Masada – the changing meaning of a historical site/archeological site

in the reflection of a nation’s changing history

Klara Palotai, Guest Lecture
in Politics of Performance Space



Archeology in Israel

The performing space of the Bible was always an attraction for explorers, researchers and laymen in search of the past and from the early 20the century became the arena of intensive archeological activities by local archeologists and by members of foreign expeditions. Following the establishment of the nation-state in 1949, Israel developed a special “love affair” with archeology, and was used as a “tool” to return to the roots, and as a “means of acquaintance” to produce an attachment to the territory, and to learn more about the ancient land.

This impressive historical site in the Judean desert, Masada became a symbol for a heroic “last stand” for the State of Israel and played a major role for Israel in forging national identity. After its use as a national symbol faded, the meaning of “Masada” entered the political and semiotic “performance space”. The “masada-complex” became part of the vocabulary in political psychology – also in arguments with no direct connection to Israel

The Masada Story

In the years between 66 and 77 A.D. the so-called Great Revolt of Jews erupted against the Roman Empire, whose army occupied Judea at the time. The Romans responded with full force - the war culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 70 AD. To show that the Roman victory was decisive the Second Temple was reduced to ashes.

For Jewish people the 70 A.D. destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, situated on a plateau above the so-called Western Wall, meant the end of their continuous history in the land of Palestine, with no hope to restore political independence. This tragic event further intensified the dispersion of Jews all over the large territory of the Roman Empire. It is commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome, with Roman legionaries carrying the seven-branched candlestick (menora) from the Temple in the Emperor’s triumph.

In the context of this revolt, Masada becomes the major event on the historic canvas and becomes the last stand of the Jewish rebels. A group of Jewish “zealots”, at the beginning of the rebellion against the Romans, in 66 AD destroyed the Roman garrison stationing in the fortress of Masada and held it throughout the war. After the fall of Jerusalem a few survivors who had evaded capture joined the group on Masada determined to continue the battle for freedom. Using Masada as their base of operation they held out against the Romans for more than two years. In 72 AD the Romans decided for a major mobilization of their troops so that they could crush the revolt. They prepared for a long siege. Facing this overpowering Roman military presence, the group on Masada had only two alternatives: to surrender or to die. The men in Masada had no illusion about what would happen to them if they were taken alive; they knew that after the fall of Jerusalem the women and the children were enslaved and some 2500 of the men were burnt alive or killed in the arena by wild beasts or gladiators. According to Josephus Flavius’ History of the Jewish War (the only source of the event) the last survivors of the defenders of Masada, three hundred in number, killed their wives and children and then killed each other, the last man committing suicide, just before the Romans delivered their final assault.

The site of Masada

For nearly nineteen centuries the actual site of Masada was just “one rock among others”; in fact it was first identified by two American travelers, Edward Robinson and E. Smith, in 1838. It was a frequented destination for Palestine based left-wing Zionist youth groups from the 1930’s. Masada was also readily accessible, having been bought by the Jewish National Fund in 1934. Research expeditions and archeological excavations at Masada only start later, first in 1953 and again in the early 1960’s.

The story told by Josephus Flavius

The primary and only source of what happened at Masada originates from Josephus Flavius the Jewish Roman historian, writing in Greek for an upper class Roman audience, who was commissioned by Roman emperor Vespasian to write the history of Jews.

A vast literature deals with the authenticity of Josephus’ accounts. The writings of Josephus Flavius inspired many academic debates and various answers were given to the major question how credible he is and in what aspects of his accounts could be trusted. On many points stories told by him turned out to be no more than literary topos. In many instances his descriptions even contradicts military logic.

Masada - the myth

Transformed and re-evaluated by national interest it became the basis for the heroic myth. It provided the early Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1920’s with a pride heritage, a sense of clannish togetherness so essential to group survival and well-being in a hostile environment. The site of Masada became the performance space of national heritage and with the re-evaluation of the Masada narrative; it became part of the national fiction.

A poem entitled “Masada” by Yitzhak Lamdan became one of the most influential literary works for a whole generation of Jewish Israelis. In the 1920’s Masada symbolized for the poet Jewish emigration and re-establishment of the homeland in British-occupied Palestine and Transjordan with an exodus from places where Jewish life was under constant threat. Masada was used as a symbol, a remnant of a once-glorious past with proud men fighting to the bitter en against tremendous odds. The most quoted line from his poem “MASADA SHALL NOT FALL AGAIN!” conveyed power, reinforcement, and faith amid human doubts and fear. The educational authorities viewed the poem as having a high educational value, and made an integral part of the school curriculum from the late 1930’s. It kept this prominent position until the early 1960’s. Masada the poem was accepted by an entire generation as the symbol they could identify with its emotional and ideological message.

