If any among us who reside in this stronghold paused for a moment to tear the blindfold of faith from our eyes, we would see how perilous our perch was, how shattering a fall it would be. If we lost our faith, we would become like the clouds that swell across the western sky when the wind pushes them into the desert, promising rain but empty inside. (The Dovekeepers, p.156)
Back in August 2011, during a visit to Israel, Justin and I spent a day traveling to Qumran and Masada. We were the only ones on site at Qumran for the better part of an hour, and that experience of the heavy silence, the oppressive heat and the blue haze of the Dead Sea has never left me. I spent much of the time I was there considering the matriarchs and patriarchs who had walked before me in times of hope and despair, in search of safety or a new home, out of a longing to be alone and to be near to God.
We then headed on towards Masada, and though the visitors’ centre is dreadfully touristy, complete with its own McDonald’s (yes, really), the ruins of the fortress itself are thankfully free of any sensationalising tat. As I wandered, I was haunted by the horrors that had taken place there nearly two thousand years ago when over nine hundred Jewish refugees decided to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner or killed by the Roman soldiers surrounding them.
Alice Hoffman has written a novel about Masada called The Dovekeepers, and though I’d been slowly working my way through a couple of pages each night, too tired to read much more, on a rare Friday evening when the next day was going to be a proper day off, I spent hours reading, staying up far too late to finish it (oh, the joy and luxury of reading through the night!).
The Dovekeepers is a beautiful book and one whose story hooked me immediately, I suspect in part because I was already fascinated by the place in which it is set. Hoffman gives voice to the women who traveled to and lived in Masada between the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE and the day when the Romans breached the walls of the fortress on 15 April 73CE. The story is told from the perspective of four of the women – a zealot’s daughter, a baker’s wife, a warrior’s wife and a ‘witch’ from Moab – all of whom work in the dovecote caring for the doves whose droppings provide fertilizer for the crops on a plateau which would otherwise be barren.
It is also a brutal book. One which takes place during such a turbulent period is not going to be an easy read, and in some sense, because we know what happened at Masada, the reader knows the ending, and that harrowing shadow of the final destruction lends a poignancy to the tale as it unfolds.
In all but the final section the women are initially defined by their relationship to the men in their lives, and this is a nice subtle touch to show their lack of status in society, especially in a community as precarious as Masada was. The women’s vulnerability is more explicitly portrayed through the violence they all witness and endure, but as the story progresses, their inner strength and their skills emerge and tentative friendships begin to form. It is the kind of tale which could easily become a cliché, but Hoffman’s narrative is crafted in such a way that the characters are complex, not always sympathetic, but always intriguing.
She also captures well the instability of the community at Masada and the tensions which no doubt existed between the different groups who came in search of safety and a place of worship when Jerusalem began to fall. Jewish faith and pagan practices intertwine, and different expressions of Judaism clash. There is an overarching sense of loss as the people work out, not for the first time in their history, what it means to be Jewish when the centre of their worship has been destroyed and some of their rituals can no longer be performed. And as the Roman army grows around the settlement and the ramp their slaves are building slowly comes ever closer, the concern amongst the community on Masada rises – not only for the fate of the living but also for the fate of the dead.
My only real criticism of The Dovekeepers is that the characters’ lives are a little too neatly interwoven, and by the end, it felt slightly contrived. However, it does mean that there aren’t hundreds of characters to keep track of, and it creates a compelling story where relationships are drawn with depth and complexity. There are places where the prose is a bit stilted, and every now and then a description of a ritual or feast feels didactic and interrupts the narrative. But these are rare occurrences, and my critiques are only minor ones. Through her wonderful storytelling, Hoffman manages to explore the great themes of all good literature: love and friendship, sacrifice and betrayal, and the courage it takes both to trust and to let go.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it was one of those rare stories which, after I had raced through to the end in the wee hours of the morning, I wished that I had savoured it. I wanted to turn back to the first page and read it again more slowly, reminding myself once more of all that happened in that silent place with its haunting view across the desert and out over the Dead Sea.
(There was an article in the Guardian recently about the Masada ‘myth’ which is well worth a read.)