No More Heroes? Digging Deeper Into the Masada Myth

50 years after the first archaeological digs, mystery remains: Did any battle happen there at all?

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Since October 1963, when archaeological excavations were carried out at Herod’s ancient mountain fortress at Masada under the direction of Yigael Yadin, the desert site has gripped the world's imagination.

The primary ancient source of information about Masada is Romano-Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus, whose writings most modern researchers view as relatively reliable. Then again, they don’t have another, better source.

Masada – some 100 kilometers south of Jerusalem – played a role in the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire during the period 66 C.E.-73 C.E. The Roman army crushed the rebellion and Masada appears to have been the scene of the final tragic chapter of the story.

According to Josephus, 967 people who fled the Romans to Masada committed suicide, choosing to die rather than be taken captive.

There are differences of opinion, however, about exactly what happened on the site overlooking the Dead Sea, and the controversy about what took place some 2,000 years ago still prompts heated debate among academics. Participants at a recent conference held in Jerusalem, Ein Gedi and at Masada itself, to mark the 50th anniversary of the excavations, spoke with movingly about their experiences at the time, which however shed little light on persisting mysteries.

Ancient parchment in Hebrew

Malka Hershkovitz, who for two years served as secretary of the Masada archaeological expedition in the 1960s, recounted the moment she first caught sight of a piece of ancient parchment she had found there with Hebrew lettering. It contained the passage from the Book of Ezekiel with the prophet’s vision of the revival of dry bones, which has been analogized to the rebirth of the Jewish people in their homeland. “That was the most moving experience of my life, with the earth coming back to life in front of me,” she recalled.

For his part, Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor, a highly experienced archaeologist, recalled that his most exciting ancient find was the braid and sandals he uncovered in the northern palace at Masada.

The fame of the Masada story had developed well before Yadin’s excavations. In 1927, Yitzhak Lamdan published a poem entitled “Masada” that was widely circulated. Passages eventually became part of the school curriculum and were read at ceremonies on Masada itself. The famous expression “Masada shall not fall again” is taken from Lamdan’s poem.

Kibbutz Na’an’s Shmaryahu Gutman, considered the father of the legend of Masada, visited the site as far back as 1933, and understood the powerful potential of the site.

Downplaying the role of 'dagger-men'

Sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda, who researched what he called “the Masada myth,” noted that in the 1940s, when the Jewish community of prestate Israel was living under the threat of a possible invasion by Nazi Germany, the story of Masada had special relevance. “Look at the heroes of Masada,” he told his students. “They were like us and were prepared to die for their freedom.”

Masada, the northern palace.
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Masada.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Masada, the northern palace.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Masada.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Masada revisited 50 years after the first archaeological digs

Many members of the country’s youth movements have been brought to Masada with the same message, climbing the steep Snake Path from the foot of the mountain to the top of Masada, where they have watched the sun rise over the Dead Sea and been captivated by the magic of the place.

“In my view, Masada is an amazing site,” Ben-Yehuda said, “but it’s important to understand how the myth about it was created. Masada’s greatest advantage over other sites is that it has a good story that’s easy to understand. The secret of Masada is an exciting story attached to a successful site.”

In his writings, Ben-Yehuda has explained how, in an effort to create the myth, Gutman altered a number of details of the story recounted by Josephus. Gone, for example, was the presence of the Sicarii – a cruel, extremist group of Jewish zealots – along with Josephus’ account of a massacre at nearby Ein Gedi. In the 1960s, when Yadin wrote two books about Masada, he chose to refer to the Jews under Roman siege on the mountain as zealots, but did not mention the extremist Sicarii (meaning “dagger men”) at all.

“It was functional and very important in the 1940s,” Ben-Yehuda explained. “There is no people that does not have myths of heroism, and for many years Masada served as our myth.”

The status of the myth changed over the years, and in large part the magic of Masada as a heroic myth was lost. The turning point occurred after the Six-Day War in 1967. The war granted the Israeli public access to sites such as the Western Wall and the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as sites such as Gamla in the Golan Heights and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which took Masada’s place.

Archaeology wars

Archaeological excavations were carried out at Masada long before Yadin’s group, but the scope and effort, and particularly the duration of the dig carried out under Yadin’s direction, were without precedent. It appeared as if, in the early 1960s, the entire country had been mobilized in the archaeological undertaking. The dig would scientifically either verify or dispel Josephus’ account.

