KING HEROD'S FORTRESS
Masada perches like an eagle on an isolated cliff at the western end of the Judean Desert.
It is a place of stark beauty. The boat-shaped mountain rises 434meters (1,424ft) above the unforgiving desert, with cliffs falling steeply away on every side.
It is a natural fortress.
The Hasmonean royal family were the first to recognise its potential. They fortified it in 100BC, and retreated there whenever there was danger - which was often.
But Masada's fame came from later events:
King Herod the Great was a complex person.
A ferocious fighter, he also loved luxury, and he built two ornate palaces at Masada, one of them on three levels.
He was paranoid as well, seeing enemies in every corner. Despite the isolation of the site, he reinforced Masada's walls and built large store houses, barracks - and immense water tanks holding nearly 750,000litres (200,000 gallons) of water.
The site and its defenses made Masada impregnable. Almost.
When the Jewish people rebelled against Rome, it took a Roman army of 10 - 15,000 soldiers, fighting a defending force of less than 1,000 (many of them women and children), two years to conquer.
The Romans could not enter by the Snake Path. It was too open, too vulnerable to attack. They were only able to take the fortress by building a siege ramp right up to the walls at the top of the cliff.
They planned to breach the walls and subdue the defenders by sheer weight of numbers.
The rebels, however, preferred death by their own hands.
When the Romans entered Masada, they were greeted by silence - all its defenders were dead.
They had committed suicide the night before.
THE JEWISH FORTRESS
From his eyrie, Herod could gaze with contempt at the human ants crawling on the great plain far below.
Most people would have fortified the impregnable position and left it at that. Herod was not 'most people'. He decided to turn Masada into a showpiece of flamboyant architecture.
The site gave Herod (or his architects) the opportunity to show off. And they did, building luxurious palaces rivalling anything in the Roman world.
STOREROOMS AT MASADA
But Masada was essentially a fortress, a safe haven built to withstand a long siege, so the higher northern side of the plateau was densely built up with storage and administrative structures.
Behind the luxury buildings, separated by a wall, were the storehouse complex: rows of long halls opening onto a central corridor.
The floor of the storerooms was covered with thick plaster and the roof consisted of wooden beams covered with plaster.
The walls were constructed of layers of hard dolomite stone covered with plaster. This combination of materials guaranteed a cool interior in the hot, dry climate.
Large numbers of broken storage jars were found in these rooms. They once contained oil, wine, grains and other foodstuffs. Clay markings show the jars held some of the finest food and drink available in the Roman world at the time.
When the Jewish rebels occupied the site they turned the storage rooms into makeshift houses, squatting in the long rooms and building partitions to make separate quarters for each family.
The water supply on the barren rock at Masada was guaranteed by a network of enormous rock-hewn cisterns on the northwestern side of the hill. During the winter they filled with rainwater.
Cisterns on the summit supplied the immediate needs of the residents of Masada and could be relied on in time of siege.
Go to 'THE PALACE AT MASADA' to see how Herod lived
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