The Real World History Behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘s Jedha City — A Guest Blog by Randy Hutchinson
The tragic real world history of one of the key influences behind NiJedha
In the Star Wars universe, creators have utilized real world influences in its design, such as Yavin IV and the Mayan Temples of Guatemala, its archetypes, like stormtroopers in the Galactic Empire and storm troopers from World War II, and even overarching story themes. It’s certainly not a stretch to see the parallels between the fall of the Roman Republic and the fall of Galactic Republic. Not all the references are as obvious, and some might be purely coincidental. One could wonder, what is the real-world history behind these examples that stuck with the creative team? Why is it important and does knowing the history leave any further impact on the story outside of its face value?
In 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars fans were introduced to the walled Holy City of Jedha (NiJedha) which sat on a mountaintop overlooking the region. Some avid Star Wars fans may have seen some similarities between the Holy City and Ralph McQuarrie’s ‘Jawa Fortress' as featured in Kevin J. Anderson & Ralph McQuarrie’s Illustrated Star Wars Universe. For other pop culture aficionados, you might even see some slight similarities to Edoras from The Two Towers. Either way, the visual of a city built on a mountain in the middle of a valley conjures an image of strength, safety and hope.
According to Jordana Finkel in The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Jedha drew from real world locations such as Jordan’s Wadi Rock as well as other sites in North Africa. While the visuals of Jordan’s Wadi Rum area are obvious (the crew shot on location there) when Saw Gerrera's crew is bringing Bodhi “I’m the pilot” Rook to the partisans’ base, the focus on this article is the city itself.
Mountaintop fortresses and cities aren’t limited to just places of fiction. Throughout world history there are examples of mountain fortresses and cities — Machu Picchu being one of the most famous. However, according to Doug Chiang, Executive Creative Director for Rogue One, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Masada served, in part, as the basis for Jedha City.
The real-world history of Masada, located in Judea near the Dead Sea, is just as tragic (if not more so) than the fictional events that ended in the destruction of Jedha City. The only historical record about Masada is Josephus Flavius’ The Jewish War. Flavius himself was a leader during the “Great Jewish Rebellion” against Rome in 66 CE. Per these records, the Judean King Herod expanded on a small fortification sitting upon the cliff, that had been there for decades previously, and built it into the fortress state it’s most known for between 37 and 31 BCE as a “refuge for himself.” The fortress consisted of an elaborate casemate wall around the plateau, areas for water storage, barracks, an armory and, naturally, a palace for Herod. For American readers this would be sort of like a more militarized Camp David that American presidents utilize from time to time.
It’s important to note here that King Herod wasn’t a completely autonomous ruler like the title “King” might imply. Instead, Herod served as head of the Judea province in the Roman Empire until his death in 4 BCE when Roman troops moved in to reoccupy Masada and left a garrison on site. They would occupy Masada for more than seventy years.
In 66 CE, after a series of years where small groups of Jewish rebels clashed with Roman soldiers, the different pockets of resistance joined forces and drove Roman soldiers from Judea, including Jerusalem and Masada. At this point a new Jewish government was set up independent of Rome and lasted for approximately four years when Jerusalem was retaken by Roman legion troops. However, thanks to a beneficial defensive location, Masada held out until 73 CE.
That year over 8,000 Roman soldiers laid siege to the mountain fortress and began to build a massive siege wall and ramp made up of thousands of tons of earth which were constructed by Jewish prisoners of war. The following spring, the Empire’s soldiers were able to move a battering ram into place. A horrific scene ensued. As the Roman forces began to break through, the remaining Jewish forces decided they would rather destroy the fortress and kill themselves before surrendering, and the clear majority of the approximately 1,000 Jewish men, women and children perished before Roman troops had broken through the wall's defenses.
For approximately four hundred years the site remained abandoned until a group of Christian monks founded a monastery on the location and stayed active for two hundred years until the Islamic religion prevailed in the region and the monastery was abandoned.
The story of the siege of Masada was largely forgotten until it was made famous again by a Hebrew poet, Isaac Lamdan who wrote “Masada.” This poem inspired a generation of Jewish people and brought renewed attention to the mountain fortress. In the mid-1960s, the state of Israel declared the site a National Park and in 2001 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Both Jedha City and Masada served as a location built on hope as a beacon at the top of a cliff that both ultimately ended up falling under the control of an Empire — In Star Wars the Galactic Empire and, in the real world, the Roman Empire. The residents of Masada saw their defeat marching toward them over the course of a year. Whereas, the citizens of Jedha City were blindsided by the destructive power of the Death Star. Together they served as an inspiration to move forward and overcome. With the Jewish people it was the poem “Masada” that inspired them during the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. With the Rebellion it was the destruction of Jedha City that inspired rebel troops to volunteer in the raid against Scariff and beyond.
Anderson, K. J. & Ralph McQuarrie. (1995) The Illustrated Star Wars Universe pgs 41-42
Goundry, N. Filming behind the scenes with Rogue One KFTV 12/22/2016 http://www.kftv.com/news/2016/12/22/filming-behind-the-scenes-with-rogue-one
Kushins, Josh. (2016) The Art of Rogue One pgs 96-141.
Masada. UNESCO World Heritage Sites. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1040
Masada Desert Fortress – Jewish Virtual Library. (n.d.). https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Archaeology/Masada1.html
Paine, R. (1994). Masada: A history of a memory. History and Anthropology, 6(4), 371-409. http://tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02757206.1994.9960835?journalcode=ghan20
Schürer, Emil (1891). A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ pg 465.
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