It’s very possible that if I ever write another book, it will be about what’d happened on this flat mountaintop in Judea dessert a long time ago.
And that is because this is one of the most riveting stories of our civilization and it seems to be forgotten.
Never really told much outside of Israel and the Jewish diaspora.
Masada, “fortress” in Hebrew, is an ancient fortification located on top of an isolated rock plateau in the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea.
Herod the Great built palaces there for himself, some 30 years before Jesus was born not all that far from there.
“That’s history right in front of you”, is what went through my mind when I stood there on one hot summer evening. I had the feeling that time just stopped and stood still with a vicious satisfaction.
Places like this do it to you.
According to the historian Josephus, the siege of Masada by Roman troops at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war ended in the mass suicide of 960 people. The Sicarii rebels and their families hid on the mountaintop, with nowhere left to go.
They held their hands together and jumped off the cliff, valuing death as opposed to the slaving alternative.
Before that, however, they fought and fought, and for long three years, were able to hold back at least 10,000 Roman troops, which were armed with every contemporary siege weapon.
If this story doesn’t stop you cold in your tracks than I don’t know what will.
But there is more to it and it evades human brain likely because of the sheer tragedy of it, which fogs the mind.
The Romans were by far the most sophisticated society of their times - that is how they built their empire! There was nobody better.
And by sophisticated I mean business – they knew how life worked and exploited it.
This is not a small achievement and any sensible person will give it to them, I hope.
In contrast - the Jews of Masada were viciously set in their ways, and referred to as Zealots, a term that survived until modern times. They wouldn’t have any of this business ‘thing’ at all. They’d rather jump.
So the question for me, standing in Masada, looking down at the still surface of the Dead Sea and at the mountains of Jordan on the other side was this:
“Who prevailed in the end?”
There are two dimensions to the answer.
People perished, 960 of them, women, children and men.
So that’s one, just death and destruction.
Now, what is left for the other answer is the tradition on one side (what religion really is) and Roman culture on the other.
And if you aren’t convinced of either of them, then you’re like me when I got into the car at the bottom of the mountain later that evening.
I have a quote from a great movie that just may be proper for this moment.
It is from “The International,” when Clive Owen’s character says this to Naomi Watts:
“In life there are bridges you keep and bridges you burn. I am the one you burn.”
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler