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Masada: I visit the ancient fortress of Masada, and a mysterious man presents his view of what happened there.
Posted by Douglas, Jun 13, 2008. 2250 views. ID = 1380


Posted by Douglas, Jun 13, 2008. 2250 views. ID = 1380
This post was written in 19 minutes.
This post has been awarded 31 stars by 7 readers.
This post is Part 3 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man.

Masada is the ruins of an ancient fortress, located on a high plateau overlooking the Dead Sea to the east and the barren Negev to the south and the west. For those who are in good physical condition, and don't mind the heat and dryness of the trek, it is possible to climb the rhomboid plateau by way of the Snake Path, or the ancient Roman ramp. Others, like myself, choose to take the aerial tram, a cable car that lifts you high above the desert floor as it makes its way to the summit.

As I peered out through the tram windows, looking at the expanse of the Dead Sea below, I recalled the many times I have hiked in the Bigelow mountain range and looked out at Flagstaff Lake to the North, astonished by the lush, green and blue beauty. This gray and brown landscape was so extraordinarily different that I felt I had stepped into an alien world. It was a dry and dusty landscape filled with history that was ancient even before my own land was settled.

In 66 A.D., Jewish rebels who refused to submit to the Roman government made their final stand on this plateau, barricaded inside the fortress. It was a sensible location; with nearly vertical walls on every side of the plateau, Masada seemed impenetrable and completely safe. And safe it was, for seven years.

In 72 A.D., the Romans began the long and tedious process of building a siege ramp up the side of the plateau, conscripting laborers from all over the empire, and even forcing Jewish slaves to help build the ramp, thereby working toward the destruction of their own people. Then, in the spring of 73, when the ramp was complete...

"You're looking in the wrong place."

Every muscle in my body went suddenly rigid. Though the words came from behind me, I knew exactly who that voice belonged to. Even the tones of his voice seemed bovine - deep and slow, and filled with rumbling bass overtones. I turned around slowly and stared in astonishment at the man I had last seen at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv.

"What?" I said, stupidly.

"You're looking in the wrong place," he repeated. His black, brooding irises filled his wide eyes almost completely, and I shuddered at the sight of them. "Come," he added. "I'll show you."

I followed a few steps behind him as he crossed the plateau, climbing over broken foundations and through the doorways built into crumbling rock walls. I was so startled by the man's sudden and unexpected appearance that I couldn't even find the words to ask him who he was. Instead I blurted out, "Why did you follow me here?"

"Follow you?" he scoffed. "Follow you? This is my home." Then he added, as an afterthought, "One of them anyway." Indeed, the certainty of his unhesitating steps over the rubble made it clear that he had been here many times before.

"Here, here, and here," he said, pointing at the ground. He stood where two partially demolished walls came to a point near an arched doorway. "Here is where the children lay. One after another in straight rows. Terrified, the older ones were. Dripping with sweat, shuddering with fear, trying so hard not to wail and scream, trying so hard to be brave for the younger ones. But even the little children, the ones who did not understand what was happening, even they were terrified. They could smell the fear of their older brothers and sisters, and that fear caused their bowels to loosen. Even the infants knew something was wrong and wailed as loudly as their little lungs would allow."

A warm breeze spun up the mountainside, lifting the dust and swirling it around my feet. For just a moment I imagined I saw within the subtle movements of the dust a multitude of terrified faces, mouths opened wide in soundless screams of horror. The wide, frightened eyes of those ghostly children pleaded with me for help, but there was nothing I could do for them; they had died so many years ago, and I was helpless to change their past. Then the breeze died, and the strange apparitions died with it.

The bovine man appeared not to have noticed the ephemeral vision, but an irrational part of my mind suspected that he had somehow orchestrated the waking nightmare. "Here," he continued, unphased. "Here is where the women lay. They were strong, I'll give you that. There was no trembling, no weeping, just silent, stoic mothers laying next to their children with eyes closed, waiting for the end to come."

He laughed, and the laugh was innocent and delighted - the laugh of a little child chasing a butterfly. I could not comprehend the sort of twisted personality that could produce that sort of laugh in response to the tragic events of Masada. I shuddered again, but said nothing.

