Sunday, February 13, 2011

Masada: Myths, Archeology and Significance

Last week I joined a tour pf Masada given by Dr. Guy Stibel, an archeologist who has been digging there for many years.

Israel long ago got over its fascination with archeology, and Masada has lost much of its national glamor. IDF units no longer hold ceremonies there, no-one uses slogans such as "Masada will not fall again", and the national frenzy which accompanied the excavations there in the 1960s is, quite simply, inconceivable. Even the memory of those years is largely gone, though a faint bad taste lingers, for the way archeology was used for the creation of a national myth..Why, until the tour last week I had never given and thought to the fact that the excavation is still ongoing: who knew?

So there wasn't anything surprising that Stibel spent the whole day talking about specific findings rather than meta-historical narratives. This area is where some Essenes lived; over here seems to have been the administrative center during the uprising against the Romans; most of the Jews on the mountain were Pharisees, lots of them simply refugees from the sacking of Jerusalem. The Roman siege lasted three months at the most. The artificial ramp was built on a natural outcropping, so it wasn't that hard to build. The pottery shards Yadin found with 11 names were probably not used for deciding who would be the last to commit suicide, since in recent years archeologists have found many additional such shards, which probably served some administrative purpose. And so on.

Only on the way back to Jerusalem did he sum it up, and relate to the myth-making parts of the story. Did the defenders of Masada really commit mass suicide during the night before the final Roman attack? Well, probably yes. The general outline of the story also still stands: the mountain was essentially empty until Herod built his palaces there in the first century BCE. The Sacarii launched the revolt against the Romans by attacking the small garrison and taking over its armory. After the destruction of Jerusalem many hundreds of refugees converged there. In 73 CE Lucius Flavius Sylva and his legion X Fretensis laid siege and within a few months conquered it. With the exception of some Christian monks in the 5th century, no-one ever lived there again; indeed, the place never interested anyone until the 20th century.

All of which I found rather comforting. It has always seemed to me that the most important part of the story is not if there was a mass suicide or not, but rather that nowadays it's Jews (and tourists to Israel) who stand atop the mountain and look down at the dusty remains of those Roman armies. The Roman victors dropped out of history 1,500 years ago but the Jews are still here to look at their remains. This is as true today as it was at the height of the myth-making years.

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