I visited Masada today.
I’ve been there scores of times. From my own first visit as far back as November 1981, 37 years ago, to going with a tour group earlier this year, I must have been there over 50 times. Everyone who has visited Israel, it seems, has been to Masada. It is one of the “must go” places on any tour itinerary. This year it will have over a million visitors.
But today was different. I was privileged to be invited to join a small group of scholars on a ‘behind the scenes’ tour led by the lead excavator of the ongoing excavations at the site, Dr Guy Stiebel of Tel Aviv University.
I think I learned more today than I’ve learned on all my previous visits.
Herod’s incredible northern palace, for example, was even more magnificent than I could have imagined, with elements of Roman and Greek architecture in a location designed to impress from afar and, conveniently, to catch the cooling north breeze.
The middle level included a library that contained the oldest Greek manuscript found in Israel. It was a record of a consignment of lettuce, perhaps used by Herod for medicinal purposes. Other products at Masada included a consignment of wine from southern Italy of the 19 BC vintage (a particularly good year), fish sauce from Spain (just imagine!), and apples preserved in honey and spices from Italy.
From the period of the Jewish Revolt of 66 to 73 AD, when the site was finally overrun by the Romans, we learned of the ongoing re-evaluation of the conclusions of Yigal Yadin who excavated there in the 1960s. A religious installation turns out to be a huge bread oven, and the tannery turns out to be a laundry; significant, as both professions are mentioned on ostraca from the site. (An ostracon - plural ostraca - is a broken piece of pottery with a written inscription on it.)
I learned that the community there during the Revolt was not uniformly made up of rebels against Rome, but likely included different groups who took refuge there, literally refugees from the collapsing Jewish communities under attack by the Romans. Among these were some from Qumran who, in addition to bringing some of their scrolls, brought their separateness and unusual customs too, living apart in the southern part of the mountain.
And perhaps most interestingly of all, it was suggested that the Roman siege did not last the three long years of popular mythology, but rather just a matter of weeks. The Roman army was nothing if not efficient, and hanging around in the desert all that time watching the mountain’s occupants defy them for years never made much sense. So this new theory has great attraction, and is overdue. And again, the cause of the siege was discussed too. After all, the war was long over, victory declared already in 71 AD with processions and monuments back in Rome. Why did the Romans return to Masada to overthrow this relatively small band of rebels? Was it simply that they were irritated by their challenge, as we’ve been told for so long? Or was there a more solid reason?
Hypotheses are there to be challenged, new evidence demands a review of even the most preciously held ideas, and while a site like Masada, so exceptional and so important, is bound to have many shibboleths, we have to review them, challenge them, and face the fact that sometimes even the most precious myths are just that, myths, ideas built on sand, whose ultimate crumbling to dust is inevitable.
So I suppose today was more than just a trip up the mountain with an expert. It served as an invitation, a reminder to be alert to the inevitability of sometimes difficult challenges to long held and even precious assumptions.
After all, in life we learn that only that which is built on solid rock will last.