Historical Notes: Heroic myth of the `daggermen' of Masada

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The Independent Culture
AS A teenager on a trip to Israel, I sat in the excavated synagogue in the 2,000-year-old mountain fortress of Masada and heard an inspiring story. A story of the brutal Roman suppression of a Jewish uprising here in the first century AD. Of a last brave group of rebels, the Zealots, who after fleeing Jerusalem, then resisted a long siege in this desert stronghold. And of their last night, when they chose mass suicide over surrender to Titus's legions.

The story is a founding myth of modern Zionism and of the Israeli state. Almost every single Israeli has at some point in their lives gone to Masada and heard it. The only problem with it is that it is less than the truth.

Israeli academics - notably Nachman Ben-Yehuda of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - have exposed how this heroic myth is significantly different from the only source: the writings of the first-century historian Josephus Flavius.

Josephus describes the rebels at Masada not as Zealots, but "Sicarii" - a name derived from the sica, a short Roman dagger. The Sicarii were notorious for political assassinations, including of fellow Jews suspected of collaboration with the Romans. The Jewish majority forced the Sicarii out of Jerusalem long before the city fell.

Josephus says the Sicarii then used Masada as a base to ravage the surrounding countryside. In a single raid on the nearby town of Ein Geddi, they killed 700 women and children. Josephus depicts not heroes, but extremists who divided the Jews and who never engaged in a single direct battle with the Roman enemy.

This account may be biased. After all, Josephus himself was a Jew who defected to the Romans. But it is clear that, when Zionist pioneers seized on the story in the 1920s as an example of Jewish heroism, they simply ignored the inconvenient details.

The greatest promoter of the Masada myth was the youth leader Shmaria Guttman. Starting in the 1940s, he led youth groups on treks through the Judaean Desert, climaxing in a strenuous night-time climb up Masada's slopes. The young pioneers would sing and recite the heroic story by torchlight until dawn revealed the glory of the landscape, with the Dead Sea glittering below. The experience created an unforgettable impression on a generation of young Israelis and was copied by army regiments for swearing-in ceremonies.

Interest in the site increased again in the 1960s when it was excavated by Yigal Yadin, then a professor of archaeology and formerly chief of the defence staff. His dig seemed to confirm the myth. He found the spectacular remains of Herod's palace as well as the Roman siege camps and also the few buildings that the Jews had built on the site. But his most important discovery, he said, was of three skeletons - a man, a woman and a child. The woman's braided hair was intact, as was the man's armour. Yadin suggested that this could be a Jewish family - possibly that of the very last defender of Masada. He arranged for the skeletons to be reburied with full military honours.

Now, Yadin's scholarship is also questioned. Dr Joe Zias, formerly of the Israel Antiquities Authority, says that the woman is only represented by her hair - there is no skeleton - and the armour found nearby was of Roman design. He believes the skeletons are more likely to be Roman than Jewish.

Today, Masada is changing from a Zionist shrine into a profitable tourist resort. More than a million visitors are expected next year, and most will take a fast cable car to the top, rather than hack up the steep mountain path by foot. But the heroic myth of Masada is alive and well. And those visitors, sitting in the synagogue, will still hear the same heroic fable that I once heard.

Hugh Levinson is producer of `The Masada Myth' (BBC Radio 4, 8pm tonight)