Herod's fortress palace, site of the Zealots' Last Stand
The site of Masada, showing the plateau on which it is built.
After the fall of Jerusalem, the Zealots continued their fight in the south and east. Two centres, Herodium and Machacrus, fell to ponderous but implacable Roman sieges. The last stronghold to fall was Masada, perched on the summit of a forbidding mountain facing the Dead Sea, held by the Zealots since 66 CE. They occupied its I40 small rooms.
The Romans began the siege in 72AD, building camps around the foot of the mountain, and another on the heights overlooking it. They slowly constructed a dike to take the soldiers and their siege engines up to the ramparts of the fortress. Hundreds of Roman slingshots, rounded balls of stone the size of grapefruit, were found piled around one of the deserted rooms in the captured Masada. These were hurled at the defenders by the siege engines and collected to throw back at the Romans.
Plateau on which stood the Masada stronghold, with the Roman base camp and siege ramp below
This aerial view shows the outline of the fosse or ditch surrounding the camp, with an inner rampart or agger built up with the excavated earth. At the time of the siege, the outer wall would have been surmounted by a palisade or vallum. The camp would was divided into three main areas, for the commander's quarters, stores and workshops, and barracks.
built by the Romans to give them access to the rebels sheltering behind
the walls of Masada.
The last days of Masada
ln 73AD the Roman assault began. As the outer walls crumbled, the defenders retired behind a second wall. This the Romans attacked with ﬁrebrands. With the end in sight, the Zealots retreated into Herod's palace, with its inaccessible position crowning the top of the rock. They had no hope. They could not win, nor was any further withdrawal possible.
Rather than face surrender on Roman terms, the Zealots accepted the terrible alternative proposed by the leader, Eleazar. Beginning with their wives and children, the defenders of Masada slaughtered each other.
The Romans entered the palace next day to ﬁnd the fortress that had withstood them for so long manned only by corpses. The manner of their death was recorded by Josephus who claimed to have learned the story from a woman who, with two children, alone survived. ln a cave on the clif face 20 skeletons were found, among them a foetus. They were probably the bodies of Zealots dumped by the Romans. ln the ruins of a heated bath near the lowest palace, the skeletons were found of a man, woman and child. The woman, possibly 20 years old, still had her hair plaited, brown and lustrous.
1 Upper end of the 'Snake Path' 2 Triclinium/dining room 3 Storerooms 4 Bath complex 5 Northern palace 6 Administrative buildings 7 Observation point 8 Synagogue 9 Casemate wall 10 Spot where the Roman assault ramp reached the wall 11 West entrance 12 Workshops 13 Western palace 17 Living quarters 19 Water cistern 20 South fortress
A model of the palace complex built by Herod the Great
and below: A model of the
buildings that covered the plateau at the time of Herod the Great.
The palace buildings faced out towards a spectacular view across the valley beneath
The building constraints on a site like this were immense
View from above of the building on the middle terrace of the North Palace
One of the main rooms in the Palace
and below: remains of the
bathhouse at Masada.
(Above) Women's bathhouse at Pompeii, built to a design similar to the one at Masada. Bathing was a necessary part of Jewish ritual and daily life, but a bathhouse as sumptuous as this would only have been found in the palaces built by Herod the Great.
This reconstruction at Masada shows the pipes installed in the wall cavity, to circulate warm air
Remains of the thermal bath at Masada, with murals still intact
and below: Judaic law forbad
representation of living creatures,
Remains of the triclinium (dining area) in the Western Palace
The niches cut into the rock (above) once held scrolls; this area was the library at Masada
Stairwell with mosaic
Close-up of the mosaic in the landing above the stairwell
Pigeon coops provided a source of fresh meat, and the pigeons were also used to carry messages
supply for Masada was provided by a network of large, rock-hewn cisterns
Ground plan of the synagogue
Masada is situated on top of an isolated rock cliff at the western end of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a place of gaunt and majestic beauty. The boat-shaped mountain rises 434meters (1,424ft) above the level of the Dead Sea. The land falls steeply away on every side, making it a natural fortress.
It was first
fortified by the Hasmoneans in about 100BC, but it is most famous for the
palace built there by King Herod the Great, and for the famous last stand
made there by Jewish rebels against the Roman army.
The site and its defenses made Masada nearly impregnable. It took a Roman army of almost 15,000 soldiers, fighting a defending force of less than 1,000, almost two years to subdue. The Romans only succeeded in taking the fortress by building a sloping siege ramp to move a battering ram up to the walls. Once there they were able to breach the walls and subdue the defenders by sheer weight of numbers. The rebels, however, preferred death at their own hands. When the Romans finally entered Masada, they were greeted by silence.
The Herodian fortress
The rhomboid, flat plateau of Masada measures 600x300meters. The casemate wall (two parallel walls with partitions dividing the space between them into rooms), is 1400meters long and 4meters wide. It was built along the edge of the plateau, above the steep cliffs, and had a number of towers. Three narrow, winding paths led from below to fortified gates. The water supply was guaranteed by a network of large, rock-hewn cisterns on the northwestern side of the hill. They filled during the winter with rainwater flowing in streams from the mountain on this side. Cisterns on the summit supplied the immediate needs of the residents of Masada and could be relied upon in time of siege.
To maintain interior coolness in the hot dry climate of Masada, the many buildings had thick walls constructed of layers of hard dolomite stone, covered with plaster. The higher northern side of Masada was densely built up with structures for an administrative center. It included storehouses, a large bathhouse and comfortable living quarters for officials and their families.
King Herod's palace
On the northern edge of the steep cliff, with a splendid view, stood the elegant, intimate, private palace-villa of the king. It was separated from the fortress by a wall, affording total privacy and security. This northern palace consists of three terraces, luxuriously built, with a narrow, rock-cut staircase connecting them. On the upper terrace, several rooms served as living quarters. In front of them was a semi-circular balcony with two concentric rows of columns. The rooms were paved with black and white mosaics in geometric patterns.
The two lower terraces were intended for entertainment and relaxation. The middle terrace had two concentric walls with columns, covered by a roof; this created a portico around a central courtyard. The lowest, square terrace had an open central courtyard, surrounded by porticos. Its columns were covered with fluted plaster and had Corinthian capitals. The lower parts of the walls were covered in frescos of multicolored geometrical patterns, or were painted in imitation of marble. There was a small private bathhouse on this terrace.
Storehouse complex See the photograph at end of this page.
This consisted of two rows of long halls opening onto a central corridor. The floor of the storerooms was covered with thick plaster and the roofing consisted of wooden beams covered with hard plaster. Here, large numbers of broken storage jars which once contained oil, wine, grains and other foodstuffs were found.
The large bathhouse
Elaborately built, it probably served the guests and senior officials of Masada. It consisted of a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and several rooms, all with mosaic or tiled floors and some with frescoed walls. The largest of the rooms was the hot room (caldarium). Its suspended floor was supported by rows of low pillars, making it possible to blow hot air from the furnace outside, under the floor and through clay pipes along the walls, to heat the room to the desired temperature.
The Western Palace
The Western Palace is the largest building on Masada, covering over 4,000 square meters. Located along the center of the western casemate wall, it served as the main administration center of the fortress, as well as the king's ceremonial palace.
It consisted of four wings: an elaborate royal apartment, a service and workshop section, storerooms and an administrative unit. In the royal apartment, many of the rooms were built around a central courtyard.
On its southern side was a large room with two Ionic columns supporting the roof over the wide opening into the courtyard. Its walls were decorated with moulded panels of white stucco.
On the eastern side were several rooms with splendid colored mosaic floors. One of these, the largest room, had a particularly decorative mosaic floor with floral and geometric patterns within several concentric square bands. This room may have been King Herod's throne room, the seat of authority when he was in residence at Masada.
The storehouse complex at Masada
in Old and New Testament times - Architecture of the Bible; Bible Study Resource
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher