In 1995 I traveled to Israel with my parents. On our adventures we visited a place near the Dead Sea called Masada. When Herod the Great became king in 37 B.C. he understood very well that his subjects hated him. He lived his whole life in fear of being killed; either by revolt from within his own country or attack by Cleopatra from next door. Herod’s priority was his own personal safety so he built a number of fortresses around the country, some including elaborate palaces. Masada was one of these strongholds. In addition to being a palace of protection, Masada was also a palace of pleasure for the King. With its walls and watch towers, elaborate gardens, swimming pools, bath houses, synagogue, and enormous stores of food and wine Masada was ready to comfortably protect and entertain the king at a moments notice. When Herod died in 4 B.C. Masada was passed on to his son Archelaus who soon lost control to the Romans. Masada then became a Roman outpost manned by a small battalion of soldiers.
The geographic details of the fortress are important to note. Masada was built upon a colossal plateau just above the Dead Sea. The only way to the top was on a very narrow trail called Snake Path, which still remains today. From the top of the rock watchmen could observe the activities going on below with very little trouble.
When the Jews revolted against the Romans in 66 A.D. the battalion at Masada was overpowered and control of the palace fell into the hands of a group Jewish zealots. After Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Romans many survivors fled to the protecting loft of Masada. This group of about 960 men, women and children were lead by a man named Eleazar ben Yair.
Unfortunately for the new occupants of King Herod’s palace, the Romans were not about to ignore the last large group of Jewish rebels. In the fall of 72 A.D. the Roman army, along with thousands of Jewish prisoners of war arrived at the base of Masada. Because Snake Path was the only way to the top of the mountain the Romans, using Jewish slaves, built a massive ramp to give them access to the wall of the fortress. On this ramp a tower was constructed from which the Romans kept the Jews under a constant rain of fire.
After a time of continuous building and battling the Romans broke down a part of the protecting wall. However, the zealots had built a second wall with wooden beams and mud which would withstand the Roman weapons for a time. The commanding general ordered his soldiers to set fire to the inner wall. When the Jewish leader, Eleazer could see there was no other means of protection for his people he gathered his congregation together and encouraged them to commit a collective mass suicide. The plan to burn everything (leaving nothing for the Romans to loot) was laid out in a final speech where Eleazer said, “One thing only let us spare – our store of food; it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished not through want but because, as we resolved at the beginning, we chose death rather than slavery.”
Judaism strongly prohibits suicide, so Eleazer commanded the head of each family to slit the throat of their wives and children, put all of their personal belongings in a heap and set them on fire. Then, lots were cast to choose one man to slay the remaining occupants. The last survivor set fire to the palace before taking his own life. However, unbeknown to the last faithful follower of Eleazer, 2 women and 5 children sat hidden in the water cistern waiting patiently for the Romans to arrive.
The following day the Romans breeched the final wall expecting to be faced with opposition. All they found was a terrible stillness and piles of corpses. Eventually the remaining women and children came out of the cistern and told the Romans what had happened in the previous hours on Mount Masada.
Now to the book:
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman is a historical fiction novel that explores the possible life circumstances of the women and children who survived the Masada Massacre. The struggles of the Jewish people, during a time we do not often learn about, came to life as the experiences they endured went from bad to worse. The religious devotion of the people is explained when Hoffman states, “People believed them (the religious leaders) because there was little else to believe.”
The story of Masada is full of distress, wars, starvation, religious devotion and immense suffering. The Dovekeepers wakes up an almost forgotten true story as the characters undergo a test of the physical and emotional capabilities of women determined to live. Although not recommended to the faint of heart, The Dovekeepers is a great read for anyone longing to learn the experiences of an unfamiliar time and place.
Here are some of my favorite passages from the book:
“Many said it was possible to view heaven from this mountain of ours, but now we seemed much closer to the first gate of hell. What we heard and what awaited us did not come from the reaches of God. It was below us, in the roar of the lion.”
“He meant to insult me, but I smiled prettily. Such things as smiles can be weapons as well.”
“If this was what the angels observed when they gazed upon our world, how we might murder each other and cause one another agony, then I pitied them as I pitied no others.”
Arial View of Masada
View from the top of Masada looking down
An ibex standing above my Dad.