The excavations lasted two digging seasons – from October 1963 to April 1964, and then again from December 1964 to March 1965. Hundreds of people participated, including a large number of volunteers from abroad.

Today, researchers are in agreement that Yadin came to conclusions that reinforced the overall picture portrayed by Josephus. Some experts say the problem with researching the site stems from the fact that Yadin did not approach Josephus’ account with a sufficiently critical eye. In a few instances, they say, Yadin even cut corners to get the archaeological finds to fit Josephus’ account.

Additional excavations were carried out at Masada in 1989, under the direction of Prof. Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University, and in 1995-1997 by Netzer, Guy Stiebel and Gideon Foerster. According to Yadin Roman, the editor of Eretz magazine – soon to publish a special issue to mark the 50th anniversary of Yadin’s Masada dig – more than 5,000 foreign volunteers worked at the site over the years, in addition to a similar number of Israelis.

There are currently two researchers at the center of the archaeological controversy over Masada – Haim Goldfus and Benny Arubas, who have argued for years that the Masada story has been distorted. Many people, Goldfus maintains, “choose not to look reality in the eye.”

The Masada story as told by Josephus didn’t really happen that way, Goldfus insists, claiming that Josephus himself was in Rome when Masada fell.

“In reality, a different [series of] events took place at Masada, and apparently there was no war there at all,” says Goldfus. “There is no evidence at all at the site of blood being spilled in battle. The famous battery [at a site commonly referred to as the Roman ramp] couldn’t have fulfilled the role attributed to it in breaking through the wall, because it was too narrow and small and couldn’t have been used by the Roman army to position a battering ram. In light of the finds in the area where the [Romans] broke through, we understood that nothing happened there. There are no arrowheads, as one finds at other sites. There is no evidence of fires. The indications are that the battery structure was mostly naturally occurring.

“In addition,” he continues, “there are no mounds from walls that had been destroyed, or other evidence of a battle.”

Goldfus says he has no interest in either dispelling the Masada myth or confirming it. “I am also not claiming that [the Jews at the site] didn’t commit suicide. Maybe it did happen. Perhaps the Romans entered the site in a commando raid, but for 50 years they have been portraying a false picture of a heroic battle that didn’t take place. In reality, other things happened there, and I don’t know what they were.”

‘A national mission’

David Mevorah, a curator at the Israel Museum, thinks the timing of Yadin’s excavations at Masada – the most popular tourist attraction in the country for which an admission fee is charged – is the key to understanding the myth. “In the early 1960s, the site provided a major national story, and Yadin knew how to harness the national aspect for his needs. There is no other site at which so much has been invested, with the assistance of the army and government. Yadin, a former [Israel Defense Forces] chief of staff, turned Masada into a national mission, and into a lot more than another archaeological research project,” says Mevorah.

Yadin’s greatest success, adds Mevorah, lies in the fact that, coming after Gutman – and with Gutman’s help – he knew how to make the site connect emotionally. “People come because of that. Of course, there are also patriotic, national and machoistic elements,” says Mevorah. “Following all of this, major investments were made in infrastructure, site development, construction of a cable car, a guesthouse and a museum.”

Like many others, Mevorah gives credit in managing the site to Eitan Campbell of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who has run Masada National Park for a dozen years. Campbell acknowledges that previously it was hard for him not to get upset over the claims of those who would undermine the classic Masada narrative, people whom he viewed as heartless provocateurs.

Now though, he says, it’s different. “I’ve understood that controversy is good for the site. It keeps us on our toes, inquisitive and up-to-date.”

Development of the site is the thing closest to Campbell’s heart. And when it comes to this, too, he is well aware that the issue has sparked controversy and differences of opinion. “There are a large number of visitors here, and we have to provide them with basic facilities. We came in for major criticism when a McDonald’s branch was opened here, but it’s important to make clear that we are absolutely not Disneyland.”

Modern-day Masada. Archaeologists are split on whether it's a tall tale or the stuff of legends. Credit: Moshe Gilad
Yigael Yadin, left, with a group of British donors at the excavation site in 1963.Credit: Adi Hirshbein / Bitmuna Collection

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