As you head south down the eastern border of Israel from the Sea of Galilee along the famed Jordan River (rather more of a glorified stream these days), into the West Bank and down to the Dead Sea, you travel from lush verdant pasture, tilled fields and highly fertile ground to bleak, rocky desert in the space of about two hours. It is quite an uncanny experience: one minute you are watching people working in green fields, enormous flocks of birds feeding on crops and generally annoying the farmers; the next minute you have camel herders pestering you for a ride, and the scene is one of desolation and the occasional Bedouin traveller pushing his wares in front of him across the sand. The Dead Sea itself is extraordinary. At 430 metres below sea level, it is the lowest point on earth; it is well known for its saltiness, you can quite literally float in it. When we went, it was the middle of winter, yet warm enough for swimming, if that is what you call lying on top of water – it is a strange experience not being able to dive down into it, and it is certainly the most awful taste if you get any in your mouth by mistake. Perhaps strangest of all is the fact that the water levels have dropped so far in recent years that many of the original waterside hotels are now several hundred metres from the waters’ edge and you need to take a taxi to go down to the sea.
Rising above the sea on both sides are rocky mountains – on the one side is Jordan, but on the Israel side the sky is dominated by a remarkable table-topped mountain, raised up by tectonic activity between two fault lines. This is the rock of Masada, upon which Herod the Great, alive around the time of Jesus, built himself the most incredible palace, a refuge in case of crisis, 1,300 feet above ground level, overlooking the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan beyond. It is an unbelievably impressive place. The views of course, across the Dead Sea to Jordan, are stunning; even more so is Herod’s achievement in building a three-tier palace, the vast top tier dominating the table top of the rock, with the two lower tiers literally built into the side of it over 1,000 feet above land. You can walk up to it these days – it takes a couple of hours – or take a cable car – as in fact over three-quarters of a million visitors do each year. Those visitors come, however, not to see a view, or to tour a ruin, but to relive the great story of Masada, one of the all-time great stories of humanity. Josephus, the great 1st century (and therefore contemporary) historian of the Jews, tells the story.
In 66AD, the Jews revolted against Roman oppression and excessive taxation in Judea. The future emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus, were sent out from Rome to quell the rebellion, and by 71AD all of Judea and Jerusalem itself had fallen, the great Second Temple of the Jews had been destroyed and only a few die-hard Jewish rebels, about 1,000 of them, known as the Zealots, had withdrawn towards the Dead Sea – and specifically to the table top of the rock called Masada, to Herod’s great defensive palace. They were soon surrounded, at the foot of the rock, by 10,000 Roman soldiers under a General called Lucius Flavius Silva.
After a siege of several months, during which the Jews had designed ingenious ways of keeping themselves in food and water, with enormous cisterns which you can still see today, the Romans finally finished building a massive rampart all the way up to the top of the rock. The historian Josephus tells us that the top of the rampart came up against a large wooden defensive wall built on the top of the rock by the Zealots. Lucius Silva initially went for a battering ram and then decided upon fire. The story goes that the fire almost proved fatal to the Romans, as the wind was blowing it in their own faces, but as if by divine intervention, the wind changed direction at just the right time and the Zealots’ wall burned down. The Romans retreated down their rampart, ready to make the final murderous assault in the morning.
That evening, the leader of the Zealots gathered his bravest men together in the small synagogue on the top of the rock, which you can still enter today. His speech started with these ominous lines: “Since we long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice.” The plan he came up with has gone down in legend. The fathers were to slaughter their own families that very night, before 10 men were drawn by lot to slaughter all the remaining men, until finally one man was drawn by lot to kill the other nine and then himself. According to Josephus, 960 people lost their lives on that rock that night, and when the Romans finally came up the ramparts the following day, they found piles of bodies, and only two women and five children hiding alive in one of the cisterns.
It is for this remarkable and gruesome story that people come to visit Masada nowadays, and indeed the sherds of pottery on which the names of the 10 men drawn by lot were written can be seen even today. Such stories of last stands against tyranny are not confined to the Jews of course – one can think of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, or Custer’s last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn – but this was a very particular example of mind against physical force. This weekend was also Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the Holocaust produced limitless examples of where the mind itself was used to defeat oppression, where people found unimaginable inner strength to survive and ultimately to defeat tyranny. Again, Jews are not the only ones to show how mental strength can overcome the most awful physical conditions – I once sat next to Terry Waite at lunch, a Church of England envoy and hostage negotiator, who was himself taken hostage in Beirut in the 1980s and went into captivity, chained and beaten in solitary confinement for months on end upon threat of death. He was there for four years before finally being freed in 1991, but he maintained an unbroken mind. So at this time of the year, at Holocaust Memorial Day, I always find myself wondering at the strength of our minds and how we can harness that strength to overcome adversity.