Never heard of Masada in Israel? Well, you’re not alone. It’s yet another one of those jaw-dropping places on this planet that no one told me about, either. Masada has been in the same location for literally thousands of years—millennia, even. And I just found out about it last November. Honestly, I really have to subscribe to the UNESCO World Heritage Site newsletter.
Masada is an ancient fortress located in the Judean Desert of Israel.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel, “Masada” (meaning “fortress”) was not initially designed as a fortification. It was originally a Dead-Sea-side palace built by King Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BCE. King Herod was famous for his outlandish construction projects (see also, Herodium), and Masada was off the charts.
Taking advantage of an enormous natural plateau (or mesa) over-looking the Dead Sea, Herod envisioned Masada to be his greatest architectural accomplishment. It was to be his desert refuge where he could entertain friends, host foreign dignitaries, and impress Insta’ influencers (Herod was ahead of his time).
This elevated palace featured luxurious amenities such as a swimming pool, multiple bathhouses, and ornate ornamentation spanning three levels, each with its own private balcony. The place would’ve seriously killed on Airbnb.
Incredibly, King Herod almost never went there.
Herod turned Masada into his palatial panic-room.
After many years of tyrannical and despotic rule, the Roman-Jewish client king of Judea began to worry about a peasant revolt. (Ordering the mass murder of all male children under 2 years old can make your subjects a bit testy.) So Herod hired ADT® Security Systems to upgrade Masada’s defenses.
For starters, he built a 13-foot wall around the outer edge of the plateau. He then added several towers along the wall’s length. To make the place an actual fortress, he added storehouses, barracks, an armory, and several massive cisterns that were refilled by rainwater.
Finally, to prevent surprise guests, there were only three narrow, winding paths that led up to heavily fortified gates. As a result, getting into Masada—without an invitation—meant having to build your own ramp or something. #foreshadowing
How not to immediately die in a desert.
Masada was built in a desert environment where water was scarce, so Herod’s builders created a sophisticated system of cisterns and aqueducts to collect and store rainwater. This system was so effective that it allowed inhabitants of Masada to survive for years despite the lack of any natural water source.
The Roman Empire famously laid siege to Masada.
After the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE), a group of angry Jewish extremists formed a group known as the Sicarii. Named after the small daggers they carried, the Sicarii predated ninjas as the first invisible assassins by centuries.
Pissy about income inequality and religious persecution, the Sicarii fell upon an unlucky Roman garrison and massacred them. Fearing Roman reprisal, they took refuge in Masada, Herod’s rarely occupied fortress. Soon enough, other, living Romans arrived and surrounded the place with the intention of “waiting the bastards out.”
But, the overly cocky Sicarii rebels taunted the Romans like ballers. They dumped water over the fortress walls in full view of the thirsty Romans below to show they were plenty hydrated (see cisterns above), and in no hurry to check out.
Masada’s rebel scum brace for the Empire’s attack.
After sitting around for months without Netflix, HBO, or Hulu, the Romans finally were bored enough to build a sand ramp up to the plateau’s top. Once enough sand was piled up, the Romans wheeled their SiegeTower® 2000 up to the casement wall around Masada.
The rebels, fortunately, anticipated this attack vector. They had, after all, been watching the ramp being built for the previous several weeks. So the Sicarii reinforced the casement wall in that area with wood and earth, and it held! Victory was assured! Right? Well…
After many futile attempts to bust through the casement wall, the Roman centurion in charge finally threw up his hands and said, “Screw it, boys, torch the joint!” but probably in Latin or something.
And torch it, the Romans did.
The resulting conflagration burned ferociously throughout the night, and the rebels knew their time being alive was quickly running out.
So the Sicarii held an emergency All-Hands meeting to decide what to do. The PowerPoint® presentation was so long and boring, however, that when someone called for mass suicide, the resolution was carried unanimously.
The next morning, the Romans breached the Sicarii’s defenses, only to find a newfound respect for these brave, but still very dead, Jewish rebels. Roll credits!
History is written by winners, but sometimes, they outsource the job to the losers.
The Sicarii rebels probably didn’t “heroically” commit mass suicide in Masada. There was never any evidence of a great fire ever occurring there, nor were there any dead bodies or human bones found. So what really happened at Masada on that fateful morning?
It’s more likely that Josephus Flavius made up the mass suicide myth in an attempt to make his people look better in the history books. Flavius was the sole Roman-Jewish historian tasked with chronicling this relatively mundane event. (“Brave Romans quash yet another rebel uprising—film at eleven.”)
At the time, suicide was an honorable alternative to becoming either a Roman slave or a Colosseum lion’s dinner. After all, what film producer wants to option a story where the antagonists win and the protagonists all get taken prisoner in the end? Nobody, that’s who. Not even Spielberg could make that depressing tale into a blockbuster.
Someone should restore Israel’s Masada to its original intent.
Sure, the Israel Defense Forces use the fortress as a site for training exercises. And, yes, several archaeological excavations have uncovered new information about life in ancient Israel. But, come on! Think how great Masada would be for bachelorette parties, graduations, and corporate off-sites!
Imagine the epic events you could have at this this huge space! No need for a bar or bar staff! Just fill up the cisterns with grain alcohol and fruit juice (called “Hairy Buffalo” in the ’80s). Then line the casement walls with colored lights, lasers, and a fog machine. Worried about your mega-sound system annoying the neighbors? There’s literally no one around to complain for hundreds of miles! Party crashers? Not a problem, nobody gets on the tram without an invite!
Masada is the perfect party palace in Israel.
Honestly, I can’t imagine a more incredible event than a party at Masada. Of course, you might have to clean up a bit first—the Romans weren’t the tidiest of marauders. And, oh sure, you’ll need to bring the place up to code architecturally—there’s no handicap access ramp, fire exit, or CO2 detectors.
But DJ Herod certainly had the right idea when he built this place. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to see mirror-balls invented. I think they would’ve blown his mind.
Read more about sights to see in and around the Holy Land:
Hero Photo by @Samir Smier