Herod's fortress palace, site of the Zealots' Last Stand

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A hawk, symbol of Masada the fortress

Masada, the fortress

Herod the Great, as portrayed in the TV series 'Rome'

Mad, bad, dangerous 
Herod the Great

Model of one of King Herod's palaces in ancient Jericho

King Herod's palaces

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Ancient Warfare

Solomon's temple, the walls of Jericho, the gates of Megiddo

Ancient buildings






The site of Masada, showing plateau and palace complex

The site of Masada, showing the plateau on which it is built. 
At center top is the outline of the Roman camp built at the time of the siege of Masada. 
The palace complex is at the far end of the plateau, facing away from the camera.

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. 

Masada stronghold, Roman base camp, Roman siege ramp

Plateau on which stood the Masada stronghold, with the Roman base camp and siege ramp below

outline of the fosse or ditch surrounding the camp, with an inner rampart or agger

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. 

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,ramp built by the Romans to give them access to the rebels

The ramp built by the Romans to give them access to the rebels sheltering behind the walls of Masada. 
This ramp allowed the Romans to move a battering ram up to the gates of the fortress.


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.

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,ground plan of buildings on the plateau of Masada

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

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,A model of the palace complex built by Herod the Great

A model of the palace complex built by Herod the Great

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,A model of the buildings that covered the plateau at the time of Herod the Great

Above and below: A model of the buildings that covered the plateau at the time of Herod the Great. 
These included living quarters, storerooms, a synagogue, a large library, a bath complex, kitchens, etc.

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,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

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,building constraints on a site like this were immense

The building constraints on a site like this were immense

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,the building on the middle terrace of the North Palace

View from above of the building on the middle terrace of the North Palace

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,One of the main rooms in the Palace

One of the main rooms in the Palace

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,Remains of the bathhouse at Masada

Above and below: remains of the bathhouse at Masada. 
The columns supporting the floor allowed warm air to be circulated under-floor, heating the room above.

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,Women's bathhouse at Pompeii

(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.

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,pipes installed in the wall cavity at Masada

This reconstruction at Masada shows the pipes installed in the wall cavity, to circulate warm air


MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,thermal bath at Masada

Remains of the thermal bath at Masada, with murals still intact


Above and below: Judaic law forbad representation of living creatures, 
so the Masada wall paintings were more restrained than Roman murals

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,Mosaics in the bath complex


MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,the triclinium (dining area) in the Western Palace

Remains of the triclinium (dining area) in the Western Palace

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,Niches for scrolls in remains of the library at Masada

The niches cut into the rock (above) once held scrolls; this area was the library at Masada


Stairwell with mosaic

MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,mosaic in the landing above the stairwell

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


MASADA,BIBLE ARCHITECTURE,a network of large, rock-hewn cisterns

The water supply for Masada was provided by a network of large, rock-hewn cisterns (see above). 
They filled during the winter with rainwater  and could be relied upon in time of siege.

Ground plan of the synagogue

Ground plan of the synagogue


Herod built a synagogue at Masada, measuring 12.5x10.5meters (see plan above). It had tiers of plastered benches around the walls, on which people sat as they listened to prayers, readings and discussions.


The site

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.

Herod's construction included 

  • two ornate palaces, one of which was on three levels, 

  • heavy outer walls surrounding the plateau, 

  • extensive storehouses, 

  • barracks and armory, and 

  • aqueducts which brought water to immense cisterns holding nearly 750,000litres (200,000 gallons).

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 beautiful, doomed Hasmonean princess Mariamme fled there, but her husband King Herod killed her anyway. For the dynasty of Herod, see King Herod the Great. The Zealots made their last ditch stand against the Romans at Masada, and then committed mass suicide rather than surrender.


A remote hilltop fortress famous for the lavish palace built by Herod the Great, and the Zealots' resistance against the Roman siege in 73AD.


Occupying the entire top of a plateau near the southwest coast of the Dead Sea


First fortified by the Hasmoneans in circa 100BC, destroyed by the Roman forces after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD


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The storehouse complex at Masada

The storehouse complex at Masada


Bible Architecture: Housing in Old and New Testament times - Architecture of the Bible; Bible Study Resource
Masada: Palace and Fortress of King Herod, Zealots' Last Stand; archaeology

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Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher