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Israel Masada Now U.N. Heritage Site
November 1st, 2002

Associated Press Writer

MASADA, Israel -- Hundreds of Israelis climbed this ancient hilltop fortress Thursday, where Jewish rebels chose suicide over capture by Roman troops, to celebrate its addition to a U.N. list of cultural treasures.
The Judean mountain promitory overlooking the Dead Sea is where where a last group of Jewish holdouts sought refuge from Roman legions who had already destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
Israeli soldiers now come here at the start of their military training to swear an oath to protect the country. Boys celebrate coming-of-age rituals here. Many come to pray.

Masada and the ancient Mediterranean port city of Acre in northern Israel were included in the World Heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization last year -- the first two Israeli sites to make it onto the UNESCO list.
A plaque commemorating the Masada site was unveiled Thursday as dancers and musicians performed for diplomats, Cabinet ministers and nearby residents. The listing puts it on a par with the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Egypt. The UNESCO Heritage List of 730 sites in 125 countries is designed to protect the world's cultural and natural treasures, though it doesn't always work. Tamas Fejerdy, the Hungarian head of UNESCOs World Heritage Committee, said he hoped the recognition of Masada would "highlight the symbol both of Jewish culture and identity and more universally of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty."

Emanuel Azmon, 73, first climbed the mountain in 1944 as part of a Jewish youth movement that set out to hike the entire historic Jewish homeland. "I had tears in my eyes to think of these people killing themselves instead of becoming slaves," Azmon said. "It symbolizes the desire for freedom at its extreme."
He has returned to Masada's crags many times since. Azmon, a geologist, brought his 16-year-old granddaughter Ruth on her first trip to the site on Thursday.

In A.D. 73, thousands of soldiers from the 12th Legion of the Roman army surrounded the fortress, where some 900 Jews, rebelling against Roman rule, were holed up. The massive earth ramp the Romans constructed to get a battering ram in striking distance of the walls is still clearly visible. The first archeologists here found Roman arrows and pottery. According to an account by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, 10 of the surviving rebels decided on mass suicide rather than facing death or slavery. Half a century ago, Jewish archeologists rediscovered the place, which had for a time been home to Byzantine monks -- there's still an ancient church on the site -- before being deserted.
Israelis have vowed not to let Masada fall again. If challenged, Israel will not commit suicide but will fight to the death, said Avia Oann, 55, standing among the pillars. "We must learn from it, not to make the same mistake," she said.


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