by Nachman Ben-Yehuda
American Sociological Association, Volume 18, No. 1 (Autumn 2003)
14 May 2008

from Sott Website

 

 

 

On the last day of October, a cavalcade of foreign dignitaries and Israeli officials joined hundreds of ordinary citizens making their way to the top of a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. They gathered to proclaim this secluded fortress, called Masada, one of the world's most important historical sites - a place worthy of global attention and protection.

The United Nations, which put the Israeli mesa on the list of World Heritage Sites, chose the place in part to commemorate the Jewish rebels who held the lofty stronghold, and eventually perished there, in the waning days of a revolt against

the Roman Empire in AD 73.

In its report on Masada, the UN concludes that "the tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally,

of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

(Monastersky, 2002)

 

 

 


Making Masada into a World Heritage Site was the last step in a very long process, which began in the early decades of the 20th century mostly by secular Jews.

 

The goal of this process was to turn Masada into a heroic memory. I have devoted some years of research to try and figure out how and why this process unfolded. In my first book on this topic The Masada Myth (1995).

 

I traced the development of the myth. This fascinating development was conceptualized within the framework of collective memory. Having finished that project, another riddle came up.

 

Between 1963-1965 Masada was excavated by a team of professional archaeologists headed by the Late Hebrew University professor turned politician, Yigael Yadin. I became very curious how was it that professional archaeologists gave such strong support to a mythical tale. Trying to decipher this riddle culminated in my 2002 book Sacrificing Truth. The two books ask different questions and use different methodologies.

 

The following short piece will detail the essence of my work on Masada.
 

 

 


The Site

Let me begin with a physical description of Masada. Masada is a butte fortress nearly 100 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem, about a 90-minute drive from the capital. This rocky geological formation is located about 2 kilometers from the west shore of the Dead Sea, and about 17 kilometers south of Ein Geddi, in one of the world's hottest places (daily temperatures between the months of May - October average typically between 33 to 40 degrees centigrade).

 

The height of the butte is about 320 meters from top to bottom. On its top there is a diamond-shaped, flat plateau. Its long axis is about 645 meters and its widest axis is about 315 meters (see Livne 1986).

The butte itself is very steep, and is accessible by foot either by climbing the eastern "snake path" (the preferable way) or, from the west side by means of climbing the natural spur upon which the Roman army built its siege-ramp. There is also a modern cable car, which makes reaching the top of Masada from the East side very easy.

The name of the butte and fortress in Hebrew is METZADA (pronounced ME-TZA-DA). The word METZADA is a derivative of the Hebrew word METZAD, or METZUDA, literally meaning a fort, fortress or stronghold. The translation of METZADA to Greek is Masada (Simchoni 1923:513).

 

The Greek translation kept its sound in English and so METZADA has become popularly known as Masada.
 

 

 


Historical Masada

There is one historical textual source for Masada - the writings of Josephus Flavius. "Erase" Josephus and there is not much we know about what happened in Masada. Questions about the reliability and credibility of the historical narrative provided by Josephus continue to haunt us, and - I suspect - will continue to occupy a small army of scholars in different disciplines.

 

For lack of other contemporary textual evidence, I suggest that we take Josephus' text as an historical base line. That is, take his account at face value as true, unless there is unambiguous and compelling evidence to caution us to be careful with his historical account.

For example, Josephus tells us that before the collective suicide on Masada, the last Sicarii commander of the fortress - Elazar Ben-Yair - made two speeches. Josephus quotes these two speeches. Unfortunately, Josephus was not there. However, he was a contemporary, he could have guessed what such a speech could have been like, and one of the survivors of the suicide (there were 7) could have told the Romans about the speeches.

 

Clearly, one needs to take the specific content of these speeches with caution.
 

 

 


What does Josephus tell us about the events in Masada?

The events in Masada cannot, and should not, be separated from the context. Between AD 66-73 the Jews in Judea revolted against the Roman Empire that controlled the region. The Roman Empire in the first century AD was at its peak of power, stretching from England to Mesopotamia and controlling a mighty and ruthless military machine.

