Friday, July 30, 2010

Ancient citadel offers up ruins and reasons

It’s Friday and time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Let’s remain in Israel this Shabbat and visit the ancient fortress of Masada.

Israel is a land sweet with the rich texture of antiquity and bitter with the daily realities of politics and war. Trepidation hangs uneasily in the air like distant storm clouds that can't be ignored.

Ultimately, however, the transcendent melds pleasantly with the prosaic, and a dash across this country is remembered for the pristine waters of the Mediterranean and big city verve of Tel Aviv; the affable character of Israelis in small towns like Ra'nana and Yokneam; and otherworldly moments of spiritual connection discovered along the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem.

But it's the harsh and ancient beauty found atop Masada near the Dead Sea that lingers in my mind, the citadel rising up out of a tortured landscape, a striking reminder of one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of Jewish history.

The fortress is isolated and difficult to reach, just as it was more than 2,000 years ago when King Herod built two palaces at opposite ends of the rocky cliff. Even in an air-conditioned motor coach, the trip along the Dead Sea to the western end of the Judean Desert remains a bumpy, dusty journey. But it's worth the effort.

During a trip with friends from the Land of Cotton, we focused much of our attention on the modern state of Israel – its high-tech cities and citizens, even a top-secret air force base. But on one very special day, 30 of us traveled back in time to Masada, a place that in many ways continues to define and inform the Jewish people.

After reaching the craggy citadel and taking a few minutes to stretch and listen to a guide discuss the historical significance of the fortress, many in our group hopped aboard a waiting cable car that carried them to the summit.

But about a dozen of us, looking for a challenge and a little exercise, decided to hike to the top. The weather was perfect – deep blue sky, temperature hovering in the 70s, low humidity. Still, we're warned to walk slowly and to carry several bottles of water.

David Adelman, at the time a lawyer and Georgia state senator from Decatur, now the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, squinted into the hazy distance, taking note of the dusty path that snaked its way up the eastern face of the cliff. He was dressed for the challenge – khaki shorts and shirt, hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat – and was looking forward to an enjoyable walk.

I was starting to sweat. A decade earlier – and 20 pounds lighter – I’d run the New York Marathon, but now I was standing at the base of a 900-foot cliff and feeling a little sheepish.

I smiled and recalled that it took a Roman legion nearly a year to make it to the top of the citadel. Of course, they were battling a small army of Jewish Zealots who had taken refuge there after the Romans conquered Jerusalem in the year 70.

We started slowly and quickly navigated the first 100 yards before taking in the view – an unearthly plain of sand and rock, devoid of any foliage or other signs of life, a surreal landscape that is at once menacing and beautiful.

We turned back to our task, bending into the mountain, shifting our bodies into second gear as the angle of ascent changed sharply. We ignored a jogger who passed our group and focused on the rocky trail that flattened out at the midway point.

Once again we paused to catch our breath. The morning haze had vanished and the view was spectacular. The monochromatic landscape – sandy brown everything – gave way to a widening band of blue, the Dead Sea, that is only a few miles to the east.

The trail became smaller, only a few feet wide, and steeper – nearly a 70-degree angle in some spots close to the summit. Adelman told me he climbed Mount Whitney in California a year earlier, a grueling ascent of more than 14,000 feet. I started to reply, but realized I needed to focus on my next step. I took hold of a guardrail and pulled myself up the last few yards, trying to disguise my heavy breathing.

At first glance, the summit was anticlimactic. It spread out for hundreds of yards, a softly rolling floor of rock, broken up by crumbling ruins – a bathhouse and synagogue, storerooms, towers and an apartment complex for royal guests of Herod.

Adelman is momentarily moved. He stops for a few seconds and takes a look at this place so rich in history, so inextricably linked with the Jewish experience.

"You can't help but realize that little has changed here in thousands of years . . . and the physical exertion contributes to the powerful experience," he says.

For centuries, Masada was more legend than fact. But explorers uncovered the ruins of the fortress in 1842 and in the 1960s archaeologists finally began scratching away at the ground here, gently sifting through stone and dirt and time. The story they unearthed is chilling.

For three years after the fall of Jerusalem, nearly 1,000 men, women and children clung to life atop the cliff. Food, enough for several years, was stored in underground caves and a sophisticated series of cisterns were used to collect water for drinking and bathing. The rebels launched guerrilla attacks from the fortress, raiding and harassing the Romans for two years, retreating to Masada for safety and to regroup. Imperial Rome was not amused.

In 73, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against the citadel with the 10th Legion, auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners of war. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada, laid siege to it and built a wall to keep anyone from escaping.

They eventually constructed a rampart of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth against the western wall of the fortress and, in the spring of 74, Flavius Silva began his final attack. At first, the walls of Masada held. But as night descended, it became clear that the fortress would be taken when the Romans renewed their attack in the morning.

Eleazar ben Ya'ir, leader of the Zealots, gathered his men and told them that they and their families would die the next day or become slaves of Rome. But he added that if they had the courage, they could make a bold statement about freedom by taking their own lives. And so it was decided.

The first century historian Josephus Flavius, based on the account of two survivors of Masada who hid in caves below the summit, details how the men killed their wives and children, then cast lots to choose 10 men to kill those who remained alive. They then chose the one man who would kill the survivors. The remaining rebel then killed himself.

"And so met [the Romans] with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies," Flavius wrote. "Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown."

Masada is a melancholy place and a national treasure, the most visited spot in Israel after the city of Jerusalem.

As I glanced out over the Judean Desert, the mountains of Jordan shimmering hazily across the distant horizon, I noticed a fluttering shadow. Looking up, I saw an Israeli flag, whipping about wildly as a gust of wind ripped across the summit. The moment is rich with irony.

Thousands of years ago Roman soldiers stormed this place and defeated a band of Jewish Zealots. The Roman Empire has melted into history. But the Jewish people, the ancestors of Eleazar, remain alive in their homeland, atop Masada and across the state of Israel.

DESERT FORTRESS: Masada (photo above) sits high atop a rocky cliff, a remarkable archaeological site today that once was home for a thousand Jewish Zealots battling the might of Rome.

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