Masada, 2019

Last Stand at Masada

Moving like thieves, we lock the barred front door behind us and enter the Old City. We have risen at 3 in the morning and escaped our little Jewish Quarter apartment, hoping we haven’t woken our host Ariella or the mysterious tenants in the backroom who commence cooking each night at ten.

Old City Jerusalem is a labyrinth of alleys and staircases; even Google Maps fails you whilst navigating there, leading you into apartment stairwells or down streets with handmade signs that warn you to stay out unless you belong. At worst, your electronic map will lead you to entrances where you may not enter, guarded by armed soldiers informing you, “This street is for Muslims only.” Last night, in preparation for our pre-dawn escape from the maze, I scouted a route from our apartment to Jaffa Gate, dropping mental breadcrumbs to lead me to the corner where we would meet our bus. One signpost was a banner on an apartment wall that read “Being Pro-Israel Means Being Pro-All of Israel!” I wonder: Does that include the Palestinians too?

Last night a devout Orthodox Jew from New Jersey welcomed us to the neighborhood. “It’s good for Americans to come here and understand this place,” he said, speaking with the certainty of a man who has found something that you, if you are woke, are about to find too. To him, Jerusalem may be less a city of stone alleys and aging plumbing and more an idea—a stage-set for his spiritual drama. Part of me is jealous of his certainty, for I have never mustered such devotion for any Holy Land.

Our tour bus eases into Jaffa Street at 4:05 with unfailing Israeli precision. Another couple—Dutch, I think—board the full bus with us and, taking the last remaining seats, we depart in the darkness for the shores of the Dead Sea. All this early-morning stealth is necessary to reach Masada by sunrise.

We leave the street lights of Jerusalem and enter the blackness of the desert. The sun will not rise for two hours, but the blackness conceals only the Negev’s barren expanse. Chris is silent, perhaps dreading the ascent to come. Masada rises from some of the lowest terrain on the planet to a butte 400 meters above the desert plain.

We disembark in the dark and at the requisite ticket booth pay our shekels, then pass a visitor’s center still lonely as a humming rest stop on a nighttime highway. We are among the first of many busloads to empty tourists, mostly Europeans, onto a trail at the base of the mountain. The East Asians, legendarily well-prepared travelers, carry flashlights and headlamps. We have left ours in my backpack, seeking the complete Masada-at-dawn experience—and anyway, we can follow the hundred wagging beams of our fellow pilgrims to the top without using our own.

“Do we really have to descend?” Chris asks, smiling ruefully. This 1300-foot climb is my idea of a good time, and she is a champ at humoring me. The trail dips into a bone-dry ravine, which means we start the ascent at an even lower point than the ticket kiosk. Her feet have been feeling the 8- and 10-mile days in Petra and Jerash—again, my sport and not hers. Above us a tramway cable dangles, but the funicular has not begun running this early. Strangely, we hear distant drumbeats, as if a Roman legion of reenactors awaits us at the top. “Oh God please not that,” I mumble.

As an amateur historian I should know better than to seek heroes, let alone entire heroic peoples. If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that people are people—the product of evolution and its accidents. Despite knowing as much, I persist in choosing heroes, and the Jews are among my foremost. People of the Book, lawyers and scholars, modern Israelis have ridden a phoenix out of the ashes of Dachau and Auschwitz. Little Judea, surrounded by foes on all sides who try relentlessly to push her off her tony beaches and into the Mediterranean.

The trail is steep, though not as steep as the gravel ramp the Romans built here in 74 CE to claim the city from the recalcitrant Jewish Zealots. Chris is by now suffering, and I am nearly certain that I have not convinced her that the vista from the top is worth the agony. Though we are climbing at an altitude a mile lower than our home, the stone stairs are relentless, the switchbacks pitiless and sheer. As recompense, the view from one of our dozen rest-stops offers us a panorama of the Dead Sea, now reflecting the first rays of morning sun. It’s clear now that we won’t make the summit by sunrise; it’s just as well, as there won’t be a classic, searing Levantine sunrise awaiting us anyway, as the first cloud-cover of our trip has mercifully arrived this very morning.

The drumbeats grow louder, and I realize now that it is melody I am hearing overtop the drums. Something heroic, like the soundtrack of a TV-miniseries movie about Masada. Maybe music for an American Western, where the Navajo make their last stand in Canyon de Chelly before Carson and the Army of the West burn their orchards. Except this is a Jewish soundtrack, of course, in an Israeli national park. Like Americans, the Jews are entitled to their national myths, and the Last Stand at Masada is one of their most cherished.