 

Josephus expresses great doubts he had at the time about the logic - politically and military - of that revolt. Moreover, it is clear from his description that extreme groups dragged the Jews into this doomed revolt. There were a few groups involved in the incitation to revolt, two of which are relevant to Masada: the Zealots and the Sicarii.

 

While Josephus does not always make a clear distinction between the two, when he discusses Masada his usage of the term Sicarii is very consistent.

The Sicarii was a group whose name came from Sica, a small dagger members of this extreme group used to hide underneath their robes and assassinate their opponents in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Eventually, because of their ruthless nature, assassinations and terror, members of this group headed by Elazar Ben-Yair escaped from Jerusalem to Masada (it is unclear exactly when, or how, the Sicarii took control of Masada).

 

This escape took place before the Roman army put a siege on, and in AD 70 destroyed, Jerusalem. That conquest entailed burning the temple and butchering the inhabitants.

Josephus describes how the Sicarii on Masada would not come to the help of the besieged in Jerusalem; how they raided nearby villages, including Ein Geddi (where they murdered 700 women and children and robbed their supplies). As the Roman army was crushing the revolt, advancing from north to south, more and more Jews were drawn into that revolt, with tragic results. The Romans were systematically destroying any resistance.

After the fall of Jerusalem, not much was left. It took the Romans some time to decide to crush the last three fortresses that remained unsubdued: Macherus, Herodion and Masada. Masada was the last. Although we do not have an exact date, somewhere between the end of AD 72 and early AD 73, the Romans moved their 10th legion (Fretensis) against Masada.

 

The siege probably took about 7 weeks (Roth 1995) and Masada fell on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan (Xanthicus). Prior to that, Ben-Yair made two speeches to his Sicarii begging them to commit suicide so as not to fall slaves to the Romans. Out of the 967 rebels on top of Masada, 960 killed one another and 7 hid themselves and survived to tell the story.

Contrary to his description of the Roman siege around other fortified targets (e.g., Jerusalem, Gamla, Yodfat, Macherus) where the Roman army faced fierce resistance, no such resistance is described around Masada. The implication is that the Sicarii, so adept at assassination and terror, lacked fighting spirit when it came to face the Roman army. Neither did they resist the Roman army for three years nor did they stage a last stand battle but preferred suicide. Even a Biblical Samson end (that is, kill oneself together with one's enemies), was not considered.

 

Josephus expresses respect for those committing suicide but no more than that.

Thus, the historical narrative found in Josephus is sad and tragic. He describes a doomed revolt, fights among the Jews, and a bitter disastrous end of the revolt, which ended with the torturous death of a very large number of Jews and the destruction of the temple. As a final act, three years after the revolt was crushed, we have a collective suicide of a group of extremist Jews on Masada.

 

From Josephus' perspective, the end of Masada was unheroic and unwise.
 

 

 


Mythical Masada

One needs to be reminded that until the 20th century, the Masada historical narrative was largely in deep sleep among Jews. Was the historical narrative, as told by Josephus, the one Jews have been exposed to? Certainly not. The Masada historical narrative is definitely not a tale of heroics. On the contrary. And yet, Masada has been described, and is widely regarded, as a place of supreme heroism.

 

How was such a tragic and frightening narrative transformed into a heroic tale? Why? When?

To answer these questions a series of methodologies was used. To begin with, it was necessary to go back in time, search archives, newspapers and history books in order to find out when changing the Masada historical narrative took place. I located its origin in the beginnings in the second decade of the 20th century.

 

As I moved forward in time, it became clear that the early crystallization of the myth took place in the 1920s, but picked up momentum in the 1930s. In the early 1940s the myth was pretty much crystallized and ready. It had a few salient figures supporting it, but the major figure was one Shmaria Guttman whose role in originally helping the myth into being cannot be underestimated. Luckily, I could interview him, twice. The methodology for these questions thus included textual (written and transcribed interviews in the media) analysis and interviews (e.g., with children's book authors).

