From The Wars of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Flavius Josephus.
There sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the day time, and in the midst of the city.
Book II, chapter 13
And now a fourth misfortune arose, in order to bring our nation to destruction. There was a fortress of very great strength not far from Jerusalem […] It was called Masada. Those that were called Sicarii had taken possession of it formerly, but at this time they overran the neighbouring countries, aiming only to procure to themselves necessaries […]. But when once they were informed that the Roman army lay still, and that the Jews were divided between sedition and tyranny, they boldly undertook greater matters; and at the feast of unleavened bread, […] they came down by night, […] and overran a certain small city called Engaddi: […]. As for women and children, they slew of them above seven hundred.
Book IV, chapter 7
It was a voyage, that one, riddled with paradoxes. We were going into the world’s deepest depression to climb a tall mesa. We were going to visit the place of the last stand of a bloody sect, nowadays so sacred that it ‘s become the place of choice for swearing-in ceremonies. It was the site of a large chunk of Israel’s history, yet it lied deep in the West Bank. With hindsight, it was a good thing that neither of us had a predisposition for philosophy or introspection, or we would’ve spent the whole journey pondering about the meaning of life. What we did, instead, was talking utter nonsense and trying to ignore the naked foot, property of the elderly babushka sat behind us, that popped out between our seats as if it wanted to butt into the conversation. After a while I mercifully fell asleep, only to be elbowed in my ribcage by Dad, who wanted to know if I had seen that bridge-laying-tank that someone parked along the road.
– § –
Sicario, in Italian or Spanish; sicaire, in French. Much like assassin, this term – denoting a person whose job is to accomplish swift homicides without being seen – comes from real-life examples. In this case it was the Sicarii, a sect of Jews whose weapons of choice, the dagger, sliced – Latin secare – through the bodies of anyone who personified the Imperial control over Palestine: Romans, Greeks or Jews who cohabited with them.
The Sicarii operated in Jerusalem before the big anti-Roman rebellion of A.D. 70, emerging from the crowds to inflict mortal wounds and then disappearing again, swallowed in the humanity crammed in the narrow roads of the Old City. Guided by Eleazar ben Ya’ir the Sicarii, from their fortress of Masada, towering above the desert around the Dead Sea, launched raids that took them to unsuspecting communities, killing locals – including fellow Jews – by the hundreds and razing their properties.
Had they been around nowadays, they’d have probably ended up at the very top of every country’s list of terrorist organisations.
– § –
The Egged bus left the road coasting the Dead Sea, its salt-streaked shoreline ever receding as its tributaries’ waters are increasingly used for other uses, and drove deeper into a landscape that I could only define alien. Eventually, the road led us past a parking lot, a row of palms, a bench shaded by a tin awning and not much else; the driver shouted “Masada!” and we got off, stepping into a microwave oven of unrelenting sun, sticky desert dust kicked up by the biggest sandstorm in decades and heat. Above us, hidden in the haze, towered a family of mesas. Not for the last time, I wished that I could return under the benign stream of the aircon.
Click on the photos to start the slideshow.
– § –
The Siege of Jerusalem, culminated with the momentous destruction of the Temple, happened two years before. The Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which sent much of Judaea in flames as city after city answered the Zealots’ call, had ended as brutally as it started, in typical Roman fashion: cities sacked, inhabitants killed or sold as slaves.
Done that, the Romans seemed to have decided to call it a day. After all they had sent in 70,000 troopers, looted and sacked the province’s biggest city and dispersed its inhabitants: not much point in going around attacking smaller villages or hamlets, right? This emboldened the Sicarii, whose ranks had become greater after scores of their sect managed to escape from Jerusalem. Obeying to their beliefs, which regarded as enemy anyone who wasn’t up in arms against the Roman enemy, they started raiding the desolate Judean countryside, often resulting in bloodbaths like the one at the oasis town of Ein Gedi.
