Finding a plot in the haunting legacy of Masada.

The ruins atop the great mountain fortress of Masada, overlooking the Judean Plateau
The ruins atop the great mountain fortress of Masada, overlooking the Judean Plateau

I NEVER KNOW when I will stumble across my next idea for a novel. It always shows up when I least expect it. It always shows up when I need it most.

I was sitting at an outside café in the old city of Jerusalem, sipping wine that had been served at room temperature.

The day was late. I was tired. My muscles were aching.

I hoped the wine would ease the pain even if it didn’t quench my thirst.

The man came to my table even before I knew he was on the street.

He wasn’t tall. He was thin. His khaki shirt hung loosely around his gaunt shoulders. The sleeves had been rolled up. His khaki pants hadn’t been washed in a while. Maybe never.

He was wearing boots, scarred by too many miles on a rocky trail somewhere in the desert mountains.

And he was two days beyond needing a shave. The dark whiskers were turning gray.

He sat down, and I offered him a glass of wine.

He stayed for two.

“Have you been to the rock of Masada?” he asked.

“Just got back,” I said.

“What did you think of it?”

“It’s a haunting place.”

“Did you feel like you were surrounded by the dead?” he asked.

“It’s a place I won’t soon forget,” I said.

Masada had been a natural fortress, a great rock mountain with a flat crest rising for thirteen hundred feet above a desert never known for its mercy and overlooking the Dead Sea. It was impregnable, standing in bitter defiance on the Judean Plateau and shaped like a diamond.

A single walkway, carved in the rock and looking like the ancient path of snake led up the sheer walls to the summit. In long ago days, the trail marked the only way to the top.

In the first century, Josephus wrote of it: Walking along it is like balancing on a tightrope. The least slip means death, for on either side yawns an abyss so terrifying that it could make the boldest tremble.

No one could attack Masada. They would die trying to reach the pinnacle of the rock.

That was the general belief when grand palaces adorned the crown of Masada, the handiwork of King Herod the Great.

He hosted dignitaries from throughout the known world. He dined with Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

The floors of Masada, in time, would be stained with the blood of those who would rather die as free men than live as slaves.

It was indeed a haunting and a disturbing place.

The man finished one glass of wine and reached for the bottle.

“They tell you about the zealots?” he asked.

I nodded. “That’s why people go to Masada,” I said. “They want to see where the zealots died.”

He grinned. It was an odd grin. I had seen similar grins before.

They always intrigued me.

“Here’s what they told you,” he said.

I waited.

“When the Romans came to rule Jerusalem and all that surrounded it, Eleazar ben Ya’r and his band of zealots retreated to the protective cliffs of Masada.”

I nodded.

They were bedraggled.

They were bleeding.

They were hungry.

Masada was their stronghold.

Within the walls of Masada, they would make their last stand.

“That’s the story I was told,” I said.

“It gets even better.”

“It does.”

He knew his facts well. He said:

The zealots gave the Romans pure hell.

Hit and run.

Hit and escape to the rock.

Rome ruled everybody but the zealots.

Flavius Silva swore to kill them all.

He and his legions marched on Masada.

The glasses were dry now.

The bottle was empty.

He waited for me to order another one.

I didn’t keep him waiting.

His words had been sanded to a whisper.

The zealots knew they could not hold out against the Romans.

They would be captured.

They would be led away as slaves.

And free men could not exist as slaves.

Only death would free them.

So they made a decision.

Ten men were chosen to kill every man, woman, and soldier in Masada.

No one fought back or tried to run.

Each was a willing sacrifice.

The ten men cast lots to see who would be the last.

One was chosen to kill the other nine.

Then he committed suicide, the most unforgivable of all sins.

His was the only soul destined to hell.

The death of the zealots, their sacrifice, their bold decision to escape slavery and die free has become the stuff of legend.

“It’s a great story,” I said.

“That’s the approved and standard version,” he said.

He poured himself a final glass of wine.

And the grin returned. The odd grin.

He leaned across the table and spit out each word distinctly and separately. And in four words, he gave me my plot.

“Masada,” he said, “is a lie.”

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