New Masada museum launched at desert fortress site

Cutting-edge audio-visual displays, antiquities spark visitors' imaginations.

masada museum 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
masada museum 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Archeological treasures culled from digs at the ancient mountain fortress of Masada can finally be seen on display in their original locations with the launch of the new Masada Museum. The museum, launched this weekend, is the first of its kind in the world, according to the National Parks Authority. Its over 700 artifacts, revealed to the public for the first time, include a Second-Temple era talit (prayer shawl) and the famous "12 lots of Masada" - shards of pottery which each bear a single name and which may have been used as the death lots in the final moments of the Jewish rebels' last act of defiance against the Romans. The new museum was launched in a gala celebration attended by archeologists, MKs, and National Parks Authority representatives. The opening marks the culmination of a dream that has been in the works since the early 1990s, according to Masada National Park Director Eitan Campbell. "Until the construction of the new museum, most of the artifacts from Masada were stored in a basement in Jerusalem," said Campell. "We had hoped to bring them back to Masada [but the facility wasn't there]." In fact, in the last decade, the park began to have trouble just servicing the flocks of tourists who frequent the site. "We realized that we were getting beyond capacity," explained Campbell. "The old cable car could take 40 people at a time and visitors would have to stand out in the sun waiting [to go up] for hours." However, thanks to an investment of NIS 180 million, mostly from the government and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Masada was able to move ahead with the construction of a new, air-conditioned facility that replaced the previous buildings. Renovations also included new pathways on top of the mountain and greater wheelchair accessibility. Although space had been allocated in the building for the display of artifacts, the park lacked the funding to develop it. Several years ago, however, the solution to that problem materialized on a camping trip when composer Shuki Levy spent the night on Masada with many of those who work at the site. Inspired by the "dedication and passion in their eyes," Levy volunteered over $1 million to create the museum. Levy, who says that he has "always been interested [in Masada], even as a child" has spent the last five years developing and writing music for a musical production based on the Masada story. The ceremony was also an opportunity for those present to pay tribute to the late Prof. Yigael Yadin, the iconic archeologist who spearheaded the efforts at Masada in the 1960s. The museum artifacts were discovered in diggings that Yadin directed between 1963 and 1965, and the museum was dedicated in his name. "This really forms the cornerstone of the tributes to his memory," said Malka Hershkovitz, who studied under Yadin for 20 years. Museum designer Eliav Nahlieli echoed that sentiment, saying that it had made sense to design the museum in Yadin's memory. "As a child," he said, "There was...a connection between Masada and the figure of Yadin." Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor, who worked with Yadin, praised him and also took the opportunity to underscore the significance of Masada today, saying that "One thing is certain - the message of Masada [is that] it's upon each of make sure that a second Masada situation doesn't happen." For three years, from 70 to 73 C.E., the Jewish rebels, known as Zealots, managed to keep the Romans off the mountain. Nearly 10,000 troops first tried starving the Jewish rebels, and when that didn't work, they utilized every conceivable kind of contemporary siege weapon in an effort to break through the seemingly impregnable fortress. Finally, the Zealots decided to commit suicide before the expected dawn attack by the Romans. They burned their belongings and weapons, leaving food so that the Romans would know they had died of their own free will and had not perished of hunger. In addition to the obvious emotional significance of the museum's launch, Nahlieli declared that the facility itself was "a breakthrough in the world of the traditional museum." "I believe that good storytelling is the basis of the visitor's curiosity," explained Nahlieli, who spent three years working on the museum and was also its contractor. "The traditional museum is like another class in school, and nobody likes school. I'm trying to be more of a storyteller in a way," he said. The visitors' museum experience begins in the lobby, where they receive audio headsets. They then pass through nine rooms, each of which features artifacts placed in three-dimensional scenes that depict facets of the Masada story. In the Herod room, for example, visitors enter a display of black, statue-like figures at a banquet scene. Spread amongst these figures are artifacts such as a stone table, amphoras which held Herod's provisions, and terra sigillata ware (the finest dishware of the time.) As visitors move from room to room, their headsets automatically begin the narration for the corresponding space. The first eight rooms delve into the worlds of the Jewish rebels, the Romans, and Josephus Flavius, while the final room pays homage to Yadin's work. While the 3-D figures in each room appear in a very dim, chrome-like lighting, the artifacts themselves are brightly lit. It's this contrast, combined with the audio narration, claims Nahlieli, that makes the experience of the museum so special. "It's exactly the right environment for the imagination to start blooming," he says. Although Nahlieli admits that it was difficult to explain his vision at first, he lauds Levy and the National Parks Authority for having faith in it. "They believed in me and they really gave me a lot of slack to run loose," he said. Levy, who saw the completed museum for the first time on Thursday, exclaimed that "it was just overwhelming, how beautifully it was done." Levy plans to create a documentary about the museum's creation, his musical, and his work spreading of the message of Masada. "I feel that we should take it a step forward from remembering the past. We should learn from it and do positive things in the world," Levy said. The museum is now open to the general public. Ticket information can be obtained by phone at (08) 658-4207/8.