David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
Herod the Great’s palace complex on the plateau of Masada does not feature in the Biblical narrative, but it is an impressive site, nonetheless, and speaks to Herod’s ambitious building program, enormous budget, and ambitions of grandeur.
It is also the tragic site of the Judean Zealots’ last stand against Roman imperialism.
(I am indebted to the Masada National Park website for organizing and articulating everything we saw)
Of all the excavations we wanted to visit, Masada was going to be the most physical demanding. We could have chosen to park at the foot of the mountain and take a gondola to the top, but instead we opted to climb the Roman ramp.
Climbing the ramp gave us time to think about how hard that work must have been, moving tons of rock, soil, and trees to create a stable enough rampart for entire garrisons to march up and overwhelm the besieged fort at Masada.
The ascent itself is about sixty meters, or about ninety feet (which may not seem like a lot until you have to climb it in extreme heat!). Seven years had gone by since the Sicarii, Jewish Zealots, had made Herod’s complex their final stronghold. By 73 CE, the Romans had had enough. Their siege of Masada had not made a dent in the rebels’ resolve, so the Roman army took advantage of all the natural rock-fall around the base of the mountain and built a ramp over it of soil and stones, supported by wooden beams.
After a few months, Roman troops were able to raise a siege tower on the ramp, and destroy the fortified wall surrounding Masada. The rebels quickly threw up a makeshift wall, but hundreds of arrows were flying over the ramparts, with heads of fire, torching walls and casements. Soon, soldiers were pouring through the breached walls, and the last of the Judean resistance came to an end.
The word itself, מצדה | metsada, means fortress in Hebrew. Built between 37–31 BCE by Herod the Great, on the flattened top of a mountain in the Judean Desert, this ancient fortification overlooks the Dead Sea. There are the remains of two palaces, the commander’s quarters, a bathhouse, synagogue, storage rooms, dwellings, and a later Byzantine monastery and church.
In antiquity, the Serpentine Path snaking up the mountainside was the chief way to reach Herod’s mountain aerie. People can still climb the Serpentine Path today. But in the siege of 66 CE, a group of Jewish rebels were able to take Masada and make it their last holdout against Rome. It was futile for soldiers to climb the narrow Serpentine in hopes of taking back the fortress. Instead, they decided to mount a massive ramp, which exists to this day.
Carved out of the living rock, Herod’s water system was both impressive and well-engineered.
Dams built along the Nachal Masada riverbed diverted the floodwaters into channels, which filled 12 vast water cisterns on two levels, quarried out of the northern slopes of Masada. These cisterns could hold 40,000 m³ of water, which was then carried up through the Water Gate by pack animals, to storage cisterns on the mountain plateau.Masada National Park
The Northern Palace
Remindful of houses built along the California coast, with even pools jutting out over the cliff, Herod’s northern palace caught the same airy vibe, built on the hilltop yet overlooking the chasm below. There are tree rock terraces fortified by strong retaining walls, just as California houses today rely on skilled engineering and rebar. As you might imagine, the best architects of Herod’s day were schooled in Roman and Hellenist universities and brought those influences to their work.
The top tier of the palace was reserved for Herod’s private suite, a wing that housed four spacious rooms and central hall. Each of the rooms are paved with mosaics featuring geometric designs, plastered walls, and frescoes in rich earth-tones.
One of the mosaic floors is beautifully preserved with black and white hexagons, in a style matching many of the ritzy mansions in Rome—which surely suited Herod very well, considering his grand notions of being accepted into Roman nobility. It seems likely Herod secured artisans from Rome, and the most sought-after interior designers to make his palace the envy of any who visited.
Outside is a semicircular patio, formerly surrounded by columns, which looks out over the He’etekim Cliff in the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea, and the Roman siege array.
In the center of the middle terrace was a circular hall surrounded by columns, of which only the foundations remain. This was the reception and banqueting hall.
The lower terrace also held a hall, surrounded by colonnades, the exterior decorated with stucco designs, and the interior with frescoes depicting colored imitation marble panels and geometric designs.Masada National Park
The palace also had a small bathhouse.
The rebels remodeled Herod’s stables into a synagogue by building benches along the walls, and a casement to hold their scrolls and papyri. When they knew the end had come, they dug two pits to store their scriptures in, before taking their own lives.
The Byzantine church
Somewhere in the fifth to sixth centuries CE, a group of monks climbed Masada to establish their monastery there, as hermits. The church’s nave is paved with mosaics, and the walls are plastered and decorated with bits of pottery and stones inlaid in patterns.
The apse at the end of the nave is completely preserved. Glass from the window in the wall of the apse was found in the courtyard, as well as dozens of clay tiles from a the roof.
In the western room of the church is a mosaic floor decorated with floral patterns and medallions, depicting fruit and a basket of communion bread.Masada National Park
The Western Palace
If the distinctive for the northern palace was its location, architecture, and style, then the distinctive for this second palace its massive size, especially when considering what it took to quarry the stone, and the manpower to build it. It stood at nearly 39,830 square feet!
The entrance lobby has built-in benches, with the same stucco and frescoes. The first story was most likely Herod’s throne room, deduced from four depressions in the floor, seemingly where the legs of the King’s throne could have been set.
A flight of stairs leads to the second story, which looks out over the bathing complex below, with its magnificent mosaic floor.Masada National Park
Built in the Roman style, all the rooms are well-preserved.
A courtyard right at the entrance was for gymnastic exercise. Inside, there was a dressing room—called an apodyterium—decorated with frescoes and stone tiles. The Sicarii Zealots modified this place as well, adding an immersion pool, or mikveh, for purification.
Moving from the dressing room to the tepid room—tepidarium—there are beautifully preserved frescoes, and an opening that leads to the cold room—the frigidarium—and the stepped pool within. The frigidarium floor rested on small columns where hot air would flow through ceramic pipes embedded in the walls, heating the room.
The Commander’s Quarters
Placed just next to the Serpentine Path Gate, a series of rooms decorated with frescoes in geometric patterns, imitation marble, and floral designs marks where the head of Herod’s security force stayed and kept an eye on those who would seek entrance.