April 16, 73 Masada

The siege of the mountaintop fortress of Masada ended this day in 73.  Two women and five children who had taken shelter in a water pipe, alone remained to tell the tale.

Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem.  According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.

solomons-templeSo important is this event to the Jewish people that it is commemorated still as the bitterest day of the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning known as Tisha B’Av.

A second temple was built on the site in 516BC, and expanded during the reign of Herod the Great. This second temple stood until the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70AD, according to Jewish tradition falling on the same day as the first temple.

The first Roman involvement with the Kingdom of Judea came in 67BC.  The client Kingdom of the Herodian Dynasty became a Roman Province in the year 6AD.

Long standing religious disputes erupted into a full scale Jewish revolt in 66. Thousands of Jews were executed in Jerusalem and the second temple plundered, resulting in the Battle of Beth Horon in which a Syrian Legion was destroyed by Jewish rebels. The future emperor Vespasian appointed his son Titus as second in command, entering Judea in 67 at the head of four legions of Roman troops.

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“Depiction of the Roman triumph celebrating the Sack of Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The procession features the Menorah and other vessels taken from the Second Temple”. H/T Wikipedia

A three year off and on siege followed, with Vespasian being recalled to Rome in 69 to become Emperor. The Great Jewish Revolt was now Titus’ war.

The Jewish historian Josephus acted as intermediary throughout much of the siege, though his impartiality has been questioned since he was both friend and adviser to Titus.   Josephus entered the city at one point to negotiate but later fled, wounded by an arrow in a surprise attack which very nearly caught Titus himself.

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The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, Oil on canvas by David Roberts, 1850

A brutal siege of Jerusalem followed through most of the year 70, in which Jewish Zealots burned their own food supply, forcing defenders to “Fight to the End”.  During the final stages, Zealots following John of Giscala still held the Temple, while a splinter group called the Sicarii (literally, “Dagger Men”), led by Simon Bar Giora held the upper part of the city.

The Second Temple, one of the last fortified bastions of the rebellion, was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, July 29 or 30, 70AD. By September 7 the Roman army under Titus had fully occupied and plundered all of Jerusalem.

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Mountain fortress of Masada. Note the siege ramp to the right, by which the besieging force gained access to the top. The Romans built that.

The first Jewish-Roman war would last for three more years, culminating in the Roman siege of the mountaintop fortress of Masada.

Masada rises nearly fifteen-hundred feet above the dead sea, occupying the 18-acre plateau of a mountain described by modern Arabs as al-Sabba. “The Accursed”.

The rhomboid-shaped mesa was briefly settled around the time of the first temple (ca. 900BC), and fortified during the Hasmonean Dynasty of ancient Judaea. The plateau ends in steep cliffs falling some 1,300 feet to the east and about 300-feet on the western side. Already a natural fortress, Herod the Great equipped the place with a 13-foot wall some 1,300-feet in length, a barracks, armory and a cistern holding 200,000 gallons of water.

4d6e5b7865f7fe3f65d6c897db1ed696Masada remained the last remnant of Jewish rule in Palestine in 70, following the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the second temple.  A defending force of fewer than 1,000 (including women and children) held out for nearly two years as the 15,000-strong legions of General Flavius Silva placed stone upon stone, building the sloping ramp of earth and stone seen above.

In the end, Zealot defenders led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, never had a chance.  Preferring death to enslavement, Josephus tells us of their drawing lots, each man bearing his throat to his comrade until there remained only one.

Mountaintop excavations in 1955-’56 and resumed in 1963-’66 support this version of the end, pottery shards bearing inscribed names, in Hebrew.

It was all over on this day in 73.  Two women and five children who had taken shelter in a water pipe, alone remained to tell the tale.

There would be two more Jewish-Roman wars:  Kitos War (115–117), sometimes called the “Rebellion of the Exile”, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 through 135. The wars had a cataclysmic impact on the Jewish people, the resulting diaspora transforming a major Eastern Mediterranean population to a scattered and persecuted minority.

The Jewish people would not reestablish a major presence in the Levant until the State of Israel was constituted, in 1948.

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Old City of Jerusalem