came to the conclusion that the remains might have been Romans whom the rebels captured when they seized the garrison.
The Israeli authorities opened the fortress for public in 2007. Visitors may reach Masada Valley and the fortress by foot from the Dead Sea or through a ropeway from the western side. The concerned authorities present the history of the fortress through a ‘Light and Sound’ show in the evening every day. Israel-bound tourists should not forget to visit the fortress at Masada Plateau…
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