“Masada, Citadel of Freedom’s Cry,” Ensign, May 1972, 44
It was on the night of April 15, A.D. 73, that my mother, my aged grandmother, and my brother and two sisters slipped quietly from our makeshift home atop Masada and crept into the damp subterranean cistern. In silent haste we walked in the dark, flickering shadows made by the torches near the watchtowers and the smoldering flames of the inner wall.
All day the huge Roman battering rams had been pounding against the outer stone wall, then finally they had ceased, but I remember my heart reverberated the day’s terrible sounds in my own chest. The dryness of my throat could not be quenched by water—it was the dryness of fear, not a sudden fright. It sapped my energy and made every movement seem mechanical and forced.
Three years is a long while to live in fear. I was only nine when they came, but I saw in the face of my mother the fear she felt, and I sensed it in the fierce resolve of my father as he clenched his fists unconsciously until the knuckles were white and hard. I saw it in the faces of all the people who watched that day years ago when Flavius Silva, one of the most able and most efficiently cruel Roman military leaders, arrived at the head of the Roman Tenth Legion.
From the porch of Herod’s northern palace, I listened as my uncle, Eleazar ben Yair, spoke to my father and those about him:
“So it takes a full legion to take a handful of free men, does it? Good! We shall show them the resolve of such men! We have food and water supplies enough for years, thanks to that gluttonous Herod. We shall resist as long as this mountain has stood! Silva shall taste the heat of the desert and the fire of our determination!”
Eleazar ben Yair, a strong and powerful man, had been one of the leaders of the great revolt, which began in A.D. 66. It was he who had helped plan with Menahem the capture of Masada from the Romans. Now that Menahem was gone, Eleazar took the leadership of the little band of some 960 men, women, and children on this island refuge in the Judean desert.
As I listened to Eleazar’s words, part of the fear seemed to leave. But as the legionnaires’ drums beat their death roll and the slaves and the thousands of soldiers kept coming, a strange soberness came over me. Even when our men taunted the Romans and exchanged curses and mutual vilification, my throat was still dry. A shower of arrows aimed at the Romans was ordered by Eleazar, but they fell short of the mark and served only as a release of tension for our men atop our over 1300-foot-high citadel.
All day they circled the diamond-shaped mountain. Huge rocks were ready should they try the serpentine trail, which was the only access to our fortress, but they did not attempt it. No, Silva seemed to have another plan in mind. As the days and weeks passed, we thought we knew his plan.
Siege—that slow, but effective method used so horribly on Jerusalem! A wall to encircle the battlement was begun. So he would starve us into submission, we thought. Well, let him try! We have huge stores of food, enough to last many years, and water to last even longer. The cisterns, with their unique drainage system conceived by Herod’s brilliant engineers, will be full if it but rains once a year. They are nearly full now and hold over 1,400,000 cubic feet of water. My father told me that people can live a long while as long as they have water, but for some reason my throat remained dry even as I gulped another drink.
The powerful effort put into the construction of the siege wall puzzled our leaders. It was six feet thick and was fortified by twelve towers built at intervals of eighty to a hundred yards. Eight camps were located at various points around the base of the fortress. We were sealed in tight by the wall.
Then we saw the second stage of Silva’s plan unfold. On the western side of our mountain there was a certain eminence of white rock called by us the “White Promontory.” Often I had imagined it as a white angel guarding our fortress, but one day Silva was seen atop that promontory, which is but 300 cubits [about 450 feet] beneath the highest part of Masada.
Under Silva’s direction, huge stones, dirt, and debris were dumped into the ravine. The soldiers and the slaves worked day and night for weeks and months until a solid fill 200 cubits deep was created in the crevice that separated our mountain from the White Promontory. My white angel had defected to the enemy!
I cried that night as I told my father my angel had gone to the enemy and was going to help them get to our mountain fortress. He calmed me and told me to put my trust in God and not the mute stones of this telestial sphere; nor should one put his trust in man either, he said.
Then my father told me of one of the great disappointments in his life. Yoseph ben Matatyahu had been his general and had led the forces of freedom against the Romans, but only a few years before the capture of Masada by the Zealots, Yoseph ben Matatyahu, like my white angel, had defected to the enemy and even taken upon himself a Roman name, Flavius Josephus. A brilliant scholar, my father said, he now devotes all his time to writing and recording with his pen the things he sees. Yes, I had seen him standing with Silva with no weapon, only a scroll and pen.
