The story of Masada is one that has captivated the imagination of many over the centuries. This ancient fortress, built high upon a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, bears witness to a dramatic moment in Jewish history – the last stand of the rebels against Rome in 73 AD. In this blog post, we will explore the origins and history of this legendary site to understand exactly who built Masada and why.
Masada is located in modern day Israel’s Judean Desert, not far from the Dead Sea. The Hebrew word “Masada” means fortress, which aptly describes this impressive stronghold. Surrounded by high cliffs on all sides and only accessible by a narrow winding path called the Snake Path, Masada was nearly impregnable. The top of the rock plateau provided a natural defensive position with panoramic views overlooking the surrounding desert and Dead Sea valley below.
In 73 AD, Masada was the site of a famous last stand during the First Jewish-Roman War. A group of Jewish rebels known as the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison stationed there and occupied the fortress. When the Romans later besieged Masada, the rebels chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender. Today, Masada stands as a symbol of Jewish courage and defiance in the face of oppression.
But the history of Masada stretches back centuries before this dramatic end. So who first built this legendary fortress and why? Understanding Masada’s origins provides insight into the strategic importance of this location as well as the determination of Herod the Great to make his mark on the land.
- Masada was originally built as a fortress by Herod the Great between 37-31 BC.
- Its remote location and natural defenses made it an ideal site for a fortress.
- Masada gives insight into Herod’s ambitious building projects and drive to secure his rule.
- Later rebels and Romans would struggle for control over this strategic stronghold.
Masada’s Origins as a Hasmonean Fortress
The natural fortress of Masada was first used for defensive purposes during the Hasmonean dynasty of Judea. The Hasmoneans were priestly rulers descending from the Maccabees who governed Judea semi-autonomously from the 2nd to 1st centuries BC.
The Jewish historian Josephus describes how the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) was the first to fortify Masada in the early 1st century BC. Jannaeus, who reigned during a volatile time of civil war in Judea, built a wall around the top of the rock plateau to create a refuge and base for his army. The remote location and existing natural defenses of the cliffside made Masada an ideal protective stronghold for the king at a time of instability.
So Masada’s early use as a fortress dates back to the late Hasmonean dynasty and King Jannaeus’ efforts to strengthen his military position during a period of unrest. The stage was set for Masada to play an increasingly strategic military role in the coming decades.
Herod’s Development into a Luxurious Fortress Palace
While Masada functioned as a Hasmonean fortress in its early years, the site was dramatically expanded and improved under King Herod the Great of Judea in the late 1st century BC. Herod, an Idumean appointed as king of Judea under Rome from 37–4 BC, undertook huge building projects across his realm, including the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Masada was no exception to Herod’s ambitious building drive.
Shortly after taking power, Herod set about transforming the modest Hasmonean fortress into a luxurious desert palace fortress. From 37-31 BC, Herod oversaw the construction of an elaborate complex of palaces, fortifications, water systems, and storage buildings that made Masada almost a city unto itself. This included:
- New palace buildings – At the northern tip of the rock plateau, Herod built an intricate complex of palaces for himself, complete with bathhouses, gardens, and colonnaded courtyards in the lavish Roman style. The three-tiered northern palace was Herod’s own personal quarters.
- Expanded fortifications – The earlier Hasmonean walls were strengthened and expanded, with the added height giving defenders the advantage against potential sieges. Round towers, barracks, and weapon stores were added to reinforce Masada’s defenses.
- Innovative water systems – In the middle of the desert, Herod engineered an ingenious system of aqueducts and vast cisterns to supply the fortress with water. These systems collected rainfall and runoff, allowing Masada to withstand sieges.
- Storage buildings – Dozens of storage buildings, including long pits cut into the rock, were built to allow the fortress to be self-sufficient when cut off from outside supply lines.
The scale of Herod’s vision for Masada is evident in the sheer enormity of construction. It is estimated over 1 million cubic meters of stone were cut, moved, and laid to build Masada. Herod spared no expense to create a fortress palace he could escape to and withstand any potential siege or revolt. Masada became a symbol of Herod’s kingship, ambition, and engineering capabilities.
So Masada owes its remarkable transformation into an opulent desert stronghold to Herod’s determination and resources as king of Judea under Rome’s authority. His vision turned Masada into one of the most elaborate fortified palaces of its day in the Roman world.
- Herod the Great dramatically expanded Masada from 37-31 BC.
- He built palaces, fortifications, water systems, and storage facilities.
- This transformed Masada into a luxurious fortress palace.
- Masada demonstrated the wealth, vision, and power of Herod the Great.
Masada’s Later History and Legacy
While Herod’s Masada started as a luxurious refuge, the site later proved its merit as a defensible stronghold for rebels against Rome. During the First Jewish Revolt starting in 66 AD, a group of Jewish Zealots known as the Sicarii overtook the Roman garrison at Masada and made it their base of operations. When the Romans returned to lay siege in 73 AD, the nearly 1,000 men, women, and children inside Masada chose to die by suicide rather than surrender. Only two women and five children survived to tell the legendary tale.
This dramatic final stand imprinted Masada into Jewish and Israeli memory as a place of heroism. After the creation of modern Israel in 1948, Masada became an iconic site and an Israeli army induction ceremony takes place there annually. Archaeological excavations in the 1960s also uncovered many of the ancient structures built by Herod, giving insight into Masada’s crucial role in the region’s history and defense.
While best known today for this epic last stand against Rome, none of this would have been possible without the earlier vision and construction of Herod the Great. By turning Masada into an engineered fortress palace of wonder, Herod unknowingly set the stage for this small desert plateau to play an outsized role in regional history for centuries to come.
So as we reflect on Masada, we see how layers of history intersect in this stark and remote desert landscape. An ambitious king and a defiant rebel group each found purpose in Masada’s walls – divided by time, but joined by the fortitude of this enduring desert stronghold.
- Masada became a rebel stronghold during the First Jewish-Roman War starting in 66 AD.
- In 73 AD, rebels famously committed mass suicide there when besieged by Rome.
- Masada remains an important Jewish historical and symbolic site.
- Herod’s earlier development of Masada made its later history possible.
In exploring who built the legendary fortress of Masada, we uncover a fascinating story of vision, power, conflict, and mythology. While used as a modest fortress under the Hasmoneans, it was Herod the Great’s ambitious development into a lavish palace citadel that made Masada an engineering marvel of its day. His extensive building program in the 1st century BC transformed the site into a symbol of his reign.
Masada’s later significance as the last stronghold of Jewish rebels against Rome was only possible because of Herod’s earlier fortification and development of the remote site. Its storied history has made Masada one of Israel’s most iconic historical locations. The natural beauty, ingenious engineering, and symbolic importance of Masada continue to move and inspire visitors from around the world.
So whenever you gaze upon the rocky cliffs and desert landscape of Masada, remember – none of this would have been conceivable without the grand vision and resources of Herod the Great over 2,000 years ago. Masada stands as a monument to his indelible mark upon the land.