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The flat-topped rock that is called Masada soars majestically above the placid blue waters of the Dead Sea and the desolation of the Judean Desert. It is difficult to imagine that such a peaceful scene was once the site of fierce battles and a mass suicide by 960 Jews --- men, women and children --- unwilling to surrender to a hated enemy.

In 66 c.e., a band of Jewish resistance fighters led by Eleazar ben Yair fled the war with the Romans in Jerusalem and took refuge at the fortress on Masada, elaborately built nearly a century earlier by King Herod, as a refuge from his Jewish subjects and from Queen Cleopatra. For six years they lived a relatively quiet life. But in 72 c.e., two years after Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple was destroyed, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against them with the Tenth Legion; they were now beleagured in the last remaining Zealot stronghold. The Jewish camp was pelted from below with catapulted rocks. A breach was made in the protecting wall; a huge ramp of light-colored earth, still there today, was erected on one side, but the Roman attempt to penetrate proved unsuccessful. Finally, after seven months of siege, the Romans set the wooden barriers alight, and the Jews were forced to make a fateful decision.

On the first day of Passover, Eleazar ben Yair addressed his comrades as follows: "We know in advance that tomorrow we shall fallinto the enemy's hands; but we still have the free choice of dying a noble death together with our loved ones...Let our wives die undisgraced, and our children free from the shackles of slavery! And after they have preceded us in death, let us perform a service of love for one another, and then the glory of having sustained freedom will take the place of an honorable burial."

Accordingly, they chose ten men by lots to slay the others and one of the ten to kill those remaining and, finally, himself. The Romans had won, but it was an empty victory, for there were no men left to capture. The event became known through the historical writings of Josephus Flavius, who spoke to two Jewish women and five children who escaped death by hiding away.

Masada was first identified in 1838 by the Americans E. Robinson and E. Smith, but it was not until the extensive archaeological digs between 1963 and 1965 by Professor Yigael Yadin and thousands of volunteers that a great cache of information was discovered. One can now see Herod's unearthed and reconstructed Northern Palace, a villa rising from the highest point on the rock and adorned with intricate and colorful mosaics, among the earliest known in Israel. There are storerooms, pools, steamrooms, and a rainwater collection system that brought comfort to the king even through the scorching heat of desert summers. Many remnants of the Zealot period were also found, including skeletons, arrows, coins, pottery, a braid of hair, a synagogue, Hebrew scrolls and two mikva'ot (ritual baths).

Today Masada is not only a tourist attraction -- with a cable-car to the top --- but a source of inspiration and a symbol of courage to all Israelis. Every year, on that isolated rock, recruits to Israel's armored corps swear their oath of allegiance: "Masada shall not fall again


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