Ancient Masada’s Water System


A tour to Masada cliff

King Herod had the cliff top fortress on Masada constructed between 37-31 BC as a refuge; it was necessary to devise an ingenious water system in order to make the fortress in anyway practical in the arid climate of the Judean Desert. The palace and fortress could have every possible amenity but without water it would be inhabitable.

Roman Water System at Masada

Herod had a huge network of 12 cisterns on two levels dug out of the stone at the base of the mountain on the northwestern slope. During the winter rain water would collect here as it dripped and flowed down the side of Masada. However the rain water from Masada was not enough. Although there was insufficient rain water to gather from Masada, five times the amount of rainfall fell on the peaks of mountains which run from Jerusalem to Hebron. So they devised a system of catchment areas. When rainwater would flow down from this range of mountains into the desert it would often cause flashfloods near the Dead Sea. To the west of Masada a gorge was transformed into a dam to catch the flood water and the water was diverted through a system of aqueducts, using only gravity to bring the water to the cisterns on Masada’s western side. The 12 cisterns were positioned so that when one filled up it would overflow into the next cistern. The cisterns were plastered so that the water could not be absorbed into the rock. Together the cisterns at the base of Masada could hold about 40,000m3.

The water would be transferred up to other cisterns on the top of Masada by donkeys and slaved to provide water for immediate use. Herod had a secret staircase and wall constructed so that enemies would not be able to see the water carriers as they fetched water from below. The cisterns were to preserve water during times of siege and to supply the king’s swimming pools and baths with water as well as drinking water.

The court and entourage of King Herod needed an incredible amount of stored water considering they were on a mountain top in the middle of a dry desert. The cisterns were made so vast that they could hold enough water to supply 1,000 people with enough water for 10 years. When creating the cisterns the stone dug out of the space was used in the construction of the palaces and buildings on Masada. Herod would have been very proud of his achievement and the way he could manipulate nature to have enough water in the middle of a desert.  Even if an enemy had destroyed Herod’s aqueducts the people on Masada would already have their cisterns full of water.



 

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