Masada is the most visited site in Israel. It holds a special place in the heart of the Jewish State, much like the Alamo once did to Americans. In both cases, a small brave group of freedom fighters held out for as long as they could against a great Imperial power. At Masada, history has captured one of the most stirring speeches for freedom in any age (see the attached Masada photo album for more of this fascinating moment of history). After the Alamo, the US went on to win Texas and continue in its Manifest Destiny to control the continent from sea to shining sea. After Masada, the Jewish State was eradicated and the Jews once again dispersed, not to return for almost two millennia. Why then the special appeal of Masada, and what does it say about the current conflict in the Middle East?
Jerusalem is a sprawling city which has managed to keep its character. The new buildings are made out of stone that matches the yellow ochre of the desert, giving overall continuity and integrity to the sprawl. Whereas Tel Aviv feels like any modern European city, Jerusalem feels special. At the heart of Jerusalem is the Old City, which looks strangely small today - and yet fewer than 100 years ago this was all that was here. The rest is all new.
Thus it was a bit of a shock to leave the city and drive down to the desert, for one very quickly enters a different world. The drive rushes past the part of The Wall that divides Israeli territory from the West Bank. It is said that "tall fences make for good neighbors." So far the Wall has sparked international controversy - and reduced terrorist incidents and crime.
Continuing down to the Dead Sea, the drive passes through fairly desolate hillsides (at least, at high summer; it blooms in the spring), marked by occasional Bedouin camps. The proud desert nomads have crafted fairly permanent settlements which have the look and feel of the abject poverty of Appalachia in the US: corrugated steel roofs over slapped-together one-room 'tents', cars on blocks without wheels, goats roaming through the debris. On this side of The Wall, poverty slaps you in the face.
The road was deserted as we drove into the Dead Sea Valley. In a silent paean to kinder, gentler times, the sides of the road are cheerfully marked with our progress down below sea level. This route used to be full of tourist traffic, but the Intifada had put a damper on venturing onto this Israeli-maintained road through the center of the West Bank. My guide once proudly operated the largest theme park in the country, a water park at the top of the Dead Sea which we passed by on the way to Masada. It now sits as a silent durge to better times, salted away for when they come back. Even the Tourist Camel was no longer waiting on the side of the road, with a tired Bedouin seeking a few easy shekels from passers by.
As we come into the Dead Sea Valley, Jericho is off to the left - an off-limits Palestinian city near the ruins of the World's Oldest Settlement, whose walls against passers-by are no longer physical but nevertheless very real. The road takes a sharp divide at the Jordanian border, and we turn right down towards the Dead Sea rather than through the military barriers that mark the border.
We pass by Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and a worthwhile place to stop to see the ruins of the ancient community. The Scrolls tell of a monkish community devoted to the Torah. A fragment of a personal diary suggests that John the Baptist may have been an applicant for membership, but left after two years to pursue his own mission. The Scrolls were hidden from the advancing Romans, who had methodically stomped out the Jewish revolution of 70 AD. It is possible the scrolls came instead from a monkish community of Essenes in Jerusalem, also escaping the Romans. The way down to the Dead Sea today is the same route followed by armies, monks, messiahs and traders for millennia, and the caves around Qumran would have been a natural place to stash the Scrolls on the way to the impregnable fortress at Masada.
We also pass by the remaining location where tourists can experience the weightlessness of this very salty Sea. Despite the unique experience it entailed, and the inviting blue water, in 40 degree (C) desert heat, we continued onwards. No need to be turned to a Pillar of Salt. One could imagine the people fleeing from the advancing Roman legions also skipping the rare treat. We gave thankful prayers to Freon, the god of air conditioning.
The Romans weren't so lucky. They chased around 1000 people into Masada, and faced the challenge of breaching a defended and well-provisioned fort on top of a steep jut of land. Instead of scaling the mount, the Romans circumvellated it with a stone wall interspersed with small forts. Masada is an impressive escarpment jutting out of the desert floor. The Roman wall even went up, onto and over a similar rocky height just to the south of Masada, with yet another fort on top. It is difficult to imagine any escape in force that could climb down the steep southern side of Masada, then climb back up the equally steep rock beyond, then try to escape - but the Romans wanted to cut off even the hope of escape. The effect would have been suffocating to the people trapped inside. Yet Masada came with its own cisterns of water, filled during flash floods by little dams that spilled over into underground caves. Pity the Romans, sitting in the desert heat without shade or fresh water, seeing the Dead Sea glimmer, undrinkable, a short hike away.