The major youth movements in Palestine were established between 1919 and 1929, reaching its peak period between 1930 and 1948. Almost all of them accepted the ideals of the Zionist movement, and they were destined to major role in the birth of the nation. Membership in these movements can be viewed as a preparation for leadership roles. Political organization sponsored these movements and they played a major role in creating a national culture and ethos. The Masada myth was one of the buildings of this ethos. Masada’s mythical narrative was translated from a story into a dramatic reality, with frequent visits to the top of the mountain, many times on unknown paths.

An instructor, Shmaria Guttman who played a major part in the introduction of one of these hikes, recalled it later: “...we had to develop within the members the knowledge to walk in the paths of the land...and to provide the younger generation with the knowledge and ability to use weapons, which would be useful to any movement that needs to protect itself.... I thought that we could use Masada to help develop these characteristics.”

With the close threat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the Passover headline of the Bamaale, one of the youth movement newsletter in 1942 reads as follows: “Put Guards, Masada, on your Walls”, and the same instructor, Shmaria Guttman, organizes a one week seminar on Masada for madrichim (guides, leaders) from the Zionist youth movements. The forty-six participants of this seminar turned out to become future leaders of the youth movements, and later on, the State of Israel, including Shimon Peres and Meir Amit.

This is the Bamaale news report about the seminar in the February 27, 1942 issue:

“Before our eyes, the world is on fire. We see nations disintegrate when they confront the diabolic Nazi power. And we see a heroic stand by other nations whose will for freedom and life is strong, that stand unmoved in the war. …. We must strengthen ourselves and stand on guard for our land and freedom with all our might. ……. For this readiness, we must intensify and amplify the mental connection with the chain of Hebraic heroism in the past. Before us we must imagine Masada-fortress of Israel that stood in the battle for the freedom of the people and the land against the legions of Rome……

…. When the young Hebraic generation defends its homeland, it will rely on the heroes of its people, the fighters of Masada.”

The biggest problem to use Masada as a positive ideology was the account of suicide in the narrative, and it had to be explained:

“I wanted to bring ourselves, the young adolescents, to the point where they could have the willingness to fight to the end. Not to die, but to fight to the end. We already stood in such difficult moments when Rommel was approaching the country, and then we turned Masada into a symbol for standing to the end.”

The 1942 seminar was followed by many others, and the Masada seminar’s “curriculum” integrated what was useful from Josephus, and by being always careful not to denounce his story completely, elements that did not fit the heroic narrative were either omitted or explained away, among others the “suicide” as a matter of no choice against the backdrop of magnified and emphasized heroic elements.

Even founding father, Ben-Gurion questioned the wisdom of educating young adults with a story where the final outcome is suicide. On August 23, 1946, he sent a message from Paris to a Mapai (the precursor to the Israeli Labor Party) conference in Mandate Palestine: "Neither Masada nor Vichy." Engaged in a bitter struggle with the British Ben-Gurion perceived Masada as a symbol of hopeless resistance, while Vichy represented a corrupt state of complacency, warning that Masada, like Vichy, was an unacceptable model for the Zionist enterprise. His view was shared by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Menachem Begin, and many other leaders and historians who questioned the political value of a narrative that ends in suicide.

Masada – The excavations

Enthusiasm for archeology in Israel is well known – and the finds became an important element of the Israeli ethos. Archeology was strongly used by the Zionist ideology to support claim to the land and help provide further evidence for the legitimization of the State of Israel.

The case of Masada seemed to be an exception.

The start of the excavation received extended media coverage. Bamaale, the monthly newspaper of one of the youth movements (Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed - “Youth who Work and Study”) published the article “Masada - History or Existence?” on wake of the first publication of the results in the major excavation on the site.

Fearing that the excavations will not support the accepted account of events on Masada the report suggests that one should not surrender to archeological authority: “The important thing is not to lose a sense of proportion and not to become enslaved to ...authority. With all due respect, there are things larger than archeology. For the human truth we create, archeology is but one ingredient.”

From the very beginning of the first massive excavation on Masada thousands of volunteers from Israel participated during the two years between 1963 and 1965. The Israeli army also helped with manpower, assisted in the logistics of the operation, and provided equipment. Besides the constant public interest, and overwhelming national exposure Masada also became the focus of international interest, with an astrological sum for budget provided by private donors from abroad and the British newspaper The Observer.

