“Masada The last bastion of the Jewish freedom fighters against the Roman army symbolizes the end of the Kingdom of Judah at the end of the Second Temple period and its violent destruction. On the mountaintop there are remains of magnificent palaces from the reign of King Herod and silent committees for the Roman siege and the bitter end. The mountain that became a symbol.” – Masada National Park Website
Our knowledge of the siege of Masada by the Roman legion comes to us primarily from the chronicle written by Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader who was captured by Rome in an earlier battle, became a Roman Citizen, and was commissioned to write about the Jewish-Roman war. Josephus’ account, which some consider problematic and likely to have a Roman bias, has been enhanced by conservation, restoration, geographical, and archaeological work that’s ongoing at the site in modern-day Israel.
Alice Hoffman’s imagined and heavily researched retelling of those final days at Masada through the eyes of four strong and complex women characters, Aziza, Yael, Revka, and Shirah, breathes new life into our understanding of what has been called the Giant Revolt as well as the freedom fighters’ culture, daily lives and spiritual beliefs. These four women are Masada’s dovekeepers, looking after massive dovecotes where the birds are fed and cared for, the eggs gathered for food, and the excrement taken to enrich the mountain’s gardens and fields.
The storyline follows these women–who to varying degrees follow the outlawed practices of witchcraft–as they travel to the mountain, become part of the daily life and commerce of the community there, and as the Roman Legion approaches and begins its siege, how they coped with the developing reality of a Roman victory.
These four women, as well as many other players in the story, are deeply developed by Hoffman to the extent that we know their inner-most thoughts and dreams and the secrets of their souls. Hoffman’s penchant for magic plays a strong role here. Since the outcome of the novel cannot go against history, the magic will not defeat the Romans. But it will play a role in the characters’ lives.
Magical realism ties the book together in many respects because magic cannot be separated from the four women’s view of the world or their daily practices. Also, like modern-day traditional witchcraft and conjure, magic cannot be easily separated from the place where it lives. The result for the reader is an immersion into Masada. What we know after reading the novel may not be wholly factual (thought Hoffman defers to Josephus’ account), but it is definitely true.
The truth of the matter is that we come away from this wondrous book, having read a compelling story and with a greater understanding of what it might have been like to be trapped within that mountain fortress nearly 2000 years ago. Some critics say The Dovekeepers is Hoffman’s masterpiece. That’s an understatement. You must read it when you’re ready to read it, for it’s not an easy story. It will probably change you. Some day–but not today–I will forgive Alice Hoffman for plunging me into the horrors and triumphs of that faraway world.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two Florida folk magic novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” Learn more on his website.