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British Team Repairs Masada Palace

October 22, 1998

MASADA, Israel (AP) _ In the first century, the strategic mountain-top location of Herod’s Masada fortress helped the Jews ward off Roman legions for three years.

Now, nearly 2000 years later, that perch 1,000 feet above the desert floor is making the stronghold vulnerable.

Once the luxurious quarters of the royal household, the northern palace which overlooks the Dead Sea and the hills of present-day Jordan, is crumbling. Wind, sand, water and salt have eaten away at the soft limestone masonry of ancient palace in the Negev Desert.

Fearing an earthquake or heavy rains could destroy one of Israel’s best-known archaeological sites, a team of conservationists is now combating the destructive force of the elements with emergency repairs on the palace.

``We’re working against time now,″ John Ashurst, the British conservation architect leading the team, said in an interview. ``It’s a kind of war of attrition. In the end, it only takes one small event.″

Slabs of stone look ready to slide off the cliff’s eastern side and the western side is already crumbling. The once-imposing outer walls resemble honeycombs in spots, their weakness apparent in the grapefruit-sized cavities in the stones.

The British team was brought in a week ago as part of emergency efforts to repair the damage. Decorative stucco columns have been battered by strong winds, and the frescoes are in danger of flaking off. One corner of Herod’s bathhouse has already slid off an eroding precipice.

Colin Burns, a member of the British team, chiseled a stone and fit it into an existing arch above the cold plunge room of the bathhouse. Saving the arch is essential in order to keep the surrounding cliff walls from sliding down and pulling the room down with them.

When the British team departs Saturday, Israeli conservationists will continue repairs to the palace masonry, frescoes and decorative stucco.

``It’s one of the most daring conservation projects we’re started in Israel,″ said Asi Shalom, a conservation archaeologist with Israel’s National Park Protection Agency.″Every hour is important for us now.″

Work has been virtually non-stop at the site. One conservationist performed delicate work Wednesday on frescoes with geometric and floral patterns. Anther filled in the hollowed stones with slabs of similar material to preserve the original facade of the walls. Others worked from scaffolds surrounding a 50-foot high wall.

``The whole story of Masada is about sliding. We’re trying to gather it up and hold it up again,″ Ashurst said.

Herod began building the Masada fortress around 10 A.D. It became the last outpost of zealots during the Jewish revolt against Rome that began in A.D. 66. The Romans were unable to take Masada for three years _ until they completed a massive dirt ramp up the cliff. But before they could reach their victims, the zealots chose mass suicide over enslavement.

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