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This ancient Judaean fortress became a Byzantine monastery… but only for a while.


Daniel Esparza - published on 09/04/19

High atop a cliff in the Judaean Desert, the ancient fortress was built by Alexander Jannaeus, and transformed into a monastery centuries later by Saint Euthymius

Almost everything we know about the fortress of Masada we owe to the first century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus. High atop an isolated rock plateau, overlooking the Dead Sea, the fortress was first built by the second Hasmonean king of Judaea, Alexander Jannaeus, in the first century B.C. That is, at least 2,100 years before Norman Jewison decided to shoot the cinematographic version of Jesus Christ Superstar in these ruins.

“Masada” literally means “fortress,” so referring to it as “the fortress of Masada” might be redundant. After his father Antipater –the founder of the Herodian dynasty- died, Herod the Great captured this initially small fortification and made it his own, then building a great fortress and two palaces he would occupy in case of a rebellion. Those were the days of the power struggles that followed the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the arise of the Herodians.

But the great Siege of Masada was yet to come, just a few decades later, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman war.

Long story short, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, a group of rebels fled Jerusalem and settled themselves in Masada. Lucius Flavius Silva, who was then the Governor of Judaea, sieged the cliff for two or three months and eventually the Roman Tenth Legion was able to break through the walls and gates of the fortress and palaces of Masada in the year 73. Josephus claims, probably based on some testimonies from Roman soldiers that might have been accessible to him, that when the Romans entered the fortress they discovered the defendants had committed mass suicide –or, most likely, they killed each other- as they preferred not to be killed by Romans. According to Josephus, almost a thousand bodies were found.

The last time Masada was occupied was during the early Byzantine period, when a church and a monastery were built in the site. It was then known as the Monastery of Marda, and was occupied by the almost legendary Byzantine Monks of the Judaean Desert, Saint Euthymius being credited for founding the monastery in the fourth century. According to some sources, in Euthymius’ days this desert had already replaced Egypt as the main center of Christian Monasticism.

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