Standing tall in the South District of Israel overlooking the Dead Sea is a site of ancient palaces and fortifications known as Masada. Carved in to an isolated rock plateau, the site contained cliffs as high as 1,300 feet, casemate walls, towers, storehouses, barracks, armory, two luxurious palaces, a Roman bathhouse, a synagogue and twelve huge cisterns. Three winding paths led to the fortified gates (although today visitors have the option to use the cable car).
The fortress was originally constructed during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE) and later expanded by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BCE as a refuge for himself in case a revolt broke out. However, Masada saw its greatest moment of despair years later. In 66 CE, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii and their families fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple during the First Jewish-Roman War. Commanded by Elazar ben Ya'ir, the group barracked themselves at Masada, mocking the Romans sent to capture them.
In 72, the Roman governor of Iudaea Lucius Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to the fortress. The Romans set up eight siege camps surrounding Masada. They failed to breach the wall and was forced to build a circumvallation wall as well as a rampart against the western face of the plateau, using thousands of tons of stones, beaten earth and maybe a few Jewish slaves. It's uncertain whether or not the Sicarii attempted to counteract their attempts. However, action needed to be taken. Elazar ordered his men to burn everything. The next phase kept the Sicarii from falling in to Roman slavery. A lottery determined who would be the last person left. One by one, each were killed until the last man standing. Judaism strongly discourages suicide. During this mass suicide, only one person actually died by their own hand, the last man left standing.
After months of siege, the Romans managed to finally breach the walls with a battering ram on April 16th. All their efforts led to a major disappointment. Upon entering the fortress, they found buildings burned and 960 inhabitants dead. Two women and five children were the only ones left alive hidden inside one of the cistern.
The site of Masada was identified in 1842 and extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by an expedition led by Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin. Because of its remote location, it has remained mostly untouched by humans and nature. The synagogue (oldest in the world), storehouses, and houses as well as many of the other buildings have been restored. The Roman ramp still stands on the Western side for visitors to climb. Although, many historians believe the mass suicide was extremely exaggerated or perhaps never happened at all. Some have made their mission in life to prove or dispute 1st century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius dramatic details of the Sicarii suicide.
If it did take place, does it explain why Masada is believed to be haunted? Visitors have reported hearing moaning, voices, wailing and whistling. With the fortress' location, the bad acoustics could explain away some of these claims. But what about sightings of apparitions and shadows? Is Israel's national symbol haunted by the blood shed by 960 people or has the myth taken on a life of its own?