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>Israel Faxx
>JN Nov. 13, 1998, Vol. 6, No. 205

Efforts Start to Preserve Masada From Destruction

By Ross Dunn (VOA-Jerusalem)

In Israel, an urgent mission has begun to save one of the country's most important historical sites from destruction -- the ancient stronghold of a group of Jews known as the Zealots.

In ancient times, Masada was strong enough to protect a small group of Jews from attacks by Roman legions. But over the centuries, the elements have managed to weaken the ruins to the point of collapse.

About 800,000 tourists a year visit Masada, an isolated mountain top fortress situated in the stark Judean desert landscape overlooking the Dead Sea.

Visitors come to see the place built by King Herod in biblical times, and which became the remote outpost of the Zealots from about 66 CE.

The small group of Jews held Masada against the sophisticated might of the Roman army. When the Romans managed to scale the cliffs six-years later, ancient historians record the Jews chose mass suicide rather than be taken into slavery. With this act, the Zealots made their name a byword for incredible dedication to a cause.

Were it not for the special zeal of a group of British experts and their Israeli counterparts -- Masada could fall again. Wind, water and salt have combined to reduce many of the stones to hollow shells, and this is threatening the stability of the walls of the Northern Palace. Also at serious risk are the splendid frescoes which decorated the lower terrace, of what was once the luxurious quarters of the royal household.

The man leading the effort to re-enforce the crumbling structures at Masada is Prof. John Ashurst, one of the world's most renowned conservation architects, whose expertise has helped in restoring Buckingham Palace.

He wants to complete the task as soon as possible because Masada lies close the African-Syrian fault-line and is periodically subjected to tremors and earthquakes.

"This is one of the great fault-lines of the world, potentially a very unstable region and tremors and earth movements can take place at any time. There is a seismic monitoring station quite close by. We do not know when the next shake will come, but of course it could come at any time. It is not predictable. Certainly, we are going to get one in the next 50-years, but who knows, it could be tomorrow."

Ashurst says the former palace is perched precariously on a cliff's edge. He describes it as an incredible engineering feat and a symbol of Roman splendor and extravagant living.

"Herod really had a sumptuous lifestyle down here, whether for himself or favored guests, we do not know, but it was equal to anything that might have been found in Rome at that time. What the palace tells us is something of Herod's great engineering abilities, his great daring, his ambitions as a builder, but also his very sophisticated lifestyle. Someone who grew up in the Roman court, brought with him all the extravagant requirements of that place, here to the desert."

What remains of Masada's former glory is but a faint echo. Most of the original plaster has been lost, leaving the soft limestone without a protective layer. In the same area was a small bath house, and some of its walls have partially collapsed. To protect the bath, timber has been brought in to allow reconstruction and to save the remains.

The repair method adopted by Ashurst and the Israeli teams of conservationists and archaeologists aims to preserve the appearance of the ancient building as much as possible.

The technique makes use of the same stone as the original, cut into thin tiles and packed carefully into the large cavities with mortar. This aims to restore the strength of the stone, while leaving a texture that is the same color as the mountain. No modern material is being used, as the teams painstakingly carry out the project.

The total cost will be about $1 million, according to Asi Shalom, a conservation archaeologist with Israel's National Park Protection Agency. Shalom says more than one-million tourists are expected to visit Masada during the year 2000.

Israelis are among the most frequent visitors, and most are groups of school children eager to learn more about a daring episode in the history of the Jewish people.

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