Saturday, June 25, 2011

Days 16-19: Our Journey South, Part 2

I know that I am nearly a week late, but I will conclude our journey south this past weekend with a sharing of my favorite part of the trip--our time at Masada.

We awoke slightly earlier than we had the previous day to prepare for a trip to Masada and to the Dead Sea as we meandered our way back to the Galilee.  I awoke earlier than I intended, but I grabbed a book and planted myself in a hamock just outside the room to read until others began to stir.  I did not rest long before a friend came by and asked me if I cared to join her and another guy for a walk.  I put my book up and we ventured forth into the morning happenings of Kibbutz Lotan.

Our path drew us to the goats of the kibbutz.  We stood outside and watched a couple of people milking and feeding the goats.  After a few moments, one of the men invited us inside to watch more closely.  Upon entering, we met a couple of other people from our group who had had a similar idea.  It was a fascinating short period of time in which we met three different men with three very different stories.  When we felt the hunger pains of breakfast calling us away, one of the young men asked us to help fill the goat feed with him.  We complied with excitement, for now we could say that we had partaken in the socialist inner-workings of an authentic Israeli kibbutz.

We ate breakfast quickly and then boarded the bus for our two hour ride to Masada.  Masada derives from a Hebrew word meaning "fortress."  And to look upon its sheer cliffs, I doubt that I could name it any better.  Masada sits high above the Dead Sea with cliff sourrounding three sides.  The fourth side, I would still classify somewhat as a cliff, but a small winding road somehow manages to snake its way the very top.  (Both today and in ancient times, this skinny path is and was known as "the way of the snake.")

One of Eighteen Cisterns
The original fortress of Masada harkens from the Hasmonean times, the period of Jewish autonomy between Hellinistic rule and Roman rules.  This original Hasmonean fort has never been excavated, however, for upon Herod the Great's ascension to the Jewish throne as a client king of Rome, Herod not only expanded but nearly teraformed the top to mold Masada's features to his likings.  Herod's vast building project included two palaces, giant cisterns (when I say giant, I mean huge!  One cistern contained enough water to quench the thirst of a thousand individuals for over a year), bath houses, and nearly any other convenience a Roman citizen could name.

Herod built Masada along with four other fortresses near the border of his kingdom in order to disuade any Jews from rebelling.  Herod's claim to the throne was weak, as he was only Jewish on his father's side and he originally had no connections with the Hasmonean throne.  Masada stood as a testament of Herod's power and as a reminder to Jews that Herod was their king.

One of the Legionnaire Fortrs
Masada is most known for the role that it took following Herod's reign during the first Jewish revolt.  The story comes to us through the ink of Flavius Josephus, a client of the emperors Vespasian and Titus.  Josephus writes that a group of rebels took Masada and that these rebels were joined by more in the year 70 CE after Jerusalem had fallen.  Rome, not wanting to leave a hint of rebellion in the land, left a contigent of 5,000 soldiers (2,500 legioares and 2,500 axuliary troops) to besiege the fortress.  Rome quickly realized that the Jews could far outlast the Romans in a siege, for the Roman supply line was thin and expensive while the Jews above cast water below, taunting the Romans with their comfort and abundant supplies.  At this point, we are not sure how long the siege lasted but it is guessed to have taken place between two to six months.  In this time, the commander of the Roman contingent, Lucius Flavius Silva, built a circumambulation wall and a series of eight fortresses surrounding.  This wall completely encircled Masada, allowing no on to enter or no one to leave unless the Romans approved.  (This was standard practice in any Roman siege.  It worked tactically as well as psychologically.  Can you imagine looking down and seeing Roman camps surrounding a vast wall, lit aflame, demeaning any thought of escape or survival?)

The Romans then began the last phase of the siege, the construction of a giant ramp to the fortress.  The purpose of the ramp was to allow siege weapons (think things like battering rams) easy access to the walls of the fortress.  The Romans constructed large wooden boxes, placed them next to Masada, filled the boexes with rocks, packed earth upon them and repeated until a massive ramp formed before them.  At this point, the archaeology and history blends with myth as we rely on Josephus to recount what happened next.

According to Josephus, the Jewish rebels accepted their fate around this time during the siege.  The leader of the rebel contingent, Elazar ben Ya'ir, convened a group of men who decided that a mass suicide would be a kinder end than serving as slaves to the oncoming Romans.  After the decision had been made, the group of men went forth and slew the women and children.  The men returned to cast lots.  Ten men were chosen to kill the remaining men.  After they had accomplished this deed, each man turned to kill one of his companions, leaving a lone man at the end to commit suicide (so in the mass suicide, only one person actually commited the Jewish sin of suicide).

The story continues that a couple of women hid a cistern and eventually survived to tell the tale of the brave warriors fate.

A View from the Top of Masada,
looking down at the Snake Path
Masada is an insanely interesting tale from antiquity, riddled with mysteries both archaeolgically and historically.  I have studied the site several times, beginning with an archaeolgoy class that I took in college.  Nothing could have prepared me for actually standing where these events occured.  The scale and size of Herod's building projects loomed larger than anything I could have possibly imagined.  The pictures I took while there fail to encompass the majesty and horror of Masada's history.  But maybe that is for the best.  Seeing the world through the lens of a camera can sometimes be a dangerous thing.

I am very far behind on blogging.  In every dig, there is somewhat of an emotional slump.  It hit hard when we got back from our trip and just lifted in the past couple of days.  It was a period when no one can really remember when we began the dig, and the end still seems to far away.  This past week was a lot of sleeping, a lot of digging, a lot of eating, and not a lot of much else.  A few highlights, however, I will write about later.  These include a trip to Migdal on Tuesday (the home of Mary Madgalene) and a special trip to Sepphoris with Dr. Byron McCane and his Wofford students.  I will write more about this hopefully later today or tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.