The whips of the soldiers snapped, men groaned, men sweated, and men died as they built a “mountain” to get to a mountain. Tons of stone and dirt were dragged up the ramp and dumped. From the top of Masada, hundreds of arrows were shot at the workmen and at the Romans to slow the work down, but the arrows only killed the slaves, our own people from Jerusalem. More and more slaves were brought in for the work and for us to kill, and still the work continued day after day and week after week.
Then came the day that the huge siege machines were brought in—a tower sixty cubits high and ironclad, from which the Roman war engines threw darts and stones. That was the day my father was brought bleeding from a deep head wound, when he had been knocked from the wall by one of the stone missiles.
“Oh, my father, my father!” I cried. Then as his head lay cradled in my mother’s arms, he opened his eyes and with great effort called me.
“My son,” he said, “you must live to tell Yoseph ben Matatyahu what true bravery is, for you shall see it in the next few days. Let his pen alone write the events that transpire here, for as he writes upon scrolls, perhaps God will write upon his soul the immortal events that are happening at Masada. Someone must know. Someone must care. Somehow the memory of Masada must survive! The just desires of men to be free must live throughout the centuries!” And my father died.
Finally, the assault embankment was high enough for Silva to order the great battering ram to be brought and set against the wall. All day the pounding continued. Only toward evening did it finally cease as the outer wall collapsed.
Our people had also been busy while the ramp was being built. A great inner wall had been constructed by laying together beams of wood lengthways and ramming earth into the spaces between. When Silva saw this, he thought it best to set fire to the walls, so he ordered the soldiers to throw a number of burning torches upon it. It soon took fire and spread to a mighty flame. A north wind also began to blow, as if sent from God, to slow the assault. The first proved terrible to the Romans, for as the flames were driven downward upon them, they feared that they and their machines would be burned. Then the wind shifted again, coming from the south, and blew strongly against the wall, which was now entirely on fire.
It was this change of wind that seemed to give the Romans the advantage and finally gave us respite, for they withdrew from the assault in joy and resolved to attack us the very next day. They set their watch more carefully that night, lest any of my people should run away from them without being discovered.
I believe it was a divine providence that gave us this pause and a chance for free men to think. Eleazar ben Yair spoke in power and eloquence this night. There was great resolve in him, and a conviction that heaven alone can bestow upon a mortal man. It was as though a living Moses were before us—a prophet speaking with the power of God. His words are indelibly written upon my memory:
“My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God, who alone is the true and righteous Lord of Men: now the time has come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it: we must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. For we were the first of all to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case it is evident that day-break will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honourable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle.
“Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery; after that, let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames: it will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that I know, to place our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare—our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because, as we resolved at the beginning, we chose death rather than slavery. …
“If only we had all died before seeing the Sacred City utterly destroyed by enemy hands, the Holy Sanctuary so impiously uprooted! But since an honourable ambition deluded us into thinking that perhaps we should succeed in avenging her of her enemies, and now all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate, let us at once choose death with honour and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness. After all we were born to die, we and those we brought into the world: this even the luckiest must face. But outrage, slavery, and the sight of our wives led away to shame with our children—these are not evils to which man is subject by the laws of nature: men undergo them through their own cowardice if they have a chance to forestall them by death and will not take it. We are very proud of our courage, so we revolted from Rome: now in the final stages they have offered to spare our lives and we have turned the offer down. Is anyone too blind to see how furious they will be if they take us alive? Pity the young whose bodies are strong enough to survive prolonged torture; pity the not-so-young whose old frames would break under such ill-usage. A man will see his wife violently carried off; he will hear the voice of his child crying ‘Daddy!’—when his own hands are fettered. Come! While our hands are free and can hold a sword, let them do a noble service! Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children. …”*
Each man dispatched his own family. Husbands tenderly embraced their wives, took their children into their arms, and gave parting kisses to them, with tears in their eyes. There was no “ram in the thicket” for these “Abrahams” who offered their “Isaacs” as sacrifice, no divine intervention.
