Tuesday, October 08, 2019


Jodi Magness trudged across the barren moonscape atop Masada, pointing to where King Herod’s majestic lush gardens would have stood 2,000 years before. The topsoil, she said, would have been brought in baskets from more fertile pastures. An intricate man-powered watering system kept the spacious, planted grounds moist.

As the pioneering archaeologist gestured to an impossibly large swimming pool — in Herod’s day filled with buckets by hand — the movie “Dune” surfaced from the recesses of my heat-addled brain: “He who controls the water, controls the universe.”
It was a hot July morning on the deserted palatial plateau overlooking the salty Dead Sea. But with almost indefatigable energy, the 63-year-old scholar in pink dodged throngs of tourists and led The Times of Israel to a massive underground water cistern, one of 18 that sustained settlement here.

Today, Magness is mostly associated with her excavation of an outstandingly worked, colorful mosaic flooring at an early synagogue at Huqoq, north of Tiberias, where she has dug since 2011.

Complicating the narrative further, said Magness, Josephus’s Jewish War — the sole ancient source for the fall of Masada — was subsidized by the Roman empire. By elevating the rebel Eleazar ben Yair as the tragic hero, Rome’s Flavian dynasty emperors actually elevated themselves.

At the age of 12, inspired by a classical history teacher, Magness decided she wanted to be an archaeologist. She left her home in Miami at 16 to finish high school at a boarding school on her own in Israel’s Negev desert and ended up witnessing the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Later as a young undergrad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she studied with Yadin.

What the work does best is set the stage for the period prior to the Jewish rebellion. At times it reads like a series of fascinating academic lectures — Herod 101 — as Magness explores the predecessors to the mighty ruthless king, and his descendants and legacy. (Interestingly, although the site is a jewel of architect Herod’s crown, there is no evidence that he ever set foot here.)

As one of Israel’s foremost tourist sites, Masada is well maintained and safety is utmost. The 20-40 minute climb up or down the Snake Path could be risky during summer heat. But even during the high summer season, adventurous visitors seeking to retrace the Roman Legionnaires’ steps can still walk up the relatively easy rampart way — and even tread upon millennial-old, well-preserved planks.

Archaeological excavations are ongoing high on the hill. But looking out into the distance upon the clear uniform outlines of the Roman camps below, Magness smiled and said, “Everybody pays attention to what’s on top of the mountain. I like to see what’s at the bottom.”


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