Clearly, the myth began to decline in the mid-1960s. It was also very obvious that the myth was developed and disseminated by secular Jews. Observant Jews were not fond of the myth, and ultra orthodox Jews even criticized it. For the latter, the idea of militarily challenging the Roman Empire, the collective suicide or the assassinations committed by the Sicarii were acts viewed with scorn rather than awe.

Now that we had the dates, we could ask the why question. The answer was obvious. As the Zionist national movement, dominated by secular Jews, began to preach and later practice the return of Jews to their homeland, they had not only to face the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as "non fighters" but also to give the young generation of Israelis some heroic narratives.

 

In this way a mystical connection with past could be achieved and a new consciousness of the new Jew could be forged. This functional necessity became much more pressing in the early 1940s when the small Jewish community in Palestine was facing the possible invasion of the Nazi Korpus Afrika commanded by Rommel.

 

The peak days of the myth thus stretch from about the 1940s to the 1960s.

Following the 1967 war (the "Six days War") new sites of heroism were accessible, new mythologies were created, and the importance of Masada declined.

 

When I say "peak" or "declined" I refer to measuring such indices as:

  • visits of Israelis to Masada

  • visits of youth movements on Masada

  • swearing-in military ceremonies on Masada

The next question is what is the Masada mythical narrative?

 

To find out, I examined tour guide books, elementary and high schools history textbooks, history textbooks, encyclopedias; we examined children's literature, movies, the arts, I joined tour guides on Masada and listened to what the guides had to say, we checked the way Masada was presented in the Israeli army, in youth movements, in the media, and in the pre-state underground groups.

 

When we look at all these sources, what the nature of the Masada Mythical narrative is becomes clear. Thus, if we take the many different sources of where the Masada myth appears and summarize them, then the essence of the Masada mythical narrative may be sketched briefly as follows:

The leaders of the popular Great Revolt were Zealots - adherents of one of the Jewish ideological trends of the period. The imperial Roman army crushed the revolt, conquered and destroyed Jerusalem together with the Second Temple of the Jews. The Zealots who survived the siege and destruction of the city escaped to the fortress of Masada, a stronghold difficult to reach atop a mountain near the Dead Sea.

 

From there, the Zealots harassed the Romans and created such a threat that the Romans decided to make the tremendous military effort required and destroy Masada. Consequently, the Romans gathered their army, made the long and arduous march in the Judean desert and reached Masada. There, they surrounded the fortress and put it under siege. After three years of heroic battle by the few Zealots against the huge Roman army, the Zealots on Masada realized that their situation was hopeless.

 

They faced a grim future: either be killed by the Romans, or become slaves.

 

Elazar Ben-Yair, the commander, addressed his followers and persuaded them all that they had to die as free men. They thus decided to kill themselves, a heroic and liberating death, rather than become wretched slaves. When the Roman soldiers entered Masada, they found only silence and dead bodies (Ben-Yehuda 2002:46).

Historical Masada has thus been transformed from a narrative of a disaster and became a symbol for a heroic last stand. In the words of another famous Israeli icon, the former chief-of-staff and politician Moshe Dayan (1983:21):

Today, we can point only to the fact that Masada has become a symbol of heroism and of Liberty for the Jewish people to whom it says: Fight to death rather than surrender; Prefer death to bondage and loss of freedom.

Clearly, the popular, widespread Masada mythical narrative retained some elements of the historical narrative in it, but in the main, it is significantly different from what Josephus tells us.

 

It takes a long, complex and at some points unclear historical sequence and reduces it to a simple and straightforward heroic narrative, characterized by a few clear themes. It emphasizes that a small group of heroes, who had survived the battle of Jerusalem, chose to continue the fight against the Romans to the bitter end rather than surrender.

 

The Masada mythical narrative is thus constructed by transforming a tragic historical event into a heroic fable. The hapless revolt is transformed into a heroic war. The questionable collective suicide on Masada is transformed into a brave last stand of the few against the many.

