Masada (Hebrew: Metzada), an isolated flat mountain top in the Judean wilderness overlooking the Dead Sea, was chosen by Herod (King of Judea, 37 BC to 4 CE) as his refuge in the event of a revolt against him. During 36-30 BC, a walled complex was erected atop Masada containing residences, food storage facilities, wells and ammunition dumps. Because Masada is in an arid area, a complex system of cisterns was developed, holding over 10,000 cubic meters of water, which were refilled by flood waters ingeniously directed into them.
On the central and northern part of the fortress the king's architects erected a magnificent court, complete with splendid palaces adorned with colored plaster and mosaics, exquisite bath houses, and other buildings which in their pomp and splendor equaled the buildings of the capital Jerusalem. The Northern Palace is especially noteworthy as an exceptional example of an elegant villa of the ancient Roman period. The stamp on the right depicts Herod's magnificent buildings at the northern tip of Masada.
After Herod's death and the disintegration of his kingdom, a Roman garrison was stationed at Masada. With the outbreak of the First Revolt of the Jews against Roman rule in 66 CE ("The Great Revolt"), Masada, guarded by a Roman garrison force, was conquered by the Jewish insurgents. They were joined in the year 70 by surviving rebels who escaped from Jerusalem after its destruction and reached Masada, determined to carry on the struggle. The rebels adapted the buildings atop the mountain to their needs and prepared for a prolonged stay.
In 73 the Roman governor decided to wipe out the last of the Jewish rebels. The surviving remnants of the siege ramp from which the Romans attacked, as well as the army camps built around it, are evidence of the vast effort invested by the Roman army in this campaign, and constitute the most complete example of a Roman siege network that has survived to the present. The Romans built an earthen assault ramp on the western slope which, at the end of a siege lasting several months, enabled them to bring up a battering ram to the top of the mountain and breach the wall.
The speech by the rebel leader, Eleazar son of Ya'ir, persuading his comrades that death as free men is preferable to surrender and captivity, is described by the historian Josephus in his book The Jewish War. All 960 rebels - including women and children - commited mass suicide (only two women and five children managed to survive). It is believed that the men killed their families first, and then drew lots to kill each other, leaving only one man to commit suicide (suicide is forbidden in Jewish law). The finding in the excavations of a pile of shards with men's names on them, as depicted on the stamp, supports the suicide by lottery story.
The Masada episode became a paradigm and symbol of the quest for freedom and unremitting struggle against bondage. The stand of the insurgents at Masada has been turned into a symbol of Jewish heroism by modern Zionism. There is a symbolic significance in the cry echoed by thousands of young Israelis who climb the rock of Masada every year - "Masada shall not fall again."
Masada today is arguably the most famous and impressive archeological site in Israel. The site was extensively excavated in the early 1960's. It is high on the must-see places for tourists in Israel. Since 1971, visitors can reach the fortress with a funicular. There are two other ways to get there: an easy climb from the west along the massive assult ramp that the Roman built to reach the Masada defenses, and a difficult path ("The Snake Path") from the east.
In 1972, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) ratified a convention to protect world heritage sites (WHS). The government of Israel ratified the convention in 2000, and Masada was one of the first 3 sites to be added (2001) to the WHS list. The stamp on the left, one in a series dedicated to UNESCO WHS in Israel, was issued in 2007; Designer: Ronen Goldberg. The stamp on the right, one in a series dedicated to Herod's building projects, was issued in 2011; Designer: Meir Eshel, Tuvia Kurtz.