Yigael Yadin, leading archeologist of large-scale sites, and in charge for the Masada project, evaluated this great local interest as follows:

“The public’s interest in the antiquities of the land is. …phenomenal. ..This big interest does not stem from interest in archeology as such. Everyone feels and knows that he is discovering and excavating findings and artifacts from the days of his fathers. And every finding bears witness to the connection and covenant between the people and the land. From this aspect, the archeological research added an important national dimension. ..Archeology in my view reinforces the Hebraic consciousness, let us say - the identification and the connection with ancient Judaism and Jewish consciousness.” (in Bamache March 18, 1969)

The excavation uncovered almost all the territory, and also restored many buildings. The largest building found on the site was one of Herod’s palaces, known as a western palace. It contained scores of rooms and installations, and was a self-sufficient unit. Its large reception hall had a magnificient richly colored mosaic pavement with circles and border ornaments of plant and geometric designs. A mikve (religious bath - meeting all the standards) and a synagogue from this period was also found. For the description of the archeological findings during the different periods consult Yadin's book "Masada" that tells the fascinating story of the excavations itself and provides great illustrations. .

Herod’s luxurious palaces and small number of dwelling rooms were used later as command posts and public buildings, and were partitioned to serve also as dwellings for large numbers of families.


Yadin’s personality also added a whole new dimension to the excavations. A born performer, a natural media person who came through in his media experiences as an articulate, self-assured professional who knew what he was talking about. His convincing qualities added to the credibility of the interpretation of the findings, and to the “selling” of the nation myth version. With his enthusiasm he could draw people into the process of myth making, and into a deeply felt communal consciousness.

The drama in progress, the excavation of Masada and the virtuoso performance of Yadin with which he conveyed the discoveries to the public made the project as much an exercise in patriotic inspiration as in scientific research.

Masada - The archeological “evidence”

The results of the excavation between 1963 and 1965 in many aspects supported the account given by Josephus. As it was the only literary source researchers could rely on, they compared the detailed description of the physical site witnessed and described by Josephus, and cited its discrepencies and mistakes.

One of the most interesting findings was some ostraca with inscription of names, including “Ben-Yair”, identical with the name of the leader – quoted by Josephus. Interpretations of these findings agreed that it supports the suicide account of Josephus, where the men who were fighting the Romans decided the suicide-order by casting lots for themselves by using the ostraca.

Invoking further political controversies was the finding of remnant of skeletons. In October 1963 the skeletons of a number of people were discovered at two locations: three skeletons were found in the lower terrace of the northern palace-villa, a location described by Josephus as the site of suicide, and twenty five additional skeletons in one of the caves at the northern end of the Masada cliff.

This news was immediately reported by all news media and speculations started that the remains were most probably of the fighters of Masada.

Yadin’s 1966 Masada book reports the finding of the twenty-five skeletons, and by process of elimination he states that these can only be of the defenders of Masada.

In March 1967 Shlomo Lorentz, representing the ultra-orthodox party (Agudat Israel) in a speech in the Knesset demanded that the skeletons found on Masada be given a Jewish burial. The minister of culture and education, A. Jadlin not being able to decide delegated the issue on to the Knesset committees. Yadin was consulted and the committee stated that it was a matter of historical and national importance to determine the identity of the skeletons. Long and serious discussions started as to the manner in which to establish the identity of the skeletons, while the orthodox party pushed for fast resolution.

The issue was not resolved by March 1969 when Yadin announced that he is opposed to the public funeral ceremony, and stated that the evidence regarding the identity of the skeletons was not conclusive enough, and he lacks definite proof. Even the place of the planned burial ceremony was questioned, and opinions differed as to Jerusalem (where some of the rebels originally escaped) or Masada (where they died) should be the place.

Again, the committee was asked to decide. By the entire Israeli government was involved in the debate and took sides. By July 1969 the committee decided that the Israeli Military Rabbinate should be in charge of the burial. On July 7, 1996, almost five years after the discovery of the skeletons they were buried in a full and formal military ceremony, not on Masada, but near to it, on a place called “the hill of the defenders”. Evidently controversy regarding the skeletons lingered on, mainly in professional circle where scholars attacked the methods implied for the identification of the remnants.

The symbol of Masada was further re-enforced by the excavations, and Israeli chief-of-staff and politician Moshe Dayan wrote the following in the introduction of the book Masada edited by him:

“Today, we can point only to the fact that Masada has become a symbol of heroism and of liberty for the Jewish people to whom it says: Fight to death rather than surrender; prefer death to bondage and loss of freedom.”

The signal value of heritage possession was also the point made by soldier-scholar-mythmaker Yigael Yadin, to Israeli army recruits sworn in at Masada:

“When Napoleon stood among his troops next to the pyramids of Egypt, he declared: “Four thousand years of history look down upon you”. But what would he not give to be able to say: “Four thousand years of your own history look down upon you”.

The “Masada experience”


The strong and forceful image of Masada, as a major national symbol for Israel, performed on all levels of national consciousness: excavations; militant Zionist youth movements; the Israeli army, who picked Masada as the location for their famous swearing-in ceremonies that echoed “Masada shall never fall again”; history books; media; films; tourism; and the actual experience of the climb to the ancient fortress on the visually dramatic trek above the Dead Sea, deep in the Judean desert.

