The 2,000-year-old story of Masada is weird -- though only slightly more so than that of the Alamo -- in you throw in a dash of Jonestown and pinch of Pompeii thrown.
The Israeli today regard it as a symbol of perseverance and survival -- though it's a story filled with defeat and death -- and when critics refer to right-wing Israelis as having a "Masada complex" they mean it as a willingness to die rather than surrender. The defenders of Masada were, after all, the Zealots. Tourists flood the place today, though it is not easy to get to or even enjoyable in the heat of summer. People get married and Bar and Bat Mitzavah'ed there.
We visited the site with Guitana -- the gigolo of a judge friend of Sally's who needed some stimulation for a day while she was working. He was driving, a plus, and he is Roman, which appealed to me in a perverse way since they were the conquerors of Masada. He spoke no English, which made for an especially long day, but he was photogenic.
Trouble had been brewing in the Roman empire's Jerusalem holding for some time but after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 what was known as the Great Revolt was supposed to be over. The Zealots fled to Masada, atop a huge isolated rock near the Dead Sea, which was much bigger than than it is today, depleted by mucking with the Jordan River, Global Warming and siphoning of the water for minerals and salt. After Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70, the Great Revolt was supposed to be over ended- -- but a band of surviving Zealots fled to an ingenious fortress of Masada, near the Dead Sea. Herod built this place, according to a brochure they give tourists. He never actually used it but he saw it as a great defensive position for this part of the empire and it outfitted it something like a resort spa. The 960 Zealot defenders held out here for three years. They had to be hoping that the Romans would just eventually say, "To hell with this," and go -- as we tourists were tempted to.
But as the Carthaginians discovered during the Punic wars, the Romans were patient and vengeful. The 10th Legion built rams and weapons and figured out how to attack up the steep and hostile mountain. They did not have the choice of cable cars that we do today.
You can still see the spot where the fort walls were breached -- it's easy, in fact, since there's a big sign that says "Breaching Site." The Zealots saw their inevitable defeat coming and came up with a counter plan.
They picked 10 men to kill 10 comrades and then the 10 selected one of their number to kill nine, then himself. That's one version.
Another is that the Zealots agreed to commit mass suicide rather than face Roman enslavement and sale of their women into prostitution.
Flavius Josephus, who some accounts call a traitor to the Jews, wrote the only know account of the event. he said two women and five children hid and survived to spread the word. But it was mostly a forgotten story until a people about in the 1920s and a lot of archaeological digging more recently. Some 25 skeleton were found; the rest may have been lost to animals and the elements, according to guides at the site, which, though baked in the sun, offers all kinds of clues about life atop the mountain just as Pompeii does about life before Vesuvius struck.
It was hardly austere. There are still signs of ritual baths and a public swimming pool, dovecots where birds for dinner could be raised, a spacious quarter for the commander, mosaic floors and a complex and coolly engineered water system based on cisterns.