The cliff of Masada is, geologically speaking, a horst. As the cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 400 m (1,300 ft) high, and the cliffs on the west are about 90 m (300 ft) high, the natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult to navigate. The top of the mesa-like plateau is flat and rhomboid-shaped, about 550 m (1,800 ft) by 270 m (890 ft). A casemate wall was around the top of the plateau totaling 1,300 m (4,300 ft) long and 4 m (13 ft) high, with many towers, and the fortress included storehouses, barracks, an armory, a palace, and cisterns that were refilled by rainwater. Three narrow, winding paths led from below up to fortified gates.
Almost all historical information about Masada comes from the first-century Jewish Roman historian Josephus.
Josephus writes that the site was first fortified by Alexander Jannaeus in the first century BCE. Herod the Great captured it in the power struggle that followed the death of his father Antipater. It survived the siege of the last Hasmonean king Antigonus II Mattathias, who ruled with Parthian support.
No Hasmonean-period building remains could be identified during archaeological excavations at Masada.
According to Josephus, between 37 and 31 BCE, Herod the Great built a large fortress on the plateau as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt, and erected there two palaces.
In 66 CE, a group of Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison of Masada with the aid of a ruse. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, additional members of the Sicarii fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop after slaughtering the Roman garrison. According to Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist Jewish splinter group antagonistic to a larger grouping of Jews referred to as the Zealots, who carried the main burden of the rebellion. Josephus said that the Sicarii raided nearby Jewish villages including Ein Gedi, where they massacred 700 women and children.
In 73 CE, the Roman governor of Iudaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, headed the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to Masada. The Roman legion surrounded Masada, built a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau.
According to Dan Gill, geological investigations in the early 1990s confirmed earlier observations that the 114 m (375 ft) high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock. The ramp was complete in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16. The Romans employed the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 (of whom an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 were fighting men), in crushing Jewish resistance at Masada. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. Originally, Jewish rebels on top of Masada threw stones at those building and constructing the ramp. To counter this tactic, the Romans put captured Jewish prisoners from previously conquered towns to work at the ramp. The Jewish defenders on top of Masada stopped killing those who were building the ramp, choosing not to kill their fellow Jews, though they understood this might result in the Romans penetrating the fortress. The walls of the fortress were breached in 73 CE. According to Josephus, when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that its defendants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide or killed each other, 960 men, women, and children in total. Josephus wrote of two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader had made to convince his men to kill themselves. Only two women and five children were found alive.
Josephus presumably based his narration upon the field commentaries of the Roman commanders that were accessible to him.
Significant discrepancies exist between archaeological findings and Josephus' writings. Josephus mentions only one of the two palaces that have been excavated, refers only to one fire, while many buildings show fire damage, and claims that 960 people were killed, while the remains of only 28 bodies have been found.
The year of the siege of Masada may have been 73 or 74 CE.
Masada was last occupied during the Byzantine period, when a small church was established at the site. The church was part of a monastic settlement identified with the monastery of Marda known from hagiographical literature. This identification is generally accepted by researchers. The Aramaic common noun marda, "fortress", corresponds in meaning to the Greek name of another desert monastery of the time, Kastellion, and is used to describe that site in the vita (biography) of St Sabbas, but it is only used as a proper name for the monastery at Masada, as can be seen from the vita of St Euthymius.
An almost inaccessible cave, dubbed Yoram Cave, located on the sheer southern cliff face 100 m below the plateau, has been found to contain numerous plant remains, of which 6,000-year-old barley seeds were in such good state of preservation that their genome could be sequenced. This is the first time that this succeeded with a Chalcolithic plant genome, which is also the oldest one sequenced so far. The result helped determine that the earliest domestication of barley, dated elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent to 10,000 years ago, happened further north up the Jordan Rift Valley, namely in the Upper Jordan Valley in northern Israel. The Yoram Cave seeds were found to be fairly different from the wild variety, proof for an already advanced process of domestication, but very similar to the types of barley still cultivated in the region - an indication for remarkable constancy. Considering the difficulty in reaching the cave, whose mouth opens some 4 m above the exposed access path, the researchers have speculated that it was a place of short-term refuge for Chalcolithic people fleeing an unknown catastrophe.
