At the Masada archaeological site

by AFP/Patrick Moser , Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Israel

MASADA - In the tiny synagogue of Masada, a ruined desert fortress steeped in myth, symbolism and controversy, a Torah scribe sits motionless but for the slow, deliberate strokes of his right hand.

A master in the art of writing Hebrew Bible scrolls, Shai Abramovich seems oblivious to the outside world as he traces the characters onto cow-leather parchment, his bespectacled face just inches from his desk.

He insists his composure belies the excitement he feels working at Masada, an archaeological site seen by many as an emblem of Israel's fighting spirit two millennia after 960 Jews are believed to have committed suicide on the isolated, wind-swept plateau rather than surrender to the Romans.

"I get very emotional here," he says, pointing to the ruins of the stronghold that troops besieged in 72 AD.

"This is a place with a lot of history, a lot of roots. I sometimes find it hard to write when I realise where I am," says Abramovich, one of just hundreds of Torah scribes worldwide.

The landscape is as dramatic as the history of the 400-metre (1,300-foot) plateau that overlooks the Dead Sea and a lunar landscape of rock, dust and crater-like sinkholes.

Masada, which was popularised by a 1981 Hollywood epic, ranks as one of Israel's top tourist destinations.

Hardy hikers trek up the "snake path" in time for the stunning desert sunrise, while tour groups make their ascent by cable-car.

Abramovich himself has become the latest tourist attraction.

Visitors watch over his shoulder as he dips his quill into vegetable ink and copies out the Hebrew Bible using the same implements as scribes did at the time of the Roman siege.

"Our goal is to expose this art to people so they can see the traditions and roots of the people of Israel," the Torah scribe says.

His movements are slow and deliberate and he appears oblivious to the singing and chanting outside, where a 13-year-old boy is celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, his religious coming of age.

"It's an incredibly difficult, demanding job," says Shimon Elharar, the rabbi in charge of the Masada synagogue, who spent six months looking for a suitable scribe.

"They are used to working in a very quiet environment, not a busy tourist destination."

Jewish law dictates that every Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, must be written by hand. Abramovich says it takes about one year to write the sacred book's 304,805 letters.

Within a month, Internet users should be able to get a close view of the scribe at work when a web camera will be installed in Masada's restored synagogue.

"There is no place more authentic than here to write a Torah," says Abramovich. During excavations in the 1960s, 2,000-year-old fragments of holy scripture were found under the synagogue.

Zionists see Masada as an enduring symbol of Jewish resolve, and Israel has promoted its narrative as an emblem of a heroic past on which the modern state is built. Thousands of Israeli soldiers have taken their oath atop the mountain, pledging that "Masada will never fall again."

The only account of the siege comes from a 1st century Jewish historian and Roman citizen, Titus Flavius Josephus.

Until the site was identified in 1842, Masada had been virtually ignored by Jews for nearly 1,800 years.

Some experts, including Israeli sociologist Nachman ben Yehuda, now say that rather than heroic rebels fighting the powerful Roman empire, the holdouts were a widely hated band of thugs and murderers.

Many Orthodox Jews are uncomfortable with the Masada narrative for another reason, namely that Jewish law strictly forbids suicide.

But some suggest there might have been just one suicide, by the last one standing after the 960 besieged Jews killed each other.

Elharar says the writing of a Torah at Masada delivers a powerful message of Jewish resilience.

"It is some kind of closure, a strong statement that we are here after 2,000 years, the people of Israel are still alive."

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Fact File:

For more information on Masada, see the Israel Ministry of Tourism, watch the History Channel or the mini-series starring Peter O'Toole.

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