Some illustrative transformation themes are:

  • contrary to Josephus, the rebels are referred to as "Zealots" (for their "zeal" for freedom) instead of the Sicarii

  • the massacre in Ein Geddi disappears

  • the siege on Masada is prolonged to three years

  • the two speeches of Ben-Yair are telescoped into one and the seven survivors disappear - heroes, after all, do not hesitate and do not choose life over suicide

  • Masada is frequently portrayed as a rebel base for operations against the Romans

  • in fact, no evidence exists for this claim.

The result is the construction of a very powerful, persuasive and consistently heroic tale. Moreover, many times this mythical narrative was told to young people after a long and arduous trek in the Judean desert.

 

The plan used to call for climbing to Masada just before the sun rises over the Dead Sea in the east, and standing on top.

 

As the yellowish dreary desert wakes up, on top of the butte, the cold breeze of the morning, with torches still burning, the mythical narrative is told. The suspension of disbelief in this orchestrated Schpiel is complete, and a strong feeling of national solidarity was achieved.

 

Trust me, in my youth I was one of those young Israelis undergoing this dramatic event.
 

 

 


The archaeological excavations

Masada was excavated a few times, but the main excavations took place between 1963-1965 under the tight supervision of prof. Yigael Yadin. The next question was how come these excavations gave such a strong support for the myth?

The methodology here was different. The excavators of Masada met every day, at the end of the day, to discuss the findings of the day. These daily sessions were recorded and transcribed. The Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University allowed me full and free access to these transcriptions. Examining these transcripts, in fact, opened a fascinating porthole into the daily discussions and debates about different findings on Masada.

 

One can actually understand how the archaeologists were conducting their daily science on Masada. From that point on, what I did was to check each and every source that I could locate, as per find, to examine how the find was presented and how its interpretation developed. The follow-up ended in the 1990s when the final findings from Masada were published.

 

When examined in this way, it is easy to see how the archaeologists, time and again, sacrificed truth for a myth.

Again and again, as I demonstrate in my 2002 book, one can see how the different artifacts found on Masada were interpreted so as to support the myth. This included suppressing some findings, ignoring alternative and competing explanations, and suppressing any criticism of Yadin's version.

 

Indeed, much of the criticism about these excavations came from outside Israel.

 

It is interesting to note that when, in the 1990s, the final reports of the excavations were published (long after Yadin died and could no longer exert any influence), almost none of Yadin's interpretation found its way into these publications. Thus, in the final analysis, and to the credit of the editors of these detailed reports, science did triumph.

Let me use one illustration. On Nov. 26, 1963 the excavators found on the lower level of the northern palace three skeletons: a woman age 17-18, a child age 11-12 and a man age 20-22. Yadin is recorded as saying that this can not have been a family. Some pieces of armor were found near the skeletons. Nothing more was added to the find.

 

Yadin began to evolve an interpretation of this find and in 1966 (in a book) already suggested that these bones may have been those of the last fighter on Masada and of his family.

 

In 1971 (in an encyclopedia) he declared that the bones belonged to "an important commander of Masada and his family" and in 1973 (in a speech on Masada) these bones became,

"the remains of ... a very important commander, his wife, and their child, just like in the description of Josephus...."

Of course, where exactly Josephus describes this is not disclosed, or how these bones became a "family" of an "important commander," perhaps of the "last fighter" is entirely unclear and left to the imagination of the reader.

Yadin's interpretation of Masada was significant because it was clearly ideologically motivated, aimed to reinforce Masada's role in Israel's national narrative. Ideology (including mythology) and science have two entirely different jobs: ideologically-grounded myths are not efforts to reveal truth but to promote moral values, mobilize sentiment and energy, sustain loyalty and commitment.

 

As such the Masada mythical narrative was quite effective.

Science, on the other hand, is aimed to reveal truth, distinguish it from falsehood, and ranks the issue of validity very high. In fact, science should protect us from getting entangled in our own mythology, from actually confusing reality with fiction.

