Saturday, November 08, 2008


A new musical opening in the West End is causing controversy for its subject matter – life in the wartime Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. The story is about a family of actors in the Ghetto who put on a play about the Jewish resistance against the Romans at Masada in 74AD. Many critics have raised eyebrows. The Lebrecht Weekly says “putting the Holocaust on stage is fraught with risks of moral trespass and want of verisimilitude”. However The Jewish Community Online says it is a clever plot twist to show an attempt to raise the morale of the ghetto community by staging a musical about Masada.

The history of the siege of Masada was noted by Josephus Flavius who also recorded the destruction of Jerusalem four years earlier in 70AD. The events were closely related as one led directly to the other. Flavius records that Masada was first fortified by Herod The Great who chose the site as his Winter Palace sometime in the 30s BC. Masada lay 450 metres above the Dead Sea on two strategic trade routes; to Moab in the south and Jerusalem in the north. After Herod died in 4BC, the Romans inherited the site and turned it into a garrison post.

Nothing changed until the Great Revolt by the Jews against the Romans in 66AD. One of the first actions of the revolt was the conquest of Masada by a militant Jewish group called the Sicarii (named for the curved Sica dagger they carried). The revolt spread to Jerusalem where it was brutally suppressed, leading to the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the enslavement of large parts of the population. Many fled to Masada which was the last rebel stronghold. The Romans sent the 10th Legion to end the siege and 8,000 soldiers staked out the cliffs in eight camps. The siege lasted several months until the Romans constructed a ramp. Over the ramp came a tower with a battering ram which they used to crush the walls. The relentless attack took its toll but rather than surrender, the Sicarii committed mass suicide of the 960 members of their community. The men drew lots to see who would have to do the awful deed to the others. Just two women and five children hiding in the cistern survived to tell their incredible story to the Romans.

I climbed up Masada earlier this week to see for myself the nature of its mystique. It is about an hour and a half south of Jerusalem by bus. The route descends out of the mountains that ring the city into the depths of the Dead Sea. We pass the Dead Sea resort of Ein Gedi; the “lowest place on Earth” according to one sign, before the towering cliff of Masada appears on the right.

There are two ways up the mountain from the east (there is also a Western route which is not connected by road and is an incredible 90 minutes drive away). While a cable car route was built in 1971 to provide mass transit for tourists, I prefer to walk the cheaper zigzag Snake Path up the side of the mountain. After all, this was the route that Herod and the Sicarii took to get there and if it was good enough for them, it is certainly good enough for me. The guide at the bottom told me it was 700 steps to the top and it would take 45 minutes. I did it in 30 minutes but I counted over 800 steps. Hot and sweaty at the top, I was stunned to see how big the complex was; it took up the entire plateau. The view, as I expected, was excellent with the entire vista of the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan beyond. Looking north was Qumran where in 1949 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found locked in the mountains.

Masada is a forbidding place. Situated on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert, the cliffs are severe in every direction. The camp commander’s house overlooks the top of the Snake Path giving him a total view of everything that came and went from the fort. On the other side was the quarry which provided the durable dolomite used for the buildings of Masada. Behind lay Herod’s majestic Northern Palace. Built on three rock terraces, it gave the king solitude and some amazing views. His 29 storerooms held a mass of corn, an abundance of wine and what Josephus called “every variety of pulse and piles of dates.”

Lack of food would not be a problem in a siege. The palace was also geared to support Herod’s sumptuous tastes. He had his own sommelier, a special fish sauce imported from Spain and apple liqueur from Italy. There was also a bath-house, a banquet hall and a synagogue.

The Achilles heel was the fort's western side. Here next to a second palace that Herod built, the accent to the top was not as steep. In the Hebrew month of Nissan in the spring of either 73 or 74 AD, the Romans raised a tower high enough to overlook this part of the wall and bombarded the area. They then burned the wood and earth walls the rebels had built to shore up the outer walls. With defeat certain, the defenders killed themselves rather than submit to slavery. Josephus quotes their final acts: “It is very plain that we shall be taken within a day’s time, but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with out dearest friends.”

A Roman auxiliary force occupied the fort for the next 200 years. After they finally left Masada, the site lay abandoned for centuries. The Byzantines established a monastery on the site until Palestine fell to the Muslims in the 7th century. Masada sank into oblivion until the 19th century. Archaeologists then began to uncover the old ruins. By the 1930s, Zionists saw the possibilities of the symbolism of the old fort and began to revere Masada as a sacred Jewish site. The Snake Path was discovered in 1953 and Masada National Park established in 1966. UNESCO instituted the site as a world heritage area in 1991 saying the “camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.” A worthy subject for a ghetto musical.

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