A part of my mind was imagining the plight of the women and children lying in rows, waiting for death, while another, more analytical part of my brain was wondering how the bovine man could know such specific details. The most detailed account of this tragic story was in the writings of Josephus, and even he hadn't been so specific. I wanted to ask my strange companion how he could know so much about what had happened, but I was afraid his answer would be, "I was there," and in my current mental state, I feared that I would actually believe him. So I said nothing at all.

"Then there were the men. Slowly, deliberately, they passed through those rows, killing their wives, their sisters, their children, their grandchildren, their nephews and nieces. Then, when all the little ones, all the wives were dead, they lay down themselves, and waited for the chosen one - the one who had drawn the short straw - to finish them all off, and finally to kill himself."

I nodded. It was the story I had heard and read many times. "They couldn't bear to live under the rule of a foreign government, so they killed themselves before the Romans could break through the gates," I said. "Give me liberty, or give me death."

The bovine man laughed again, but this time his laugh was derisive. "You Americans," he scoffed. "You Americans are all alike. Everything is about freedom. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness - all that sort of thing. Do you really think they did it for freedom?"

I didn't know what to say.

"Have you even read the Hebrew scriptures?" he demanded, his black eyes flashing.

"Of course. They are the Old Testament of my Bible, you know."

"So tell me then, when were the Israelites ever free? Under David? Solomon? Don't make me laugh. They were never free even under the greatest of their pathetic kings. That old geezer Samuel, he knew what he was talking about when he warned the people about kings. David tore sons from fathers, husbands from wives, to fight his wars of conquest and expansion. Solomon was even worse - he taxed the people to the breaking point and took children from their fathers, all for the sake of building his precious temple for his precious Hebrew god. Do you think the people were free under Solomon? Then you need to go back and read the story of Rehoboam again - that might clue you in. No, the Jews were never free. These rebels didn't lay down their lives, the lives of their women and children, for freedom. They didn't even know what freedom was."

I wanted to argue, to protest that David was a good king, that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, but the confident certainty of this cow-eyed man made me doubt my own knowledge and my own understanding. So instead I said, "Freedom comes from Truth."

"Oh, good. Quote your Christian god in the middle of a discussion about ancient Judaism. That'll score you some points for sure.

"You want truth? I'll give you truth. Truth that no one wants to hear. These poor, miserable rebels called on their god - your god - to save them, and either he was on vacation, or he just didn't care, because he ignored every one of their desperate pleas. So in their final extremity, they prayed to retain the one thing that they still could call their own: their pride. Plain and simple.

"Tell me, what was the one thing those butchering, selfish Israelite kings had that made them different from the Roman overlords who followed in their footsteps? Only one thing, my friend. They were Jews. Freedom was never the issue - only pride of race. For this they slaughtered their wives and children, so they could die with their heads held high, bowing before no foreign master. Not for freedom. For pride alone they deprived their children of life."

He paused - for dramatic effect, I suppose - and then whispered, "And for this we make a monument of their fortress, and sing their praises throughout all the generations."

He stopped talking then, and stared at me with those horrid black eyes, as though waiting for me to argue with him. I could think of nothing to say. A hot, searing wind swept across the plain and up the sheer cliffs of Masada, stirring a whirlwind of dust and sand all around us. My eyes blurred momentarily, and when they cleared, the bovine man had vanished, leaving me alone at the top of a haunted mountain with my very troubled thoughts.

Copyright 2008 Douglas. All rights reserved. has been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work. For permission to reprint this item, please contact the author.

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This post has been awarded 31 stars by 7 readers.
This post is Part 3 of a writing series titled The Bovine Man. The next part of this series can be found here: Bethlehem.
This is a revised version of a post. Click here to view the original version


Jun 14, 2008
In the 4th paragraph, first sentence, the phrase "of build a seige ramp" should be "of building a seige ramp".
   ~Posted by Lynnde, Jun 14, 2008

Jun 14, 2008
   ~Posted by Douglas, Jun 14, 2008

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