May 15, 2008 / 7:09 AM / 11 years ago

FACTBOX-Masada: desert palace, rebel redoubt, Zionist symbol

May 15 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush, on a tour of Israel marking its 60th anniversary, visited the 2,000-year-old fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea on Thursday.

The site has acquired great significance for Israelis as a symbol of self-sacrifice and resistance. The story of how nearly 1,000 Jewish men, women and children committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman forces is based on the writings of Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian who defected to the Romans.

* Herod, king of Judea in the 1st century BC, built Masada as a winter palace where he could enjoy its desert locale and commanding views of the Dead Sea.

* According to Josephus, during a Jewish revolt against Roman rule that erupted in 67 AD, hundreds of insurgents and their families took refuge in the hilltop fortress. When Roman legionnaires broke through the ramparts in 70 AD, the Jews slit each others’ throats rather than fall captive.

* Josephus chronicled the tale of Masada in his book "The Jewish War". Israel launched major archaeological digs at the site in the 1960s which provided support for his historical account.

* The Jewish National Fund, which acquired land in Ottoman- and then British-ruled Palestine before the founding of the state of Israel, bought Masada from its bedouin owners in 1932. The site and its narratives of resistance and self-sacrifice became integral to modern Zionist teachings.

"To Israelis, Masada symbolises the determination of the Jewish people to be free in its own land," the Israeli Foreign Ministry says on a page devoted to Masada on its website.

* In 1981 the siege was dramatised in an American television mini-series called "Masada". The site joined UNESCO’s list of protected heritage sites in 2002. (Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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