Ask Gila about the Defenders of Masada




Ask Gila about the Defenders of Masada

  • I just browsed your website, and found it delightful.  Your groups must enjoy their time with you beyond words.  My question to you is, how did the Jewish defenders enter Masada with their families?  I envision that there must have been a concealed stairway, but I have not read that anywhere.

    I know that they had elaborate cisterns to retain water, but the rainfall in that area must be very limited and on a mountaintop other water sources seem unlikely.  The Roman army had a tremendous need for water as well.  Any comments of yours would be of great interest to me.

    Bud Chutter, Virginia Beach, Virginia
Thanks Bud for the very interesting questions about how the last Jewish defenders and their families coped on Masada.  According to the account by first century A.D. historian Josephus Flavius, facing off on the Masada summit against the Roman army were 967 Judeans, men, women and children.  I assume that they climbed Masada before the Roman siege would have made ascent virtually impossible, even under the cover of darkness.

As to how they reached the summit, here’s Josephus description of Masada in The Jewish War, Book VII, chapter VIII, iii, "A vast rock with a very large perimeter and lofty from end to end [which is] abruptly broken off on every side by deep canyons; the precipices rise sheer from a bottom that is out of sight, and from it rise cliffs on which no living being can get a foothold except in two places where the rock can be climbed with great difficulty."

Josephus continues by saying that one path leads from the Dead Sea on the east; the other which is easier, ascends from the west.  The western, "easier" approach was barred at its narrowest point by a large tower which was impossible to bypass and extremely difficult to capture.  The eastern path was called the "snake" path because of its narrowness and constant winding course.  "Anyone walking along this route must firmly place each foot alternatively.  Destruction is an obvious threat, for on either side, yawns an abyss so terrifying as to daunt the boldest,” writes Josephus.

Today when you visit Masada, you can climb the very same snake path described by Josephus.  On the most treacherous points, however, steps have been constructed. If you climb in the heat of summer at noon, you may dehydrate but the hike is not at all terrifying.  On average, the climb takes about forty-five minutes to an hour.  My best time was 29 minutes, but that was more than a decade ago!

There was a concealed staircase, in fact, but that was an inner staircase, connecting the three levels of the northern palace.  Some of the original winding staircase between the lower and middle terraces is preserved intact to this very day.  After visiting the northern palace to admire the stunning view and identify the Roman army camps sprawled below, walk along the southwest perimeter towards the synagogue and you'll find the steps leading down to the lower level.  You may not recognize the original part of the staircase, for it's so well preserved.  It's always best to bring a guide!

About the logistics of water, there are no springs, even at the foot of Masada where the Romans camped.  The nearest springs are at Ein Gedi, about 15 miles to the north.  When the Romans finally concentrated all energy on besieging Masada, it was imperative that they defeat the zealots before the onset of summer.

Herod the Great Engineer, builder of Masada, was aware of the scanty annual rainfall – an average of two to four inches – and invested a great deal of energy and resources in overcoming this obstacle.  In the valleys to the north and south of Masada, Herod’s engineers constructed dams to trap the run-off of rainwater from the western cliffs.  In contrast to the Judean wilderness, Jerusalem and the Hebron Mountains average 25 inches of rain per year.  Much of that runs over the cliffs and through the wadis (normally dry river beds) down to the Dead Sea.


View from Masada's northern palace

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Looking west from the Northern Palace where the winter rains rush over the cliffs

From the dams water flowed through open channels built on a moderate slope into the cisterns below the northern palace.  One aqueduct which supplied the upper row of eight cisterns below the palace is well plastered and very wide – nearly five feet.  A second aqueduct carried water from the southern valley into the lower row of four mostly square cisterns.  Each cistern could hold about 140,000 cubic feet of water and the total capacity was close to 1.4 million.

A winding path led from the upper row of cisterns to the Water Gate near the northern palace.  A number of large reservoirs cut into the summit of Masada stored water brought up by men or beasts of burden.  There were also cisterns just below the summit which collected run-off rainwater.
Josephus tells a story about the early days of Masada when Herod left his fiancée Mariamme, her mother, his mother, and other family members under the leadership of his brother Joseph and 800 guards.  The Parthians from Persia, sworn enemies of the Romans and allies of Herod’s opponents, laid siege to Masada.  The cisterns were empty, and just as Herod’s family and supporters were about to surrender or die of thirst, there was a cloudburst with rain filling all the cisterns.  Herod’s family was saved.

Flash flood in the Judean wilderness

Photo:  Courtesy of Sister Clare Sweeney

Flash flood in the Judean Wilderness

Frankly, I never quite believed the story about the miraculous rainfall, until the middle of the 1980s when black storm clouds broke while I was guiding at Masada.  I was caught with my group in a torrential downpour with ankle-deep water rushing from the summit of Masada down towards the cable car and into a channel cut two thousand years ago.  Had the channel been completely intact, the cistern would have filled with water within ten minutes!

Looking down from the top deck of Masada's Northern Palace

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Winding wadis marked by green are seen from Masada's Northern Palace

Yigael Yadin, excavator of Masada from 1963 to 1965, was apparently skeptical about this Josephus story as well.  He wrote in Masada, Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots Last Stand,

“Both during our first and second seasons, we were afflicted by particularly harsh winters.  These were a blessed boon to the country, after several years of drought, but for us at Masada, they were grim. Torrential rains which burst from the skies without warning filled the ravines in a flash, and even the canyon between our dining hall and the volunteers’ tents became a river, isolating the two sections of our camp. 

All of the wadis west of Masada, including those crossing the Bersheba-Arad road, also overflowed their banks and the new highway to Arad crumbled in several places, cutting us off from the rest of the country. There were days when the only way in which we could receive our basic supplies was by helicopter.

But we witnessed a rare natural spectacle when the two wadis which had supplied the water to the Herodian channels serving the cisterns suddenly filled up and burst their banks.  Equally exciting was the visual evidence of how Herod’s water supply system worked.  If the aqueducts had still been in good repair, all the cisterns excavated in the slope of the Masada rock would have filled up in only a few hours.”

There’s nothing that substitutes for first-hand personal experience.  Come to Masada and see for yourself!

BOOK GILA for a customized private tour

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