The site of Masada was identified in 1838 by Americans Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, and in 1842, American missionary Samuel W. Wolcott and the English painter W. Tipping were the first moderns to climb it. After visiting the site several times in the 1930s and 1940s, Shmarya Guttman conducted an initial probe excavation of the site in 1959.
Masada was extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by an expedition led by Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin.
Due to the remoteness from human habitation and its arid environment, the site remained largely untouched by humans or nature for two millennia. The Roman attack ramp still stands on the western side and can be climbed on foot. Many of the ancient buildings have been restored from their remains, as have the wall paintings of Herod's two main palaces, and the Roman-style bathhouses that he built. The synagogue, storehouses, and houses of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored. The meter-high circumvallation wall that the Romans built around Masada can be seen, together with 11 barracks for the Roman soldiers just outside this wall. Water cisterns two-thirds of the way up the cliff drain the nearby wadis by an elaborate system of channels, which explains how the rebels managed to conserve enough water for such a long time.
Inside the synagogue, an ostracon bearing the inscription me'aser cohen (tithe for the priest) was found, as were fragments of two scrolls; parts of Deuteronomy 33–34 and parts of Ezekiel 35–38 (including the vision of the "dry bones"), found hidden in pits dug under the floor of a small room built inside the synagogue. In other loci, fragments were found of the books of Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms, and Sirach, as well as of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.
In the area in front of the Northern Palace, 11 small ostraca were recovered, each bearing a single name. One reads "ben Yair" and could be short for Eleazar ben Ya'ir, the commander of the fortress. The other 10 names may be those of the men chosen by lot to kill the others and then themselves, as recounted by Josephus.
The skeletal remains of 28 people were unearthed at Masada. The remains of a male 20–22 years of age, a female 17–18, and a child about 12 years old were found in the palace. The remains of two men and a full head of hair with braids belonging to a woman were also found in the bath house. Forensic analysis showed the hair had been cut from the woman's head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive (an old practice for captured women) while the braids indicated that she was married. Based on the evidence, anthropologist Joe Zias believes the remains may have been Romans whom the rebels captured when they seized the garrison.
The sparse remains of another 24 people were found in a cave at the base of the cliff. Although the excavator Yigal Yadin was unsure of their ethnicity, the rabbinical establishment concluded that they were remains of the Jewish defenders, and in July 1969, they were reburied as Jews in a state ceremony. Carbon dating of textiles found with the remains in the cave indicate they are contemporaneous with the period of the revolt, and pig bones were also present (occasionally occurring for Roman burials due to pig sacrifices); this indicates that the remains may belong to non-Jewish Roman soldiers or civilians who occupied the site before or after the siege. Zias also questioned whether as many as 24 individuals were present, since only 4% of that number of bones was recovered.
A 2,000-year-old Judean date palm seed discovered during archaeological excavations in the early 1960s was successfully germinated into a date plant, popularly known as "Methuselah" after the longest-living figure in the Hebrew Bible. At the time, it was the oldest known germination, remaining so until a new record was set in 2012. As of September 2016, it remains the oldest germination from a seed.
The remnants of a Byzantine church dating from the fifth and sixth centuries have also been excavated on the top of Masada.
Yadin's team could detect no architectural remains of the Hasmonean period, the only findings firmly dated to this period being the numerous coins of Alexander Jannaeus. Researchers have speculated that the southwestern block of the Western Palace and the auxiliary buildings east and south of it could be Hasmonean, relying on similarities to the Twin Palaces at Jericho. However, their excavators could make no archaeological discovery able to support this presumption.
According to Shaye Cohen, archaeology shows that Josephus' account is "incomplete and inaccurate". Josephus only writes of one palace; archaeology reveals two. His description of the northern palace contains several inaccuracies, and he gives exaggerated figures for the height of the walls and towers. Josephus' account is contradicted by the "skeletons in the cave, and the numerous separate fires".
