Rarely does a dramatic landscape combine so powerfully with a dramatic story.
Masada is a natural fortress, an isolated block on the western shore of the Dead Sea. The Hebrew name, metzada, is probably related to metzuda: fortress. To the east, north and south, the drop to the plain is 1200 feet. On the west, a narrow natural saddle reaches to within 240 feet of the top, thus binding Masada to the cliff that stretches the length of the Dead Sea's western shore. The only good access was via this saddle, and upon it the Romans built an assault ramp, still to be seen.
One could also climb the zigzag "Snake Path" on the east, but this was dangerous and difficult before the modern authorities built it up. Well, it's still difficult.
The top is a plateau, 1900 feet from north to south and 650 from east to west.
One of the Hasmoneans first fortified it, but most of what we see is attributed to their successor, Herod. Herod had tested the virtues of Masada early in his career, while still struggling for power. It had kept his family safe for a year while he sought help in Rome.
Once on the throne, Herod began restoring the ruined Hasmonean fortresses at the desert passes. He turned Masada into a little paradise, replete with palaces, storehouses, pools, gardens and agriculture. Into this rocky hulk, which has no spring and gets hardly any rain, he dug and plastered cisterns with a total capacity of 40,000 cubic meters (about ten million gallons).
Where did the water come from?
And why did Herod need such a great amount of water? This question touches on his motive for building up Masada. Impressed with its natural defenses, Josephus tells us:
Herod ...prepared this fortress on his own account, as a refuge against two kinds of danger; the one for fear of the multitude of the Jews, lest they should depose him, and restore their former kings to the government; the other danger was greater and more terrible, which arose from Cleopatra queen of Egypt, who did not conceal her intentions, but spoke often to Antony, and desired him to cut off Herod, and entreated him to bestow the kingdom of Judea upon her. And certainly it is a great wonder that Antony did never comply with her commands in this point, as he was so miserably enslaved to his passion for her; nor should any one have been surprised if she had been gratified in such her request. So the fear of these dangers made Herod rebuild Masada, and thereby leave it for the finishing stroke of the Romans in this Jewish war. (War VII 8.4.)
If his enemies ever got the upper hand, all Herod would have to do was reach the place that had earlier given his family refuge. Here he could live out the rest of his natural life, no matter what happened outside. He left the southern part of the mountain free, says Josephus, for agriculture. The water wasn't only for drinking, then, but for irrigation: to ensure a permanent food supply. The storehouses on the northern end also testify to this motive of independence. Here we have an island of self-sufficiency, a bunker of last resort.
He also liked a good bath.
Young Herod's Flight to Masada
Herod tested the virtues of Masada early in his career, while still struggling for power. His foes were then the Hasmoneans (more exactly, that part of the family that refused to collaborate with Rome) and their ally, Rome's major enemy in the East: the Parthians. Both groups were besieging him in Jerusalem. He made a break for it, together with his family and army. After narrowly escaping defeat at the place he would later build up as Herodion, Herod and his followers reached Masada. Here he installed his family, including his lovely fiancé Mariamne (herself a Hasmonean), trusting that the natural strength of the place would protect them. He then went out on his own, seeking help. His search led him to Rome, where Octavian (later to be called Augustus) and Marc Antony saw his potential and persuaded the Senate to name him King of the Jews. He then returned(the whole journey had taken a year) and found that Masada had indeed protected his loved ones. With Antony's help, he went on to defeat his rivals, winning the throne in 37 BC.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (www.Lockman.org)