The Foods of Ancient Masada

Masada – an isolated rock plateau on the edge of the Judaean Desert near the Dead Sea – so how did the ancient Romans and later the Jewish rebels get food and sustenance when inhabiting Masada’s summit?

In about 37-34BC Herod the Great fled from Jerusalem where Antigonus II had been made king and built his mountain top palace fortress on Masada. Herod’s luxurious mountain top retreat was home to up to 100 people at any one time, who all needed to be fed. Years later in c.66AD during the First Jewish-Roman War Jewish Sicarii rebels took the summit of Masada as their retreat from the Romans. They too managed to sustain approximately 960 people for almost two years. In c.73AD Roman troops set up camp at the foot of Masada to try and breach the rock plateau and these approximately 5,000-15,000 troops also needed to be fed.

How did Herod feed the people of Masada?

mini-DSC_0367During the time Herod spent on Masada the food eaten would have been brought to the mountain, grown on the mountain-top or gathered from nearby settlements. In addition once they had the raw ingredients they would preserve foods with oil, vinegar and by drying. The process of preserving food for the future was of vital importance. Foods which could be kept for a long time included dried legumes, pickled goods and dried meats which would be prepared with a lot of vinegar to hide any rotting smell.

When Herod built his city on Masada’s summit 29 elongated storerooms where constructed which were used to hold provisions. The storerooms were kept well stocked in case of a siege and being home to Herod the food had to be plentiful, gourmet and of good quality. Experts examined the remains of these storerooms and the shards left of clay pots used to store food in the storerooms. Some of the clay containers even had labels bearing names like fish, beans, dried figs, meat and fig cake. Thanks to the dry desert climate particles of the food eaten all those years ago has survived. While on Masada Herod and his court would have feasted on typically Roman dishes and has grand banquet-style diner parties complete with a lot of wine and abundant food. We can learn of the dishes Herod was probably served from a book by Apicius, “De re Culinaria”, probably the oldest cookery book in existence. There is evidence that fish sauce, a Roman delicacy was eaten on Masada. This proof comes from the presence of fish remains in an ancient ceramic shard on Masada and inscriptions on clay jars with information about the jar’s contents. On Masada there is a Roman columbarium (where doves or pigeons were kept). These birds would have been used for sending messages but also for food.

The Herodian community on Masada got their water from an ingenious water collecting system which channeled water from the nearby wadis into giant water cisterns on the cliff side. The water was not only used for the Roman bath house, filling swimming pools and drinking but for irrigation so that there would be a constant food supply growing on Masada.

How do we know what they ate on Masada?

In the 1960s a 2000 year old seed was found during excavations on Masada; the seed was germinated into a date masadaplant. Excavations were conducted by Profession Yigael Yadin in the 1970s and the remains of a number of fruits and grains were unearthed. Later further remains of plants and fruits were discovered by Professor Ehud Natzer and Dr. Guy Shtiebel. The remains of pig bones were found from the Roman era.  The collection of botanical remains from Masada numbers in the thousands and spans several eras from c.37BC to c.73AD. The evidence shows that residents on Masada enjoyed a full and varied diet including wheat, barley, plums, apricots, peaches, figs, nuts, pomegranates, grapes, wine, olives and almonds. Experts determined that most of the olives were used for pickling rather than producing oil.  However two kinds of olives didn’t grow in Israel and must have been brought to Masada by wealthy high-ranking Romans; perhaps from Syria or Egypt.

Through archaeological findings like fruit seeds and traces of oil experts have managed to ascertain what food was eaten on Masada. Experts supported their theories with ancient texts. A specific type of peach pit was found on Masada, this strain ripened early and remained edible for an extended period making it ideal for storing on the remote mountain top. The Roman naturalist Pliny wrote in his book “The Natural History” about a unique type of peach eaten by the Roman troops during the siege of Masada. He described the peach as being an early ripening variety. A similar peach, as described by Pliny is depicted in murals in the city of Herculaneum, Italy. Modern experts claim that this summer peach variety was a common element of the ancient society. Up until recently there were even a few of these peach trees still growing in Israel. Other textural clues as to the diet on Masada came from the writings of Roman historian Flavius Josephus.

What did the Jewish rebels eat on Masada?

In approximately 66AD Jewish rebels overtook a small Roman garrison on Masada to capture the hill top fortress and escape from mini-DSC_0311the Jewish-Roman War. The Jews may have discovered provisions left over from Herod’s time almost 100 years earlier. However only dried goods would have survived and even then it is doubtful whether the food would have still been edible. Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that the rebels found “a mass of corn amply sufficient to last for years, abundance of wine and oil, besides every variety of pulses and piles of dates.” The food supplies may have been left over by the Roman garrison which manned the mountain top from about 6AD to 66AD rather than having been left over from Herod’s era. It is believed that the Jewish rebels got their sustenance from food left on Masada by the Romans; food they brought with them and raids carried out on settlements in nearby Ein Gedi. They may have also cultivated crops on the flat mountain top where the earth was more fertile than the desert floor below and where they had a good supply of water from Herod’s cisterns.  There is evidence (written on the remains of clay jars) that the Jewish rebels baked and stored their own bread while on Masada. Ovens were found in the Masada abodes from this period and from the earlier Herodian settlement. Flavius Josephus wrote that when the Romans eventually broke through the fortress walls and reached the top of Masada they found that the Jewish rebels had committed mass suicide rather than risking captivity. He also wrote that the Jews chose to leave their food supply intact so that the Romans would see that their suicide was out of choice and not because they could no longer withstand the siege.

The Romans held the Jews on Masada under siege for almost two years. Until this time there is no evidence of a Roman army having to spend an extended period of time in a Palestinian desert. The logistics of feeding 5,000-15,000 troops had not been fully worked out. However they were well organized and the Romans set up 8 siege camps where there was even a hospital. The Roman soldiers would have formed a “bucket brigade” to bring water from the Tse’elim River 4.8km to the north. Food supplies could have been brought from Ein Gedi, 16km away. They would have used pack animals to bring in supplies.


mini-IMG_3789 Overview the Dead Sea mini-DSC_0298 Masada fortifications on the site of the cliff mini-DSC_0370 mini-DSC_0378 mini-DSC_0358 mini-DSC_0334 Ruins on mt Masada mini-IMG_3683 mini-DSC_0352 mini-IMG_3652 Masada ruins

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