In 73 or 74 CE, 960 Jewish zealots – men, women and children – committed suicide on top of the mountain of Masada by the Dead Sea in Israel rather than be captured by the Romans. The story, told by the Roman historian Josephus, is one of the most famous from antiquity. But did it actually happen? Yigael Yadin, the late Israeli archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who excavated the site in the mid-1960s, said that it did. Moreover, he also said that the objects found during his dig proved it. His subsequently published book, Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand (1966), was a bestseller.
It was no secret that Yadin’s excavations at sites in Israel, such as at Hazor in the 1950s and at Masada in the 1960s, were in part undertaken in the hope of reinforcing Jewish claims to the land by linking them to biblical stories and other famous events. Some have long charged Yadin with a political agenda detached from the truth – and cast a shadow over his interpretations of the finds at Masada and elsewhere in the Levant. In 1995 and 2002, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist also at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published his own interpretation of the finds from Masada in two separate books – The Masada Myth and Sacrificing Truth. He concluded that Yadin had been incorrect in many of his interpretations, perhaps deliberately so, in the interest of creating a nationalist narrative to help the young state of Israel forge an identity for itself.
Subsequently, Amnon Ben-Tor, who is now the Yigael Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and who had excavated with Yadin at Masada, published a spirited defence of Yadin and his findings, titled Back to Masada (2009). In this book, Ben-Tor went through the archaeology again, dismissing each of Ben-Yehuda’s points and basically confirming Yadin’s point of view.
Yet the dispute goes on. The story of Masada is more than just a story of the archaeological excavations. It is an example of how archaeologists use historical information to supplement what they find during their excavations and to flesh out the bare details provided by the archaeological discoveries. Yadin made particular use of the writings of Flavius Josephus – the Jewish general turned Roman historian who wrote two books about the Jews in the first century CE and who is the primary source for what might have taken place on top of Masada nearly 2,000 years ago. And Masada shows how the relationship between archaeology and the historical record cuts both ways; since we cannot be certain that Josephus’s discussions are 100 per cent accurate, we can use archaeology to corroborate – or to challenge – the ancient text.
Masada also serves as a cautionary tale about using (or misusing) archaeological evidence to support a nationalistic agenda, as some scholars have suggested Yadin did. The debate over Masada involves the trustworthiness of Josephus’s account; the credibility of Yadin, perhaps the most famous of all Israeli archaeologists; and the influence of nationalism on the interpretation of archaeological discoveries. Whom do we believe? How should we view this seemingly tragic, heart-wrenching ancient site and event? And can we ever tap evidence from thousands of years in the past to establish the origins, legal claims and birthright of peoples today?
Masada is a tall mountain with a flat plateau on top, longer than it is wide, rising high above the surrounding dry and arid desert. It has been a tourist attraction ever since Yadin’s excavations in the mid-1960s. Hundreds of tourists per day now roam around the ruins on top of the mountain – half a million visit every year. It is the second most popular tourist site in Israel, after Jerusalem, and was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001.
It lies at the southern end of the Dead Sea, far to the south of Qumran and most of the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The top is accessible on foot only via a narrow winding track known as the Snake Path, which leads 400 metres (1,300 feet) up the front face of the massif and the Roman siege ramp still in place on the western side. It gets so hot here that rules have been put in place instructing tourists that they may begin the climb only if it is before 9:30 in the morning. After that, there’s too much chance of getting dehydrated during the ascent. Those who begin climbing before dawn are rewarded by one of the most spectacular sunrises they will ever see, but most tourists opt to ride up in the cable cars that have been installed, gliding above the Snake Path and waving to those below…