Masada, an ancient fortress atop a high plateau in the Judean Desert, was the site of the last remaining stronghold of Jewish forces during their 1st-century revolt against the Romans. Masada is currently one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel. Read on for 10 facts about this iconic historical landmark.

1. It Rises 1,300 Feet Above the Desert Floor

The ruins of the Masada fortress are located atop a mesa, a flat-topped rock elevation rising abruptly from the desert floor. Located at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, the site’s remote location and difficult accessibility made it an ideal spot for a fortress.

Read: Masada

2. Herod Built Palaces and Cisterns

In the 1st century BCE, King Herod, a former slave who governed Judea under Roman patronage, built an elaborate fortress on this mountaintop, including spacious palaces, luxurious bathhouses, well-stocked storerooms, and 12 enormous cisterns. With water a scarcity in the desert, Herod built an elaborate network of aqueducts to carry every drop of rainwater from the nearby wadis to the Masada cisterns.

Read: Herod the Great

3. It Was Occupied by Jewish Rebels

In 66 CE, Jews throughout Judea revolted against Roman rule. A group of zealots (whose approach was not necessarily in line with that of the rabbis) led by Elazar ben Yair took refuge in Masada, where they found Herod’s structures and storehouses intact. Following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple three years later (69 CE), more Jews joined the group. Sustained by the extensive stores of food and water and protected by the impassable slopes, the rebels used Masada as a base for raids against the Romans (as well as competing Jewish factions).

Read: Revolt Against Rome

4. The Romans Laid Siege

Roman siege camp F and section of Roman circuvallation wall at Masada - Photo courtesy Oren Rozen
Roman siege camp F and section of Roman circuvallation wall at Masada
Photo courtesy Oren Rozen

In 72 CE, the Roman governor decided to destroy this final outpost of Jewish resistance. Gathering an army of 15,000, among whom were many Jewish prisoners of war, he laid siege to the fortress and attempted to breach its walls. After failing to breach the eastern wall, the Romans built a long ramp on the western side upon which a battering ram was hoisted. The battering ram succeeded in breaking the stone wall, and the zealots realized their end was near.

5. The Rebels Chose Suicide Over Slavery

The night before the Romans penetrated the compound, Elazar gathered the zealots and gave an impassioned speech, exhorting them to take their own lives rather than submit to Roman slavery. Each man proceeded to kill his wife and children, after which the men drew lots and killed each other. Of the 967 individuals residing in Masada, the only survivors were two women and five children who survived the mass suicide by hiding in a cistern.

Read: The Halachic Approach to Suicide

6. Info on Masada Comes From Josephus

The historical information we have about Masada comes from controversial Jewish historian Josephus Flavius.1 During the Jewish revolt against the Romans, Josephus commanded the Galilean forces. Captured by the Romans in 67 CE, he settled in Rome where he set out to chronicle the details of the unsuccessful revolt. Although the accuracy of his Masada account is the subject of debate by contemporary historians, the general outline has been corroborated by archaeological discoveries.

7. It Was Rediscovered in the 19th Century

The site of Masada was discovered by Edward Robinson and Eli Smith in 1838. Many excavations have since been conducted, uncovering most of Masada’s structures and thousands of well-preserved artifacts. The camps, fortifications, and assault ramp at its base constitute the best-preserved Roman siege system in the world.

8. It Showcases Jewish Life

Ancient synagogue at Masada - Photo courtesy Oren Rozen
Ancient synagogue at Masada
Photo courtesy Oren Rozen

Among the more fascinating discoveries made at Masada are two mikvahs that have been found to perfectly meet all halachic standards, as well as one of the oldest synagogues ever to be unearthed.

Read: Mikvah on Masada

9. It Is a World-Famous Attraction

Masada ranks as one of the most famous tourist attractions in the Holy Land, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from across the globe. Guests can access the fortress by cable car or by climbing the mountain on foot, typically using either the winding Snake Pathway on the east or the Roman-built ramp on the west. However you get there, a trip to Masada is sure to be an educational experience that will leave you both inspired and perspired. (You’re in a desert after all.)

Read: 22 Facts About the Land of Israel Every Jew Should Know

10. It Is a Symbol of Jewish Heroism and Eternity

An immersion pool carved and plastered during the time of the revolt. - Photo courtesy Yair Talmor
An immersion pool carved and plastered during the time of the revolt.
Photo courtesy Yair Talmor

As important as the Masada events are in Jewish history, it is important to remember that Jewish law forbids taking one’s own life. Some rabbinic opinions hold that suicide to avoid being tortured into sinning is allowed and perhaps even meritorious,2 but killing oneself to avoid slavery is more problematic.

The morality of their decision notwithstanding, Masada tells a tale of heroism in the darkest moments of our history, when the future of Judaism seemed bleak and hopeless. The fact that its sites are visited by thousands of proud Jews each year tells the story of Jewish perpetuity.

Although the zealots believed Jewish life in the Holy Land was all but over, history has proven them wrong: the Jewish nation is alive and well, both in Israel and the Diaspora, and will continue to endure for eternity.

Read: The Rock and the Menorah