MASADA at sunrise

In the predawn darkness, Masada has no definition, really, just a hulking presence. Even with a thin silver of moon to add highlight, it is more shadow than substance.

That's fitting, since the essence of Masada is its symbolism: "It signifies the stand of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the last fight of those who gave their lives for political and spiritual freedom and chose death rather than slavery and submission," says Yigael Yadin.

Professor Yadin, now Israel's deputy prime minister, led the archaeological expedition to excavate Masada. I had read his words in the preface to a pamphlet meant to explain Masada's history to tourists at the site, and I was thinking of them as I trudged up the path on the butte's west side and through the Byzantine Gate.

It was not yet 6 a.m. I had left my comfortable bed in the Dead Sea Moriah Hotel at an even earlier hour to view the sunrise from Masada and gain, I hoped, some understanding of what had been described to me as the Israelis' "Masada complex."

"You can't fully understand this country," people had been telling me since I had arrived in Israel several days earlier, "without visiting Masada. For us, it is a reminder."

What it reminds them of are the years AD 70-73.

In 70, the Roman general Titus conquered Jerusalem. He destroyed the temple and expelled the Jews from their homes.

However, Eleazar ben Yair and a group of 967 Jewish Zealots, a sect that opposed domination by Rome, didn't go far. They fled to Masada and here took refuge.

Looking at it today, it is easy to see why they chose to make a last stand here. Masada means "fortress" in Hebrew. And the name is well chose, for the mountain rises some 1,300 feet straight up from the Dead Sea plain, its sheer cliffs unscalable all around. At least they must have seemed so to the Romans encamped at their base. It took them three to four years of concerted effort to breach Masada's walls.

Actually, the small band of Zealots weren't the first to use this as a retreat. One hundred years before they arrived, Herod the Great had constructed the complex of buildings here that Eleazar and his followers later inhabited. At the time, Herod was worried about his prestige in Rome. He also was afraid that his neighbor to the south, Cleopatra, was agitating with her friend, Marc Antony, for a substantial chunk of his, Herod's, kingdom.

Too, he liked to build. There are remains of Herod's cities, palaces, ports, temples, theaters, stadiums, baths, water systems, all over Israel.

Even with innumerable workers to do your bidding and a genius for engineering , MAsada must have presented quite a challenge. In Herod's day the mountain was a two-day camel trek through the Judean desert from Jerusalem. And then, of course, there was the difficult climb up the hill by a tortuous "snake" path, a circuitous route that winds back and forth on the eastern flank of the mountain.

Today's visitors, however, can visit Masada more easily: A good road brings you out of Jerusalem, along the West Bank of the Jordan River to the Dead Sea. The ride takes little more than an hour, or you can stay at one of the hotels along the Dead Sea itself. This has become a booming spa area in recent years, and the Moriah, for instance, is situated just 15 minutes from Masada.

Once here, there is no longer any need to climb to the top. You can make the ascent in the comfort of a cable car --unless you want to view the sunrise from the top . . . the cable car doesn't begin its workday until 8 a.m.

"Masada is an important archaeological site," Professor Yadin says. "It is also unusual from a scenery point of view." As the day begins to lighten, you can see that it is:

At 6:45 the sun peeks over the mountains of Moab, on Jordan's side of the Dead Sea, illuminating a moonscape of mineral deposits on the Dead Sea plain below us. Once it starts, it moves quickly, gliding, at first, like a shadow through the early morning haze, then playing hide-and-seek with a flying wedge of clouds between us and it. It takes 10 minutes or so to lay its honeyed path across the water and begin to pick up similar tones in the limestone-block ruins around us.

The ruins are Herodian, with an overlay of Zealot. And they begin to take shap: Here a guard room, there a tower, here a storage building, there, to the north, a three-tiered palace.

There are carved Roman capitals; there are mosaic floors; a few remnants of a fine grade of plaster made to simulate marble; even some pieces of Roman "frescoes" in umber, green, and ivory.

And there is evidence Herod lived well in this mountain aerie:

Masada is barren today and so it must have been when Herod first saw it. For he had to cut cisterns into the mountainside, and he devised a series of aqueducts and dams and reservoirs to bring spring floodwaters in from the nearby mountains and harness them for year-round use. His system worked so well that there was water enough for crops and even for recreation. In the sweltering days of the desert summer, Herod and his guests could refresh themselves in the swimming pool.

The excavations were done in two seasons, a total of 11 months. The workers were archaeologists and lay volunteers ("We promised them they would have bad food, live in tents, and pay their own way, and we kept our promises. Still, we had thousands of applicants," says Professor Yadin). Black lines mark the height of walls when excavated. They give a clear picture of how the site was found, while the rebuilding above the lines gives a clear picture of how Masada must have looked when Herod lived here . . . or when the Zealots did.

The Zealots turned the Roman baths into ritual ones. They added an inner room to the synagogue and they built another wall inside the wall Herod had already built to fortify Masada.

From one of the guard towers, we can see why. Below, on the west side of the hill, there are several flattened areas. The Roman legions who had chased the Zealots out of Jerusalem were garrisoned there.

The Romans built, over the period of three years, a ramp along the path we used for our climb to the top. And they "shelled" the Zealot stronghold with catapults.

there is a catapult near the path today. It is left over from the filming of the ABC-TV "docu-drama" on Masada airing this week.

The catapults and the sheer numbers of the Romans finally held sway, and in the year AD 73 it became apparent to Eleazar ben Yair that there was no hope of relief and none of escape. All that was left to them, he told his followers, was surrender or death. And, he resolved, "a death of glory was preferable to a life of infamy."

With that, 960 of the Zealots put into effect a murder-suicide pact, and when the Romans arrived to take their spoils, there were only two women and five children left.

The tale of that last night on Masada was told by Josephus Flavius, a 1 st-century historian. He goes on to say: "and so the Romans met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown when they went through with such an action as that was."

It's that kind of resolution that Masada symbolizes to Israelis today. And maybe there's something special about Masada that points it up: The morning was well started when I got on the cable car for the trip down the mountain. But the thin quarter-moon was still hanging high in the western sky. Like the Romans, the sun had come -- but it hadn't conquered.

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