Located at the edge of the Judean Desert, high on a rocky plateau near the southwest coast of the Dead Sea lies the excavated ruin of the royal citadel of Masada, the last stronghold held by the Jewish Zealots who refused to submit to Roman occupation. The rhomboid-shaped mountain towers 1,424 feet (434 m) above the level of the Dead Sea and its entire summit area of about 18 acres (7 hectares) was occupied by Masada believed to be the location of the oldest synagogue in the world. Masada was naturally fortified, as the plateau abruptly ends in cliffs steeply falling in a straight drop to the Dead Sea. Even, its path on the eastern side, appropriately known as the snake, is dangerous for its narrowness and winding curves.
The fortress on the summit was built in the year 30 BC, by Herod the Great, the slave turned king of Judaea under the Romans. He also made it a royal citadel and constructed two ornate palaces, complete with heavy walls, defensive towers, well-stocked storerooms, and twelve enormous cisterns that could contain around 750,000 litres of water brought by the aqueducts. The luxurious bathhouse consisted of a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and several rooms, with mosaic or tiled floors and some with frescoed walls.
The suspended floor of the large hot room or caldarium made it possible to blow hot air from the furnace outside, under the floor and through clay pipes along the walls, to heat the room to the desired temperature. The splendid Northern Hanging Palace, extended over three terraces and connected by steep staircases was used by the king as his private retreat. While elegant columns surrounded balconies and courtyards, the rooms of the palace were lavishly decorated with mosaic floors and walls and ceilings were painted to resemble stone and marble.
Although Masada was captured by the Romans after the death of Herod, the Zealots, a Jewish sect that staunchly opposed the domination by Rome, took it by surprise in 66 AD, during their first revolt against the Romans. But as the Romans crushed the rebels in Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple in 69 AD, more Jews joined the group, and Masada became a refuge for Jewish Zealots and the last Jewish stronghold, resisting the Roman rule, led by Elazar ben Ya'ir.
They heroically defended Masada for more than two years until 73 AD, when the Roman governor Flavius Silva started to siege Masada. However, it was not that easy as he thought. The gallant Roman army of almost 15,000 had to face a fiercely defending force of fewer than 1000 inhabitants of Masada, which included women and children and it took them almost two years to conquer the fortress.
As the Romans failed to breach the wall on the east side, they built a broad and sloping ramp of earth and stones against the western side to bring up the soldiers and broke the stone wall of the fortress using a huge battering ram. But they could not capture the defending Zealots, as they preferred death to enslavement. They killed their wives and children and then drew lots and killed each other until the last man ignited a fire to destroy everything before he killed himself. They died, but their deeds left behind a saga of courage, heroism, and martyrdom.
However, the Jews again occupied Masada for a brief period in the 2nd century, and during the 5th and 6th century, it was the site of a Byzantine church. Thereafter, Masada was abandoned and forgotten until the 20th century, except for a very brief period during the Crusades.
The forgotten site of Masada was first identified by Edward Robinson and Eli Smith of America in 1838 and 1842, American missionary Samuel W. Wolcott and the English painter W Tipping were the first moderns to climb it. However, even after that the site remained neglected till the next century, when after visiting the site several times in the 1930s and 1940s, Shmarya Guttman, an Israeli archaeologist started to conduct an initial probe excavation of the site in 1959. After that, with the assistance of thousands of volunteers from around the world, the entire mountaintop was excavated in 1963-64, by Yigael Yadin, an Israeli archaeologist, soldier and politician.
After the excavation, it was found that the description of Masada, as provided by Titus Flavius Josephus, a first-century Romano-Jewish historian, was highly accurate. The palaces, storehouses, defensive works with watchtowers, the huge cistern, a synagogue and the mikveh or a Jewish ritual bath were all revealed and cleared, as was the winding trail Snake Path on the northeastern face of Masada. The most impressive among the remaining structures is the Northern Palace of King Herod, built on three rock terraces overlooking the gorge below. A large Roman-style bath house located near the palace was also found with its colourful mosaic floor and walls decorated with murals. Among the discovered artefacts such as decorated potteries, scrolls, and coins, perhaps the most interesting is a group of potsherds inscribed with Hebrew personal names, which could be used for drawing lots by the last defenders to determine who should die first.
The site of Masada was declared a national park by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and opened to the public in 1966. It became an instant attraction and quickly became a symbol of a heroic last stand of mythic proportions. A large number of pilgrims visit this rocky mountain citadel every year and a cable car for scaling the mountain was installed in 1977, to ease their tiring.
However, Masada can also be ascended on foot by the winding snake path, which would take around an hour to reach the summit or climb up the Roman-built ramp on the western side for easier access that takes hardly twenty minutes.