Cultural Israel Europe And North America

Masada is a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora. The palace of Herod the Great at Masada is an outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the early Roman Empire, while the camps and other fortifications that encircle the hill constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day.

The towering hill of Masada, with its precipitous flanks, overlooks a natural landscape of savage beauty. To the west lies the Judaean Desert, with its hills and terraces. To the east is a wildly broken terrain, running down to the brilliant colours of the Dead Sea. A giant scarp stretches to the south away to the horizon - the western wall of the Syrian-African rift valley - and Masada forms part of this scarp.

In the northern area (Herodian period), the main structure is the Northern Palace, which in its present form is from the main phase (late 1st century BC). It was built on three slightly modified natural rock terraces. The upper level was mainly used for residential purposes, all originally decorated with mosaic floors and wall paintings. To the north there is a semi-circular colonnaded terrace surrounding what was probably a garden. On the two lower levels are to be found imposing colonnaded reception halls, both had bathing facilities. The lower reception level is the best preserved of the three. Access was through a trapezoid courtyard, with storerooms, meal preparation facilities, and a small bathhouse below and around it. There are two rock-hewn cisterns underneath. On a small hill just to the south of the Northern Palace is the large bath-house.

In the western area (Herodian period), the Western Palace was substantially enlarged and rebuilt in the main phase. To the nucleus, which consisted of a courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and reception rooms, were added two extensive service wings. The palace was expanded once more in the final phase, with the addition of new wings. Its size and layout, together with the opulence of its decoration (mosaic floors and walls of white plaster painted to imitate marble panels). This confirms the hypothesis that this was the ceremonial palace, the Northern Palace being the private palace for the king and his family.

The casemate wall was built in the final phase. This massive defensive wall, 1,290 m long, contains about 70 rooms on its inner side and has 27 towers. Three gates pierce the wall: the Western Gate, the Southern Gate, and the Snake Path Gate (the eastern gate). A number of deep cisterns were dug into the rock of Masada in all three phases. The small ones dug during the first phase were filled by runoff from the hilltop. During the main phase two rows of cisterns were dug beneath the hilltop. Water was delivered through a network of dams and channels during the winter floods in the wadis to the west of Masada.

Most of the buildings on the hilltop were occupied by the around 1,000 people who lived there in the Zealot period. The most important new feature from this time was the synagogue, a square building from the Herodian period that was probably used as a stable. Three rows of benches, characteristic of early synagogues, were built round the walls, and the genizah (depository for superseded scrolls) under the floor of the back room. Seven or eight ritual baths (mikveh ) were identified, including one large stepped immersion pool to the south of the Western Palace.

There is a network of eight Roman military camps around Masada. A striking feature of all the Roman camps are the hundreds of contubernia (messing units), consisting of walls of stones 1-1.5 m high on which the soldiers erected their leather tents. The great ramp used for the final assault was built from soil and stones braced by an armature of timber beams.

The Byzantine church is located virtually in the centre of the summit, and its walls still stand to a considerable height, built from coursed dolomite robbed from the Herodian buildings. The floor was originally covered with a mosaic, but much of this was removed to the Louvre in the 19th century. The walls were plastered and with designs of coloured stones and potsherds. The plan is the characteristic rectangular hall with an apse at the east end and a narthex at the west end.