It has been said that in Jerusalem God watched as his own Son was slaughtered by evil men and yet did not intervene. Such things are difficult to understand, but someday perhaps we shall understand. Somehow I still believe in a better world to come. If men grow through adversity and trial, then these men were giants. I was but a boy, but living through these events has made me feel as long as my shadow and as broad as the great mountain of Masada.
As men turned to their families in this most fateful hour, none turned to my widowed mother, her children, my aged grandmother. Their first concern was with their immediate families, and we were temporarily overlooked. However, we were not afraid to die; and for a moment that awful dryness left my throat, and I felt a calmness such as I had never felt before. Death must not be the end, nor the greatest tragedy that can come.
I felt almost relieved at the thought of being free from the fears of this life and had a curious desire to prove the reality of the afterlife. But at the very moment I would have walked to Uncle Eleazar for this mortal release, my mother quietly put her arms around me and whispered, “Your father wanted you to live to bear solemn witness of these things. We must go quickly!”
I touched the arm of my elderly grandmother and the other children; we walked as if to our final embraces and prayers at our partition of the garrison, which had been our home these past few years. We passed our door, however, and crept into the flickering shadows. Not a sound passed our lips, not a whimper from any of my sisters or brother who were all younger than I.
As we passed the last storage granary, my mother saw a goatskin bag filled with water and took it with her. She knew where she was going, for only a few days before she had gone for water at one of the cisterns only to find it nearly empty. Into this cistern we huddled. The blackness of it was like a tomb, and in that damp, dark chamber we felt indeed like the living dead. Only the revelry of the Roman soldiers drunk with wine and the anticipation of their victory on the morrow kept drifting into the dark cave, haunting us with the reality of this life.
We must have dozed in spite of ourselves, for when I awoke it was light, and we could hear the sound of the assault machine as it battered through the burnt wood and dirt. We heard the victory shouts of thousands of Roman soldiers as they breached the wall, and then we felt the wave of silence that came over that whole army as they discovered what had occurred while they had celebrated.
Such a sight must have touched even a Roman heart as the pieces of evidence unfolded. Silently we waited for them to contemplate the heroic deed. There was a terrible solitude on every side, with only the dying flames breaking the silence.
Then with but a single shout, by one who had followed Silva through the breached wall, a cry echoed in the silence: “Are there any Jews who yet live on Masada?” And we came out. I fulfilled my father’s dying wish, for we all gave vocal witness to that which had been testified of by the mute dead. I saw the hand of Flavius Josephus record it, and it is true!
May this provide fresh inspiration for liberty-loving people everywhere. For death is sweeter than loss of liberty. And freedom is still worth dying for today.
Masada is a boat-shaped, natural hill fortress located near the west coast of the Dead Sea in the Judaean desert. And it was here, in 35 B.C., that Herod the Great raised up a might bastion as a protection against some of his rebellious subjects and as a defense from aggressive Roman legions.
Surrounded by a massive defense wall, spiked with thirty-seven watchtowers, this twenty-acre hilltop citadel enclosed a spectacular three-tiered palace carved out of the native rock. It also boasted an ingenious system of aqueducts and cisterns designed to capture sufficient water to last a year, from a single rainfall in the desert country.
After Herod’s death, Masada was commandeered by a Roman garrison until Jewish Zealots captured it. The dramatic and courageous defense of Masada by these 960 men, women, and children against Flavius Silva’s besieging Roman Tenth Legion has won the admiration and respect of everyone who has read of their valiant effort.
In 1963, the Israel Exploration Society and the Department of Antiquities of the State of Israel began excavations at Masada and uncovered Herod’s “hanging place,” an elaborate bathhouse, and impressive administration building, storehouses with remnants of the original contents, and gigantic cisterns for collecting water. At the base of the hill, eight camps built by the Tenth Legion have been discovered. In the unusually dry climate, many important scroll fragments relating to the Old Testament had also been preserved.
These recent discoveries bear witness to the vivid descriptions detailed by Josephus so many centuries ago, and have sparked a resurgence of pride and dedication among many modern Israeli youths, who make pilgrimage to the site each year, vowing that “Masada will never fall again.”