South African Military History Society

News-sheet No. 103. DURBAN BRANCH March 1982.


"Masada - Symbol of Resistance". This was the title under which fellow-member Victor Conrad addressed our March gathering. Masada is situated in a country to which spiritual claims are laid by three world religions. To the Jews Canaan, later known as Palestine, and today as Israel was, and still is, the promised land; to the Muslims Jerusalem is a holy city because from the site of the Dome of Rocks, Mahomed is believed to have ascended to heaven; the religious claims of Christianity need no elucidation.

Two thousand years ago it was part of the mighty Roman Empire, and although it had some local rulers, such as King Herod, it came under the overall control and administration of Rome. Strong anti-Roman feelings, kindled and nurtured by a strong political party, the Zealots, led to open revolt against Roman rule. From the years A.D. 66 to 73 bitter fighting swept through the land, leading to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the renewed subjugation of the people of Israel by the Romans. Only 967 Zealots, whose numbers included women and children, held out in the mountain fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea. For three years Eleazar ben Jair and his Zealots withstood the assaults by the crack X. Legion, commanded by Flavius Silva. Built by Herod the Great, this stronghold contained two palaces in addition to vast store rooms, military barracks and water reservoirs. Situated on a hilltop 519m above the Dead Sea and surrounded by sheer kranses it was considered virtually impregnable. However, Roman military engineers were not to be put off. Eight military camps were established around the base of the Masada mountain and during the three years' siege the Romans built a ramp up one of the more accessible precipices enabling them to get their catapults and battering rams up to the fortress walls which were eventually breached. But inside the attackers found only smouldering ruins and the bodies of 962 Zealot defenders, who had chosen suicide rather than submission. Two women and three children managed to escape.

The writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the scrolls discovered in the caves of Qumran have recorded much detail and many events of those stirring times, but excavations commenced in recent times have added much concrete evidence to enlarge and enrich earlier knowledge. Under the guidance of Israeli archaeologist Prof Jadin with assistants from 27 countries, working in teams of 300 persons at a time, many secrets of Masada's past were revealed, and, at the same time, a certain amount of reconstruction was undertaken. Some of the grain found in the vast store houses was still capable of germination after nearly 2 000 years!

Our speaker rounded off his extremely interesting talk with a short series of slides dealing with some of the outstanding features of Jerusalem and Masada. Prof I. Gordon, one of our guests who had made a special study of Masada, added some of his personal experiences to the talk and complimented our speaker by saying that Victor's exposition of the story of Masada was even better than that which the archaeologist, Prof Jadin had given some years ago! Dr. Jaap Earle moved a formal vote of thanks to our speaker.


The following report has been received from our Chairman, SB :- The offer of a packaged tour of some of the Zulu War battlefields made by the Holiday Inn, Ulundi, was taken up by nine adults and five children. Having assembled at Ulundi on Friday evening, 19th March, the party warmed up over an excellent dinner and met the Zulu guide and commentator, Thom Ndaba, and archaeologist Rod Rawlinson. Leaving after breakfast on Saturday morning, the party then proceeded in two private cars and the hotel combi via Babanango and Fort Marshall to kwaMabaso, the valley where the Zulu army had concealed itself and spent the night before the battle of Isandlwana. From Thusi, a newly established, magnificent view point, Thom Ndaba explained the positions of the Zulu regiments and how the battle developed. This story was completed at Isandlwana itself, where also a really good picnic lunch was consumed. The afternoon was taken up by a visit to Rorke's Drift and the return to Ulundi.

On Sunday morning, 21st March, a brief pre-breakfast walk took the party to Nodwengu, King Mpande's principal kraal and grave site. After breakfast a visit to the battlefield and memorial was followed by a one-and-a-half hours' inspection of the excavations conducted by the archaeologist, Mr. Rawlinson, at King Cetshwayo's royal 'u-muzi' Ondini. This proved to be most interesting and enlightening. After an early luncheon at the hotel, the party then proceeded in their own cars to Dingaanskraal and dispersed from there, some stopping, on their return journey, to see the Opathe gorge and the two British Forts at Emtonjaneni. This outing was well organised and enjoyed by all.


Monthly Get-togethers


May 6th June 10th July 8th

The venue for all meetings will be the Lecture Room, 'SB' Bourquin Building, the Port Natal Administration Board's head office, on the corner of Jan Smuts Highway and Buro Crescent, Mayville, on the second Thursday in the month (unless otherwise announced) commencing at 8 p.m.. There is ample parking under guard in the grounds. Glasses and ice will be supplied so please bring your own canned or bottled refreshments. Friends and interested persons are most welcome to come along.

(Mrs) Tania van der Watt,
Secretary, Durban Branch,
S.A. Military History Society,
Box 870, HILLCREST, 3650.
Tel. (031) 742970.

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