– § –
Today, the area around Masada is a lot less desolate than it was 2,000 years ago. There is a large visitors’ complex nestled at the foothill of the mountain, and a Swiss-made cable car leading to the top. Ignoring the fact that I instantaneously turned into a human fountain of sweat, I started working my way up on the Snake Path, the only existing mean to ascend to Masada, before being turned away by a ranger. It was 10.30 AM and the temperature was well into the forties: if I were to suffer a heat stroke and needed help, they would’ve had to stop the cable car, fit it with a winch and lift me up from there. And they didn’t fancy doing that.
Upstairs, in the cool of the visitors’ centre, Dad waited with his cable car ticket in hand and a knowing smile. “Told you”, he said. We grouped with another 20 or so people, boarded the cable car and went up in the murky air.
– § –
The Roman army did things properly. The governor of Judaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, left Jerusalem for what, essentially, was a police operation with a whole legion and a supporting entourage of auxiliaries and slaves that made the ranks swell to 15,000 souls. They arrived at Masada and immediately set about encircling the mesa, creating three camps, their rigorous square footprints still visible today. A palisade linked them, running all around the mountain, through the vast plains descending towards the Dead Sea and into the deep canyon to the south of Masada. The 960 Sicarii holed up in Masada didn’t intervene. Within weeks, the Romans had prevented the Jews from moving out of Masada, but they still needed to get in.
– § –
Masada’s top is a rhomboid, windswept esplanade. Concrete paths have been prepared to facilitate movement on the rock-strewn terrain, and a few buildings now have wooden or bamboo awnings with water fountains; besides that, it mustn’t have changed much from Roman times. The majority of the infrastructure lied on the North side, with residences for the powers that be, storerooms, communal baths, a synagogue, prayer rooms with stunning vistas and watch towers. The South peak dominated a steep canyon, a sheer 400-meters drop from where no one, not even a mountain goat, could arrive. The Sicariis had to have felt invincible.
– § –
Flavius must’ve known that Masada, as it was, was pretty much unassailable. But, being Roman, he also had a knack for engineering, which he immediately put down to good use by ordering the construction of a ramp. The man-made slope started from the West side, where the drop between Masada and the nearby hills was more manageable. The auxiliaries and the Jewish captives were sent labouring around the clock, whilst siege engines from the nearby camp kept pounding the Sicarii. The construction of this impressive artefact took between two and three months and, whilst it was going on, a timber siege tower, completed with an enormous battering ram, was being built nearby. The Sicarii could only watch at what was being built to come and destroy them.
– § –
We stood up on the western ramparts, looking at the ramp – still existing – and at the remnants of the third camp. All around us the colours were only the reds and tans of the desert, not a brush or tree in sight: where did the Romans get enough timber to build a siege tower, we could only wonder. All around us, the ruins on the western side had been peppered with projectiles from the Roman siege machines, but afterwards they seemed to have served a more peaceful purpose: groups of Byzantine hermits had set up a church there, complete with mosaics, and now a modern Jewish altar stood. Masada had come through the fogs of history and had become a symbol of the modern Jewish state, “Masada shall not fall again” being of the battle cries of today’s IDF recruits.
– § –
Finally, it was the time for the assault. The western ramparts were made of wood, naturally prone to the incendiary devices of the Romans; the siege tower was moved into position, battering ram pounding the walls, as the desperate Sicarii tried to hold their ground. Initially, they seemed to be getting on pretty well, helped by a strong wind that blew in their favour, sending the legionnaires’ fire back into their ranks. Then, on April 16th 73 A.D., their fortunes changed: wind changed and, with a mighty push, the X legion broke into Masada.
What they found wasn’t really what they were expecting. All 960 souls, minus two women and five children, had died, preferring being killed by their own people than to fall into the invaders’ hands. They told the Romans of how the Sicarii set fire to their homes and drew numbers, the winners killing the losers and then repeating it again, until only one was left, who then killed himself, leaving Rome with an empty fortress riddled with corpses. As ben Yair said, they preferred death to being servants of Rome.
– § –
We stood a little while over Masada, gazing at the bleak esplanade. I found it deeply ironic that what today would’ve been labelled as a terrorist group, a faction so hardcore that even the Zealots thought them to be a bit too over the lines, would become a shining light in modern Israel’s pantheon of heroes. But, if one stops and thinks about Israel – a small country sandwiched between the sea and enemies – perhaps it’s not so surprising.