For many people visiting Israel, Masada is the second most common destination (behind Jerusalem). The story of the siege of the city is interesting, and refusal of the zealots to be taken alive is very moving.
Read the background on Masada – it’s very thought provoking.
The fortress itself is intriguing. Set upon a rock cliff about 450 meters above the Dead Sea, the infrastructure necessary to support the fortress is intriguing. They required an elaborate system of aqueducts and cisterns to provide water, and large storerooms to stow supplies in. Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem around the year 70 CE, a group of ‘zealots’ who refused to surrender to the Romans took over the Roman garrisons, and erected the fortress at Masada. For two years, the Romans laid siege to the fortress, and used Jewish slaves to erect a ramp to overtake the fortress. The picture below is a view from the “breeching point” of the fortress, where the Romans came in. You can see remnants of the ramp from there.
Not wishing to be taken alive, the leader of the Zealots Elazar ben Yair, directed the zealots to commit suicide rather than be taken alive. All but two women and five children apparently did. From one of the survivors, Flavius Josephus collected an account of those fateful final hours at Masada.
Ironically, Josephus, a Jew previously known as Yosef Ben Matityahu himself had become a citizen of Rome – and was considered a traitor to the Jewish cause of the time. Yet, Josephus’ work The Jewish War is now cited as a definitive historical account of this time, including by the Israel Museum as well as the interpretive displays in the old city.
For many years, IDF members were sworn in at Masada, with the oath “Masada shall not fall again”. The determination never to be limited or defined by captors is definitely admirable. There has been recent controversy stirred when an Israeli school principal made the previously required visit to Masada optional, pointing out that suicide is against Jewish law, and that if everyone had taken the zealot’s view, there would have been no surviving Jews to return to Zion.
Regardless of which side of this question you’re on, Masada is a fascinating place to visit, and a fascinating set of issues to consider.