Christians at Masada

On a tour of Masada you will hear a lot about King Herod and about the Jewish rebels who inhabited the top of Masada in their last stand during the Jewish Revolt of 73AD. However there is also a church on Masada which raises the question of the Christian connection to this hilltop fortress.

Mt. Masada

It is possible that there were Christians on Masada as early as the 1st century. During the same famous Jewish Revolt when Jerusalem was under Roman siege (Matthew 24:16), Christ had given the Christian community signs telling them to “flee to the mountains“. The 4th century historian Eusebius backs-up this claim when he tells of the Christian community taking refuge in the town of Pella in Perea.  Other evidence of 1st century Christians on Masada can be seen in the red crosses painted on cave walls. These crosses have been dated to the Byzantine period and other experts have placed then as early as the 1st century. This means that perhaps there were Christians among the Jewish rebels in 73AD.

What is certain is that by the Byzantine period there were Christians inhabiting Masada. Hermits where attracted to Masada because of its remote and isolated location. This was not the only desert location that was chosen by monks seeking tranquility in the Judean wilderness. Typically they sought out remote locations where there were already buildings that they could use like on Masada. The monks lived in modest cells on Masada, some were in small buildings others made do with caves and even disused cisterns.

In 600AD Monk John Moschus traveled to the Holy Land and wrote: “Near the Dead Sea is a mountain called Marda. On this mountain live anchorites (hermits)…” he went on to describe their daily life. Moschus was describing the Monastery of Castellium which was one of seven established by St. Savvas the Sanctified. Christians at the time called the mountain Marda or Mount Castellium and legend told of the saint battling demons on the mount. It is thought that St. Savvas’ spiritual father, St. Euthymius was responsible for the construction of the 5th century church we see today on Masada.

The remains of the Byzantine church on Masada can be seen southeast of the synagogue and south of the residential building. Visitors enter through a narrow entrance into an enclosed courtyard or vestibule. A long hall or nave culminates with the apse in the east. In the apse you can see a hole in the floor where religious relics may have been stored. An altar would have stood at the end of the nave and we can see an arched window on the wall above. Ancient floor mosaics have been preserved on the north side of the nave. The mosaics depict motifs of nature, plants and fruit within a series of medallions. The walls have been decorated with pottery shards and pebbles imbedded in the plaster in geometrical patterns.

In most likelihood Christians were the last inhabitants of Masada. It is thought that the Christians may have left Masada when in the 7th century Muslims or Persians conquered the country.


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