According to Kenneth Atkinson, no "archaeological evidence that Masada's defenders committed mass suicide" exists.
Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. In 2007, the Masada Museum in Memory of Yigael Yadin opened at the site, in which archeological findings are displayed in a theatrical setting. Many of the artifacts exhibited were unearthed by Yadin and his archaeological team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the 1960s.
The archaeological site is situated in the Masada National Park, and the park requires an entrance fee (even if by hiking). There are two hiking paths, both very steep:The Snake Trail leaves from the eastern (Dead Sea) side at the Masada Museum and gains around 300 m (980 ft) in elevation. A dawn hike up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain (access via the Dead Sea Highway) is considered part of the "Masada experience".
The Roman Ramp trail is also very steep, but has less elevation gain, and is accessed from the western side of the mountain (with access by car from the Arad road).
Hikers frequently start an hour before sunrise, when the park opens, to avoid the mid-day heat, which can exceed 43 °C (109 °F) in the summer. In fact, the hiking paths are often closed during the day in the summer because of the heat. Visitors are encouraged to bring drinking water for the hike up, as water is only available at the top.
Alternatively, for a higher fee, visitors can take a cable car (the Masada cableway, opens at 8 am) to the top of the mesa.
A visitors' center and the museum are at the base of the cable car.
A light-and-sound show is presented on some summer nights on the western side of the mountain (access by car from the Arad road or by foot, down the mountain via the Roman Ramp path).
An example of Herodian architecture, Masada was the first site Herod the Great fortified after he gained control of his kingdom.
The first of three building phases completed by Herod began in 35 BCE. During the first phase the Western Palace was built, along with three smaller palaces, a storeroom, and army barracks. Three columbarium towers and a swimming pool at the south end of the site were also completed during this building phase.
The original center of the Western Palace was square and was accessed through an open courtyard on the northwest corner of the building. The courtyard was the central room of the Western Palace and directed visitors into a portico, used as a reception area for visitors. Visitors were then led to a throne room. Off the throne room was a corridor used by the king, with a private dressing room, which also had another entrance way that connected to the courtyard through the mosaic room. The mosaic room contained steps that led to a second floor with separate bedrooms for the king and queen.
The second building phase in 25 BCE included an addition to the Western Palace, a large storage complex for food, and the Northern Palace. The Northern Palace is one of Herod's more lavish palace-fortresses, and was built on the hilltop on the north side of Masada and continues two levels down, over the end of the cliffs. The upper terrace of the Northern Palace included living quarters for the king and a semicircular portico to provide a view of the area. A stairway on the west side led down to the middle terrace that was a decorative circular reception hall. The lower terrace was also for receptions and banquets. It was enclosed on all four sides with porticos and included a Roman bathhouse.
In 15 BCE, during the third and final building phase, the entire site of Masada – except for the Northern Palace – was enclosed by a casemate wall, which included a double wall with a space between that was used as living chambers for the soldiers and as extra storage space. The Western Palace was also extended for a third time to include more rooms for the servants and their duties.
The Masada story was the inspiration for the "Masada plan" devised by the British during the Mandate era. The plan was to man defensive positions on Mount Carmel with Palmach fighters, to stop Erwin Rommel's expected drive through the region in 1942. The plan was abandoned following Rommel's defeat at El Alamein.
The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony of Israeli Armoured Corps soldiers who had completed their tironut (IDF basic training) on top of Masada. The ceremony ended with the declaration: "Masada shall not fall again." The soldiers climbed the Snake Path at night and were sworn in with torches lighting the background. These ceremonies are now also held at various other locations, including the Armoured Corps Memorial at Latrun, the Western Wall and Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, Akko prison, and training bases.Jewish American light welterweight champion boxer Cletus Seldin wears a jacket, on the back of which is written "Remember the Masada".
Masada is a 1981 American television dramatization miniseries of the siege of Masada, based on Ernest K. Gann's historical novel The Antagonists (1971).
The Dovekeepers (2015), a two-part American television miniseries adaptation of Alice Hoffman's 2011 historical novel, dramatizes the siege of Masada.