And what a myth it is: known around the world, and unlike so many myths, borne out by credible historical evidence. A Jewish military leader cum historian, Josephus Flavius, tells the sole version of the story about the Zealots’ heroic mass suicide on the mountaintop. After a four-month siege, it was clear that the Romans were about to breach the walls of Masada. Food was running out for the Zealots, and while the Negev Desert behind them offered little sustenance—the Dead Sea, after all, contains not a single fish—the caravan routes were open to the eight Roman camps surrounding the mountain stronghold.

“There’s the loading platform for the tram,” I tell Chris. “We can ride it down if you like.” But it’s not the descent she dreads, but rather these last steep stairs to the top. Little boy that I still am, I’m ready to bound to the ramparts to see this Olympos of Resistance, but I take Chris’s hand and coax her up another switchback.

The drumbeats are louder now; though we can’t see the summit, we can at least hear it. The tram has begun running, bearing truckloads of people over our heads. It’s becoming clearer that today is different than other days at Masada, that a holiday I had never heard of till a month ago, Sukkot, is in full swing. In the dim dawn our fellow European and Far Eastern tourists who’ve read the Masada legend—very likely many of them on one of those Bible Trail bus tours—are making their way steadfastly to the mesa; but apparently others have preceded us, having arrived well before sunrise.

We breach the casemate wall opposite the Roman ramp, and the ruined city that I’ve seen in a half-dozen tour-book photos now hosts a concert stage, complete with stacks of amps and rainbow stage lights. It turns out that Berry Sakharov, whom I will later learn is the highly acclaimed “Prince of Jewish Rock,” is leading this devoted Israeli crowd, all fit enough to ascend Masada and keep dancing like gypsies through sunrise, in a spirited rendition of a song I’ve never heard. It’s a good sound—a little klezmer, a little stadium-rock—with lyrics entirely Hebrew, so that I don’t understand a word of it. It’s as though a Maori tribesman has taken the wrong subway stop and wandered into a Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands. The lyrics certainly seem important to Sakharov’s audience, and I realize that, like most of this country I’m traveling in, it is not meant for me.

And so it is that we have a soundtrack for the dramatic vistas we view from the top, from Herod’s destroyed palace and the ramparts where the Zealots watched with growing terror, week by week, as the Romans built a ramp to push their siege engine to Masada’s gate. When it became clear to the Zealots that, once again, the Romans were invincible and that the mighty Jewish resistance was about to be crushed, word went out that ten men among the remaining 960 Zealots would be chosen to slay his remaining 950 kinsmen, rather than be taken by the Romans and marched back to Jerusalem in shackles to live out their lives in bondage. The Israelites had known quite enough of bondage for the past ten centuries, and they would be slaves no more.

The ten survivors—whose names were found 1500 years later on ten ostraca—clay shards—had elected their general, Eleazar ben Yaír, to kill the other nine assassins, and then in the end the general had pledged to take his own life—a sin, presumably, but one Yahweh would forgive under the circumstances. It was all to create an unforgettable tableau for the Roman legionnaires: they would bound, howling, over the walls, spilling into the plaza like marauding wolves, only to find their quarry already dead.

What had the Zealots meant by the gesture? Josephus tells us only that “they refused to be taken as slaves.” But why not, in a final fury, decrease the ranks of the Romans by a few dozen soldiers? Why not die, bravely defending their city, with an audience of sons and daughters vowing revenge upon the Romans before they clapped them in shackles? Perhaps the Zealots knew themselves well—knew that it was easier to make the refusal all at once, a people together, rather than be lured, willy-nilly, into a life of servitude. Perhaps the more pertinent question for an American—we who have known the suicide bomber and pilot: How did the Romans regard this scene of horror when they arrived, victorious? Were they humbled, shamed, dishonored? Or did they simply dismiss the Zealots as savages, monotheistic fanatics who were “too good” for the hard facts of this world?

For modern Israelis, Masada is sacred ground, a monument to what is best in the Jewish character. Recruits in the invincible Israeli army are routinely brought to this promontory for their induction into military service; in torchlight, they recite “Masada shall not fall again!” For me—well, I’m still sorting out the meaning of the place. The nineteen-year-old Israeli soldiers who patrol the Old City, a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulders and a finger on its trigger, trouble me. They seem to have replaced the Roman centurions who once lorded it over the Jews and put down their rebellion. They have turned the Arabs of Jerusalem, long resident in its precincts, into the latest persecuted people; the Arab districts are now ghettoes, rife with unemployment, demilitarized zones of poverty amidst plenty, and inevitably, stubborn despair and rage that spills into violence—which, of course, is put down with Kalashnikovs and tear gas.

Should it surprise us—and I include the Israeli army and the American military enterprise that supports them so generously—when devout Muslims strap bombs to their bodies and go to their deaths before the dishonor of conquest? The human heart bears certain urges that prove timeless, among the people of all nations.