The Masada Myth, by Amy Wigger

Today we continued our whirlwind tour of Israel’s archaeological sites. After an early breakfast, we hopped into our bus and traveled the hour and a half to the ruins of Masada, an ancient settlement most noted for the attention Josephus Flavius gives it in his account of the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in the first century CE. We first went through the Yigael Yadin Masada Museum, which opened in May 2007. Headset recordings guided us through King Herod the Great’s fortification of Masada between 37 and 31 BCE, the occupation of Masada by the Sicarii Jews during the Jewish revolt, and the 1960s excavation of Masada by Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin. After a brief video introduction, we then headed up the plateau in a cable car to see Masada for ourselves, an experience to which I shall soon turn.

View from the cable car to Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea. Photo by Amy Wigger.

Our touring of the ruins took up most of our day; after a quick bite to eat, we went for a quick dip in the Dead Sea, and then returned to the hostel for showers, dinner, and discussion on the history of the Jewish state.

While touring the ancient ruins of Masada, I was struck by the overall presentation of the place. It is stark, extreme even, as some of the cliffs rise 1,300 feet over the plain that leads to the Dead Sea. The low walls of the ruins have been partially restored: a thick black line delineates the lower, original portions from the new restorations.

Herod’s once magnificent three-tiered palace on the North Side (the second he built on the site) retains only a trace of its former glory, as indicated by the grandiose columns and partially preserved frescos. His bathhouse, too, contains only a hint of the engineering feet that it was for its time. However, the floor mosaics preserved in Herod’s first palace are among the best-preserved mosaics of this time and location in the world. And there it is: ruins of palaces, empty storerooms, and a few crumbling bathhouses are all that remain of Masada.

Rachel Simon and Joshua Weiss lead the group down toward Herod's northern palace. Photo by Ben Gordon.

The fresco and stucco decoration in Herod's northern palace. Photo by Amy Wigger.

Our main topic of discussion today centered on the modern Masada: the use of the Masada story as recorded by Josephus by the modern Israeli Zionist movement. Josephus’ account of the Sicarii and Roman confrontation at Masada is fairly straightforward: the Sicarii Jews revolted against Roman authority but fled to Masada after early military defeats. The Roman legion laid siege to Masada and built a ramp up to the main gate of Masada. The Sicarii, realizing imminent defeat and refusing to become slaves, committed mass suicide. After killing their families, the men drew lots for ten men to kill the rest. Of the ten, one was chosen to kill the rest and then fall upon his sword.

This story has been glorified by the Zionist movement of the Israeli state as a mythic event, which showcases the early Jewish people’s courage. Until very recently, Masada was used for ceremonies of state and of the military. Zionists have taken the story of the Sicarii Jews to be the story of their ancestors. Our discussion centered around an article that had problems with this presentation of Masada’s history (Nachman Ben-Yehuda, “Exavating Masada: The Politics-Archaeology Connection at Work”). Ben-Yehuda suggests that Yadin’s presentation of his archaeological finds to the public were not consistent with the evidence provided at the dig sites. He claims that Yadin presented his finds in a manner that would be particularly salient to the Zionist movement. In particular, he notes an instance where the skeletons of a man, woman, and child were found. At the staff meetings in which the skeletons were discussed, Yadin barely spends any time on them, offering almost no interpretive speculation about them. However, once his story hit the press, interpretive elements appear. More importantly, in Ben-Yehuda’s assessment, these interpretive elements change over the years, painting a ever-grander picture of an important military commander who killed his wife and child and then committed suicide. Ben-Yehuda criticizes Yadin for this that seems to indicate that Yadin was using the myth of Masada to color his interpretation of the archaeology. Yadin was involved in early Israeli politics and military, so it seems fairly obvious why he would want to re-invent this myth to inspire the Israeli people.

Hillary Martinez and Hannah Peckham lead a discussion on the Masada myth. Photo by Ben Gordon.

However, does that justify his presentation of the finds at Masada to the press? The question becomes this: is archaeology simply a tool to be used for the causes and agendas of the present, or is there an obligation to the historicity of the past? Humans naturally construct historical narratives: it is how we view not only our own personal histories but also the histories of the groups with which we identify ourselves. Myths, even though they are not historically accurate in every detail, are of great value to a society that takes great identity from them. America has its own set of myths that paint a glorified picture of our roots (for example, the myth of American being settled by those escaping religious persecution, a myth which usually ignores the fact that these settlers wiped out the Native Americans previously inhabiting the land). Having myths in and of itself is not “bad.”

However, allowing our myths to color our perspective on historical events can compromise the integrity of the history we are trying to relate, which brings us to yet another question: are the immediate concerns of the present more important than the needs of the distant past? Utilizing a past event for a modern purpose is nothing new, and if this is precisely what Yadin was doing, then he was doing nothing terribly surprising. I am not here to argue one way or the other about the legitimacy of using the story of Masada for political means at the expense of its archaeology. However, I do think that the politicization of the Masada myth, while an interesting story to ponder on an academic level, should challenge us to think about the myths that we use to build up our society.

But perhaps this means that I too just want to use the history of Masada to fuel a present concern.

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One Response to The Masada Myth, by Amy Wigger

  1. Great post, Amy. It’s good to hear that you all went to the museum first and then explored Masada. On my only trip to Masada, I did it the other way round, which makes much less sense. Good discussion of the political issues.

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