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NEWS | Jan. 11, 2008

At Masada, a glimpse into the Israeli soul

By Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill National Guard Bureau

MASADA, Israel - This ancient fort atop a Judean Desert butte 1,300-feet above the Dead Sea offers a glimpse into the Israeli soul.

"Masada is roughly analogous in importance to the Israelis as the Alamo is to Texas," said LTG H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau (NGB).

An NGB delegation visited Masada in December during a four-day mission in Israel to bolster the Bureau's relationship with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Command and discuss joint exercises and other possible exchanges under the aegis of the U.S. European Command.

Masada was a convenient stop en route to a modern military complex, the IDF's National Center for Ground Force Training. The modern facility offered insight into current Israeli military operations. The ancient ruins offered a glimpse into a nation's psyche as reflected in one of its most cherished legends.

"It really helps you understand the history of this region, the millennium-long struggles that have gone on for democracy and individual rights and freedoms," Blum said. "It's almost spiritual for Israel."

Here's how important Masada is: Modern Israeli soldiers swear "Masada shall not fall again" and make nighttime pilgrimages to the site as part of their initiation into the military.

"Masada is "¦ part of our Israeli and Jewish conscience," said Shraga Kelson, tour guide. "We still are involved in a battle for survival."

Masada may have first been fortified about 2,200 years ago, according to Masada National Park accounts. Herod the Great enlarged and reinforced it. After he died, a Roman garrison moved in. In the year 66, the Sicarii, a zealous sect of Jews, captured it, triggering a seven-year nationwide revolt that the Romans crushed a revolt that had serious consequences for Israel's modern history, including the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Less than 1,000 defenders at Masada held out against the 8,000-strong Roman legions that laid siege before the Romans breached the wall in the year 73.

"It's really hard to imagine what either party went through," Blum said. "The amount of determination and courage and perseverance that those that defended it had to display to stay there and to defend that desolate spot was extraordinary. On the other side, the Romans' genius and tenacity and leveraging of their contemporary technology were quite impressive. The whole thing is a case study that any modern practitioner of military arts should take the time to study."

We know about the Roman siege thanks to Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian who wrote a contemporary account, and thanks to modern archaeology that Masada National Park officials say supports Flavius' account.

We can see the story in the outlines of the eight Roman camps encircling Masada that are still visible from the ancient, breached fortress. The camps and Roman walls that snake across the desert floor prevented rebel escape.

The Romans built an earthen ramp to the base of Masada's walls. They used a wooden tower and a battering ram to breach the walls. Upon entry, they found the rebels had killed each other thus sidestepping a religious prohibition against suicide rather than be taken alive.

Here are the remains of Herod's palaces, hot baths, possibly the world's oldest synagogue and a sophisticated system of dams, canals and cisterns to capture and store water.

Masada was invoked as German forces approached Egypt in World War II. Though Israel was not yet a nation, immigration had been underway since the late 19th century. Alarmed at possible German conquest of the future Jewish state, Israeli leaders made a secret "Masada Plan" to fortify Mount Carmel and fight to the end, Kelson said.

Forgotten for centuries, Masada's renaissance in the public conscience occurred during the 20th century, Kelson said, and modern Israel's founders were among its archaeologists.

"It shows the irrepressible desire for freedom that inhabitants of this area have and their absolute, unwavering commitment to maintaining their freedom and their rights," Blum said.

Note: DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and other sources contributed to this report.



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