The Romans dedicated a whole legion (around 5000 men plus around an equal support force) for the better part of a year to take Masada. With their engineering genius (read Caesar's Commentaries for examples), the Romans filled in the gap between Masada and the nearby hills, and built a ramp that could support a siege engine. The impregnable fortress fell to the irresistable force. The wall fell as night fell, and set up the dramatic suicide and stirring speech of freedom that echoes down the corriders of time.
The meaning of Masada is usually taken as the extent to which those who cherish liberty will sacrifice to achieve it. Yet even within Israel, which faces a threat to freedom every day, this meaning is debated. The Zealots who led the revolt were a minority of the country, and their rash attempt at throwing off the Roman yoke led to the loss of any independence and the end of the Jewish State. Indeed, their timing could not have been worse. The conquering general, Vespasian, and his son, Titus, got the empire back on track from the ravages of Nero, and set the stage for the so-called Five Good Emperors to deliver the famed Pax Romana, a hundred years once called the Golden Age of Man, with a level of social and economic activity that was not surpassed until the late 1800s! (The intervening Dark Ages were dark indeed.) And thus the consequences of zealotry must be weighed in the balance. The other side of the Masada story is that the personal zealotry of a minority brought ruin on everyone else. Every day with policy choices, the Israeli government faces its version of the Masada Moment - when to fight, when to compromise, how will History weigh the choice.
Extremism in defense of liberty may be no vice, but zealousness in pursuit of self-determination may be no virtue. Liberty needs to grow on a foundation, of the rule of law, respect for property, enforcement of contracts, protection of civil rights, an educated citizenry, and a culture of civic virtue. It cannot be imposed, but needs to be earned. We see this vividly with the fall of communism. China has been the largest beneficiary to date of globalization, with a remarkable number of people emerging with First World levels of income in only twenty years. Yet, in 1989 it chose a path of economic liberty over political liberty, a path previously blazed by Singapore to great success (albeit in a much smaller setting). In contrast, Russia chose a different path, of political liberty over economic, and the economy fell in the hands of the ruling class, the Nomenklatura, resulting in a political structure that best could be called a "Kleptocracy." China is surging ahead with expanding political rights, while Russia is falling back into the clutches of the strong leader.
(Yelnick visited Moscow shortly after the failed 1993 putsch and saw the chaos first hand - even within a secure military base. We were there to assist the Yeltsin government set up direct-to-home satellite TV over the vast country, to get the political message out to those parts who probably thought they were still living under communism. While on a VIP tour of Star City, the Russian space center outside of Moscow, we were confronted with a drunken and upset son of a former general who was trying to get the courage to shoot the visitors from America. We were about 15 seconds away from our 15 minutes of fame. Later, when the KGB agent had rushed us back to Moscow, we asked what had caused the son to do that. We thought the agent would say, "Vodka." His one word answer: "Democracy.")
The other meaning of Masada is to look at it from the Roman point of view. They went to great lengths to pacify Palestine. The commitment of a whole legion in the desert for a year for a small band of troublemakers, and the breaching of the symbol of impregnable safety, were calculated to intimidate the region and squelch resistance. It worked. For decades.
Bush had his Masada Moment when he proclaimed that he had won the recent Iraq war in three weeks. US warmaking power reigned as the irresistable force. Pax Americana was at hand. And yet he fumbled the moment away by failing to do what history had taught - commit the overwhelming force to secure the peace by breaking the back of any resistance. Sadly, this wasn't just a lesson of 2000 years ago, but the prime learning coming out of the debacle in Vietnam. One can only wonder how history would have been weighed differently for the Middle East - and for the modern Jewish State - if Bush had lived up to the other lesson of Masada.