The Masada myth …. re-visited

The image of Masada as the main and only national site of Israel changed suddenly in June 1967, following the Six-day war. Israel emerged victoriously and gained considerable territory, including East Jerusalem, and free access to the Western Wall, surrounding the plateau where once the Temple stood.

During the early 1970’s a change attitude emerged towards the Masada story as the “last stand” approach lost its relevance in the new political context. The original narrative of Josephus appeared more frequently in print, and guidebooks to Masada. As the critical interpretations surfaced the stereotypical presentation of the Masada story became multivocal.

In the 1980’s the interpretation of the lesson offered by Masada shifted again, and the importance of “negotiation” between the Romans and rebel leader Elazar Ben-Yair received more emphasis. Gradually Masada lost its place as a symbol for the State of Israel, and became more of a tourist attraction.

Masada's significance further diminished in the Israeli mindset, arguably part of the much-decried general disregard for national heritage by the younger generation. Between 1995 and 1998, the number of visitors to the site slumped 26 percent, and according to the site’s marketing director the problem is not foreign tourism but a lack of interest among Israelis.

Masada now hosts only the occasional Engineering Corps ceremony; the Armored Corps uses its own memorial compound instead, and the Paratroopers prefer the Western Wall or Ammunition Hill, all easier to reach and relevant to contemporary Israeli battle triumphs.


“The Masada complex” / “Masada syndrome"

The expression appeared in the mid 70's and was quoted in Newsweek's July 12,1971 p.19 in Stewart Alsop's weekly column. A high official in Washington (a few years later it became public that the official was Dr. Joseph Sisco, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asia) accused Golda Meir, then Israeli prime minister of having a "Masada complex".

The political background of the birth of this expression was US support for the Soviet Union's interest to re-open the Suez Canal, where as Israel, having military units on one side of the Canal did not want to comply with the demand.

A political analyst (Jaacov Reuel) of the Jerusalem Post (August 3, 1971) wrote the following.”the alleged complex, if it exists, is not so much a personal affliction of Mrs. Meir but a national neurosis.." It was an often-returning accusation against Israel by US officials until the Yom Kippur war in 1973 October. At one occasion in March 1973 Golda Meir retorted: "You, Mr. Alsop.you say we have a Masada complex. It is true.we have a Masada complex. We have a pogrom complex. We have a Hitler complex."

To this the Hebrew literary critic Robert Alter responded, "Torch-lit military ceremonies on top of Masada are, I fear, a literal and dubious translation into public life of a literary metaphor and a Prime Minister's subsuming Holocaust, pogroms, and Israel's present state of siege under the rubric of Masada might be the kind of hangover from poetry that could befuddle thinking on urgent political issues."

Besides the concept of the Masada complex in an abstract political sense, there was an attempt to make it operational as a psychological term under the more clinical description of "the Masada Syndrome". A psychology book (Daniel Bar-Tal, Stress and Coping in Time of War, 1986. New York, Brunnel/Mazel p. 34) gives the following explanation: "the Masada Syndrome is a state in which members of a group hold a central belief that the rest of the world has highly negative behavioral intentions towards the group."

By now, the “Masada complex” is used as a synonym suicidal political psychology.

"Explaining Saddam", a the statement of Dr. Jerrold M. Post, MD, Director of the Political Psychology Program, George Washington University presented before the House Armed Services Committee in December 1990, on the brink of the US going to war with Iraq. "Saddam has recently been characterized by Soviet Foreign Minister Primakov and others as suffering from a "Masada complex", preferring a martyr's death to yielding."

Interesting to note that the full sentence in the original context the Saddam text carries a different meaning: - but nonetheless, has no connection to Israel, as it says, “Kuwait is my Masada”.

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Masada, the performance space: the mountain, the narrative, the translation, the poem, and the myth, reflect the cultural transformation of the understanding of events, events for which there is no direct historical access but much emotional interest.

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Suggested readings:

Nachum Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (1995)

Magen Broshi, Archeological Museums in Israel: reflections on Problems of National Identity, In Museums and the Making of “Ourselves”, The Role of Objects in National Identity, Flora E. S. Kaplan, ed. pp 315-331, (1996)

Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (1995)

Shaye Cohen, "Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus," Journal of Jewish Studies 33 (1982).

Raymond Newell, "Suicide Accounts in Josephus: A Form Critical Study," Society of Biblical Literature 1982 Seminar Papers

Robert Paine, "Masada: A History of A Memory," History and Anthropology 6 (1994)

Baila Shargel, "The Evolution of the Masada Myth," Judaism 28 (1979)

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