Yadin used the cloak of science to support a myth. As such, it may present a unique form of deviance: falsifying interpretations not for the sake of a scientific theory, but for the sake of a national myth.

 

By sacrificing truth Yadin also sacrificed science.
 

 

 


Conceptualizations

The Masada mythical narrative was analyzed with the analytical framework of collective memory. At that time, in the 1990s, researchers in this area were focused on such issues about the past as "did it happen or not." In this sense, the Masada myth fits very well into the Zeitgeist of the research agenda of that era.

 

Vinitzky-Seroussi's (2002) illuminating conceptualization about fragmented memory was not available in 1995 and so the main analysis was to see how the Masada myth was composed of some historical parts and some imaginary parts. This analysis basically followed Barry Schwartz's now classic distinction between the continuity and discontinuity of collective memory.

 

Like other new innovations, Vinitzky-Seroussi's recent innovation enables us a potentially fresh new look at these findings. We can try to re-analyze the commemoration of Masada as a fragmented memory, for example by different groups of Jews (e.g., secular vs. observant; or even within different secular groups). This analysis will inevitably require us to decide whether it is the nature of the past that makes it fragmentary, or if all we have is a potential for a fragmentary commemoration, which may not necessarily materialize.

In contradistinction, the main conceptual framework used in Sacrificing Truth was an examination of how science works, how knowledge is generated, and particularly how, why and when deviance in science occurs. That is, a conceptualization framed in the sociologies of science and deviance.

 

Kohl's (e.g., 1995 with Fawcett and 1998) work on the mutual influence of nationalism, politics and ideology vis--vis archaeology played an important role in this conceptualization.
 

 

 


Finale

The transformation of the Masada historical narrative into the Masada mythical narrative is a fascinating process. Much like Zertal's (1999) work, this is an examination of how a disaster was transformed into a heroic tale.

 

My work on Masada illustrates, to my mind, how one can examine with two different prisms, using different methodologies, and different interpretative analytical frameworks, a research field. And, I should not finish this piece without expressing some sense of historical irony. The last transformation of Masada is the contemporary - it has transformed into a major tourist site, even with some illegal drug parties on top.

Contemporary Israeli society has changed so much that the first two transformations simply do not fit it any longer.

 

It is now that UNESCO decided to adopt this majestic and grim place for a World Heritage Site.
 

 

 


NOTES

I am deeply grateful for the constructive comments made on a previous draft by Robert Friedmann, Erich Goode, Barry Schwartz, William Shaffir and one unnamed reader.
 

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. 1995. The Masada Myth. Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. Madison: Univer- sity of Wisconsin Press.

  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. 2002. Sacrificing Truth. Ar- chaeology and the Myth of Masada. Amherst, New York: Prometheus/Humanity Books.

  • Dayan, Moshe. (ed.). 1983. Masada. Paris: Armand and Georges Israel.

  • Kohl, Philip L. and Clare Fawcett (eds.). 1995. Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Kohl, Philip L. 1998. "Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past." Annual Review of Anthropology, 27:223- 246.

  • Livne, Micha. 1986. Last Fortress. The Story of Masada and its People, Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense Publish- ing. (Hebrew).

  • Monastersky, Richard. 2002. "Israeli Icon Under Fire" The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 6.

  • Roth, Jonathan. 1995. "The Length of the Siege of Masada," Scripta Classica Israelica, 14:87-110.

  • Simchoni, Y. N. 1923. "Introduction" to his translation of The History of the War of the Jews with the Romans. From the 1968 edition (1970 imprint), by Givataim-Ramat Gan: Masada Ltd. (Hebrew).

  • Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered. 2002. "Commemorating a Difficult Past: Yitzhak Rabin's Memorials," American Sociological Review, 67(1):30-51.

  • Zertal, Idit. 1999. "The tortured and the sacred. The establishment of a national martyrology", Zemanim, 48:26-45 (Hebrew).