Masada made the news this spring—but not for the usual reasons. The extraordinary archaeological site and iconic symbol of Jewish freedom has most recently received publicity because U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to land his helicopter on top of it, but was denied permission to do so. West of the Dead Sea, Masada is a flat-topped mountain in the Judean Desert. Trump had been hoping to visit and make a speech there during his trip to Israel. Upon learning that he could not land his helicopter on Masada’s summit, he chose to forgo the excursion entirely.
King Herod the Great built a lavish palace on Masada in the first century B.C.E. The Hasmoneans had fortified the site during the second centu-ry B.C.E., but it was Herod the Great who transformed the desert fortress into an oasis, replete with Roman bathhouses and swimming pools.
Masada is perhaps best known for the role it played in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Toward the end of the revolt, Jewish Zealots took refuge at Masada—an ideal location because of its remoteness and impregnable fortifications. Masada was the last Jewish stronghold during the war, and when it finally fell in 73 C.E., the First Jewish Revolt came to an end. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that instead of surrendering to the Romans, the Jewish Zealots committed mass suicide—one final act of defiance. Some scholars have questioned the accuracy of this account, but the story lives on.