The land of Israel is ancient, powerful. It is as stark as death and as cruel as bitterness. Under the harsh white sun, its hills and valleys have echoed to the scream of bullets, the whine of grenades, the cries of the wounded and dying. The land of Israel is also hauntingly beautiful: mountains brood against the sky, buzzards ride the thermals against a blazing sun and parchment-coloured cliffs, wind-scribbled like ancient Hebrew scrolls, line the highway.
It strikes me that barren landscapes like this carry within them a mysterious spiritual force. It was in this environment that Jesus of Nazareth spent a solitary forty days and nights before beginning his public ministry; here too roved the wild shaggy haired anchorite, John the Baptist, and in similar mountainous surroundings near Mecca, the meditations of the Prophet Mohammed formed the core of his teachings.
Today, however, our group is not in search of spiritual inspiration, but on the trail of events that took place not far from the shores of the Dead Sea. Nothing can be more emblematic of Israel's tormented history than the ancient fort of Masada whose walls encompass a tale of epic heroism and tragedy. As our mini-van drives along the lonely boulder-strewn landscape, I train my binoculars upwards, focussing on the legendary fortress, its outline silhouetted against the steel-blue sky.
Built by Herod the Great (the ferociously cruel Biblical king, and master builder of the monumental Second Temple in Jerusalem) between 37-31 BC, Masada is perched on a 400-metre high plateau on the eastern edge of the Judean desert. It was here in 72 AD, that 960 Jewish Sicarii zealots, along with some Essenes and Samaritans, defiantly stood their ground with steely determination and (literally) suicidal courage against the Roman army legions, in a siege that lasted for three gruelling months.
We arrive at the base of the mountain, and board a cable car that whips us to the top in five minutes. Below us is the torturous Snake Path where some stalwarts toil slowly upwards. It is blisteringly hot and a young man, emerging off the Path at the entrance to the fortress, wipes his dripping brow and says feelingly, "That was sheer hell!"
Masada sank into oblivion until the site was rediscovered the late 1800s, but restoration didn't take place until the early 1960s. Today, walking past stone walls and buildings such as the Byzantine church and large bathhouse, it isn't hard to imagine the sound of prayers emanating from the oldest synagogue in Israel (it predates the Second Temple in Jerusalem), or the conversational chatter of workers stacking foodstuff in the warehouse granaries.
Looking out over the western plains below, our guide, Carmela, points out the ruins of a Roman legionary campsite. The Sicarii zealots could have held out indefinitely against their Roman besiegers as their gigantic cisterns fed by an intricate system of channels, contained enough water to last for at least five years. Whereas today only little tufts of grass survive the scorching desert sun, Masada once boasted grain fields, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Carmela adds, smiling, "Defenders pelted the Romans with tomatoes, and flung water down on them to prove they had ample provisions and would never surrender!"
And they never did.
The Romans built a ramp (Carmela points out the remains of the structure) and ruptured the fortresses' surrounding walls. It was an empty victory. All they found were dead bodies, and burned out buildings. "The granary," Carmela says, "was deliberately left intact." It flaunted the fact that the men and women of Masada wouldn't have starved, but chose death over humiliation in the hands of the Romans.
The question remains - was this a mass suicide? Not so according to the only account handed down to us by Flavius Josephus, a 1st century historian. Judaism prohibits suicide, so ten men drawn by lottery were chosen to kill the rest of the community and then each other in turn. The last man, possibly the Commander of the community, Eleazar Ben Yair, committed suicide. These names have been unearthed at Masada, which lends credence to Josephus' account.
Masada stands as a symbolic testament to the indomitable spirit of Israel, and every soldier attends a special graduation ceremony at Masada, which closes with the vow that "Masada shall not fall again!"
That evening in the dusk-softened air, our press group returns to the foot of Masada, this time to experience a stupendous operatic performance by the Israeli Opera Company. Preceded by an alfresco cocktail and hors' d'oeuvres reception, the presentation, appropriately enough, is Verdi's Nabucco, a complex story of Jewish betrayal, passion and revenge. As with all opera, one revels in the music, suspends disbelief and submerses oneself in the unfolding of the story, no matter how contrived the plot may be. It's like being a child again and listening open mouthed to a tale of fantasy and wonder.
The backdrop to Nabbuco couldn't be more powerful… Masada, floodlit, is outlined against the night sky. Add to this dramatic special effects: flames burn Jewish homelands, the image of Baal is surrounded by spouts of fire, and a bolt of lightning and thunder fells Nabbuco (the Biblical King Nebuchadnezzar) and sends him into a deranged state of mind following his blasphemous pronouncement that he is not only king, but also God. In addition, the sheer spectacle of thousands of people (over 5,000 by one estimate) in an amphitheatre open to the starlit desert sky carries its own theatrical impact.
The piece de resistance of the evening is, "Va pensiero sull'ali dorate" the haunting song of Jewish slaves longing for their homeland. The audience roars, weeps and applauds wildly until conductor Daniel Oren puts the action on hold to do an extempore encore of Va Pensiero. And even then the audience refuses to stop applauding. An overwhelmed Oren, turns to the crowd, invites them to sing along, and does a third and final rendering of the slaves' chorus. The entire amphitheatre throbs with emotion. I've never experienced anything like it!
Next June, Masada will form the backdrop to Verdi's Aida. Like Nabbuco, I've no doubt that it will be an unforgettable performance.
IF YOU GO:
The Israel Opera Company: To find out more about the extraordinarily rich operatic, classical concerts, piano recitals, ballet and contemporary dance performances in Israel slated for 2010 and 2011, go to:
Masada National Park Information: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Israel Tourism Office, Toronto: http://www.tourism.gov.il/Tourism_Ecn/Tourist+Information/ContactUs.htm
Photos by Margaret Deefholts (except as otherwise indicated)
1. Guardroom and lookout tower
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