The Masada is the name for the great fortress located in the Judean Desert on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel. It was built by Herod the Great as one of his resources for protection should he ever need it (he had numerous enemies).
According to Israel Then and Now, it was built in the style of the early Roman architecture. There were stone walls plastered with frescos, elaborate frescoes, gigantic stores of food, wine, and hand-hewed cisterns filled with water drawn up by hand. There are several Roman-style baths, complete with heated floors.
Most amazing is the northern palace which was Herod's private quarters. The palace consists of three levels and includes pleasure gardens, frescos, pillars made to look like one stone, and a great view of Ein Gedi, 20 miles (10km) away.
The Zealots Last Stand
While the Masada is not part of the Biblical narrative, the story as told by Josephus of the Masada has become a legend shaping Jewish identity since the 1920's.
When Herod died, a small Roman garrison was stationed at the Masada. Josephus writes in his Jewish Antiquities and Jewish Wars that Menahem, son of Judah from Galilee, overthrew the Romans and his group of Zealots took over the fort.
Meanwhile, the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple took place in 70A.D., but the Romans were annoyed by the remaining group of Jewish Zealots holding out at Masada. Rome sent Flavius Silva with a large contingent of soldiers from the Tenth Legion as well as some Jewish slaves, probably including some family members of the Zealots up in the fort.
Silva had a an elaborate Roman camp and fortifications built. He quickly determined they would not be able to make a frontal attack, and began building one of the largest seige ramps ever built. He used family members of the Zealots, and they labored for months to build the ramp up the side of the mountain. Eventually, the evening came when the Romans had reached the gate, set it on fire, and were prepared the next morning to take the fortress.
The Zealots inside met together and decided that they would deprive the Romans of their prize of victory by committing suicide as free people. They left their weapons, food supplies, and a couple of old woman and young children in hiding. The men killed their wives and most of the children, then ten men drew lots to decide who would be the last one to kill the last nine and then himself.
The ramp, Roman camp, and remnants of Herod's palace are all still visible today and should be part of anyone's visit to Israel. Visitors may either walk up the path or take the tram up. If you walk up, make sure to leave around 4am with plenty of water, since it gets hot fast. There are guest houses at the base of the Masada who will provide a lunch for a small fee.
Masada and the Jewish Mindset
There are many factors affecting the Jewish mindset, so this does not purport to be a comprehensive discussion, especially as a Gentile writing this! However, the epic poem written around 1920 by Yitzhak Lamdan, Masada, became a rallying cry continuing to this day. The last line:
Open your gates, O Masada, and I the refugee shall enterůMasada shall never fall again.
It quickly became tradition for newly commissioned members of the Israeli Defense force to travel to the Masada and proclaim the last line "Masada shall never fall again!" as they swear allegiance to protect Israel.
For the Israelis, they will fight to the death to protect their own.
Dwyer, Thomas and M. Cartier, Israel Then and Now, Multiview Ltd, Tel Aviv. 2004.