On the drive to Masada, I come up against Hollywood. The 1981 ABC television Masada mini-series sticks in my head not for my remembering anything about the actual mini-series. Instead it earworms my brain with its promo. Through the wonder of YouTube, some helpful person has posted a preview bumper that aired on New York’s WABC 7 back in 1981. Now I can at least recall the voice-over that is bopping around in my head.
Masada, of course is about the holdout and then mass suicide of Jewish Zealots against the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Masada story never really interested me; it reminded me WAY too much of that awful 1979 tragedy in Guyana that was only two years before the mini-series. Not that I equate zealots with the People’s Temple folk, only that Christians in the same era, also persecuted, submitted to the Romans, to awful ends. However, it’s difficult to judge an ancient era by our own lens of today. Let’s leave it at this; it was an frightening time all around, and even today we can be thankful of the many choices and sacrifices of our Judeo-Christian spiritual fathers.
It’s a busy Tuesday in Jerusalem, leaving St. George’s College at 7:45 a.m. on the nose. In Israel, we move quickly to get on and off buses at exact times; tourist sites don’t allow buses to hang out front too long, for obvious reasons. We will be seeing Masada, Qumran (site of Dead Sea Scrolls discovery), the Dead Sea (yes, we get to float) and the Wadi Qelt Desert. Just to give you a sense of the geography, they are all in the Judean Desert, and fairly close to each other. It’s about 100 kilometers to get there, heading south from Jerusalem, though somehow it feels north.
Masada is a top tourist attraction for Israel, and as we go up the hill, the modern tourist facility is gorgeous; a simple but elegant visitor center at the bottom, built of regional stone, Swiss ski-resort type tram to the top, and an unadorned ruin on the mesa. Because of the importance of the site to Israeli identity, the Masada National Park is carefully designed, perfectly preserved and immaculately managed. Whatever the Israelis say about the United Nations in politics, they have certainly adhered to UNESCO World Heritage guidelines in preserving Masada; an excellent description of which is here.
After taking the tram to the top (many actually like to walk as a sense of pilgrimage), we gather first in the Byzantine Chapel, one of many eras represented. However, the main history involves Herod the Great (yes, the same baby killer from New Testament), who used this mesa as his elegant and palatial retreat and hilltop resort.
The legend of Jewish troops holding out against Romans makes Masada the Alamo of Israel, but it is not a one trick place. From the top, you can see where Romans encamped; previous generations marked by Nazca-like patterns in the desert. The tip end is a handsome, classical overlook. You can easily see how notables would easily sit in the shade, far above the desert, and relax and enjoy their rank, position and leisure.
Masada, part of a ring of well-secured Herodian palaces within signaling distance, is still a wonder (see excellent Columbia University history of Herod’s buildings here). Even when you learn about the giant cisterns below that fed the palace and monastery, you have a hard time seeing how it actually worked in a practical way; its either a citadel or a second home. There is nothing practical about it; it is totally impractical, but such is the nature of great and powerful rulers who bend the world to their wishes. Looking at Masada, I easily see how a Herod Antiphas could indulge his daughter with the beheading of John the Baptist. Any family dynasty that could summon up the slave labor and brain power to conjure up such a place could easily indulge his daughter such a thing, especially if they are a threat and deemed worthy of death anyway.
Some believe John the Baptist was beheaded at the Machaerus fort of Herod, now in Jordan. While the importance of trying to figure out fact from myth is important, that discussion should not overshadow the reality that we can easily see in clear view at Masada the principalities of Herodian power that Jesus was fighting against.
The current interpretation at Masada is notable. Atop the mesa, a rabbinical scholar copies scripture in a small booth that tourists can view. Of course it is good tourist theater, but the symbolism is there. We the Israelis are still writing the word of God at the highest places, and there is no power higher but God.
Items found at Masada have gone turned into present-time history. The discovery of scraps of scripture containing Ezekiel 37 (the “dry bones”) were found at Masada, and give current meaning to the Israeli nation. And a 2,000 year old date seed from Masada has been germinated, and will now flourish in the deserts of Judea.
Below, general photos from Masada. Click on any for a larger view.