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King Herod's citadel on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea is one of the few places in the Holy Land mentioned in the New Testament Gospels that could be clearly identified by archaeological findings, and partly reconstructed using original architectural elements. For a visitor, the 20 minute walk uphill from the parking is well worth the effort, as the reward is a true biblical site and spectacular views of the Dead Sea, Palestine and Israel.
Machaerus was part of the kingdom of Judea from the first century BC through the first century AD. It is the place where Salome danced for her step-father, Herod Antipas, who then fulfilled her wish to have John the Baptist beheaded and his head presented on a platter.
The fortress of Machaerus was originally constructed by the order of the Hasmonean king and high priest of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus in 90 BC. Under the command of general Gabinius, the Romans destroyed it in 57 BC.
Herod the Great had it rebuilt as a fortified palace in 30 BC. Its strategic hilltop location provided a view over the Dead Sea all the way to Jericho and the Temple of Jerusalem, Masada to the south, and as far as Alexandrium to the north of the Jordan Valley. The fortress of Machaerus served at that time as an eastern outpost against attacks from the desert, for example by the Nabataeans, and could warn the other fortresses. Furthermore, it had an economic importance, because it served to control the King's Highway, the northeastern section of the Incense Route.
From the visitors center, staircases down lead to a path that winds up to the top of the citadel. On the northern slope there was the Herodian lower city with the prison cell of John the Baptist.
Herod Antipas (4 BC – 39 AD King of Judea), the son of Herod the Great, inherited Machaerus' palace with the city below. He was married to a daughter of the Nabatean King Aretas IV. In 27 AD Antipas fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of one of his half-brothers. As he wanted to marry her, he repudiated his Nabataean wife Phasaelis, who managed to escape to her father.
John the Baptist condemned the adultery of Antipas and Herodias, which is why he was arrested in the early 30s AD and imprisoned in the lower city of Machaerus. Wanting to take revenge on him, Herodias urged Salome, her daughter from her first marriage, to dance before Antipas and his birthday guests, and as this pleased Herod so much, she made him promise with an oath to give her whatever she asked. "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." The king was distressed, but because of his oaths, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. (Matthew 14:3-11)
In 36 AD, the opportunity arose for the Nabataean Aretas IV to punish his former son-in-law Antipas, defeating his troops in a devastating way, and destroying Machaerus. More about, see:
History of Petra and the Nabataeans
In 44 AD, eight years after the destruction of Machaerus by the Nabataeans, the Romans built a garrison-fortress on the site, which was taken by the Jewish Zealots in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 CE. It was then finally destroyed by the Tenth Roman Legion in 71 CE, and Machaerus disappeared from the maps for nearly two millennia.
During the Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman periods, pilgrims of the Holy Land did not know where this historical place could be found. The Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus (*c. 37/38 AD, + after 100), the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (* c. 260/265, + 339), and others, registered in their writings that Machaerus was the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded, but they could not identify its location on maps of the Holy Land.
In 1807, the German explorer Ulrich Jasper Seetzen suggested that the Arabic name of the village "Mukawar" and the ruins found there might refer to Machaerus. But it was not until 1965, with August Strobel's discovery of the 3.5 kilometer long circumvallation siege wall of the Romans, that ancient Machaerus could be scientifically identified. From then on, several archaeological missions conducted excavations at Machaerus. Since 2009, the surveys, studies and reconstructions of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, directed by Győző Vörös, corrected several of the previous inaccurate monument presentations at the Machaerus citadel.
1 - Royal courtyard. 2 - Throne niche. 3 - Triclinium. 4 - Doric Column. 5 - Cistern. 6 - Bathhouse. 7 - West bastion. 8 - North bastion
The royal courtyard of Machaerus  is the most important architectural feature of the Herodian castle. With its in situ apsidal throne niche  reconstructed 2019, it must have been the setting for the birthday banquet of Herod Antipas, Salome's dance and deathsentence on John the Baptist. Adjacent to it are the fundaments of a triclinium dining room .
From the 24 columns which used to line this courtyard, one complete Doric column  was reconstructed 2014 in accordance with the principles of anastylosis, where only original architectural elements are used in reconstruction (unfortunately found collapsed as of March 2023). Around it is a small area of the original floor, while the courtyard floor is a reconstruction. A huge cistern  that can be seen below it was part of this Herodian phase.
Semicircular apsidal niche of the royal Herodian throne seat
On the south side are the remains of a Herodian bath complex  where the oldest mosaic so far discovered in Jordan was found in the apodyterium (undressing room). Part of it can now be seen in the Madaba Archaeological Park. Probably twelve Ionic columns lined the bathhouse’s apodyterium. From the Ionic column, which was reconstructed in 2014, only the column drums could be seen lying around as of 2023.
A Herodian mikveh (an immersion pool used for ritual purification in Judaism) was discovered in 1968 outside the walls of the royal bathhouse with vaulted roof and plastered steps and walls. Two more of these purification pools have been identified by the archaeologists at Machaerus.
The best visible remains of the water supply in Machaerus are the foundations of the aqueduct which can be seen parallel to the way up to the hill. It used to have 15 m in height and also served as a bridge that connected the fortress to the high plateau.
Bastions with towers protected the citadel on three sides, already in times of Alexander Jannaeus, and after Herod the Great’s renovations. The lower city provided the needed protection for the north side of the citadel.
Excavations at the Western bastion  revealed that the preserved bastion walls are more than 9 meters high.
View from the Northern bastion  in direction south. On the hills in the background, the village of Mukawir can be seen.
Three Byzantine churches have been located in the village of Mukawir, around 2 km to the east of the palace-fortress.
The Church of Bishop Malechios, possibly from the first half of the 7th century, is a basilica with three aisles, measuring 21.5 x 15 m, having a mosaic pavement. Bishop Malechios was unknown until the church’s discovery; he belonged to the Episcopal Seat of Madaba. The Church is located within premises which also include a restaurant, with a panoramic view of the Machaerus fortress and Dead Sea (as can be seen on the photo).
The North Church, located on the northern slope of the village's hill, is a small church or chapel with one aisle. The third church referred to as the West Church has been investigated but not excavated.
© Text and photos: Universes in Universe.
Sources, among others:
Writings by Prof. Dr. Győző Vörös, who has directed the Machaerus Excavations and Surveys since 2009.
Burton MacDonald: Pilgrimage in Early Christian Jordan. A literary and archaeological guide. Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK, 2010
Located 35 km from Madaba. Drive on the King's Highway (R35) to Libb, and turn right at the end of the village center.
Approx. 70 km from Amman; 20 km from Dead Sea Highway.
From the parking lot a 20 minute walk uphill leads to the fortress.
Church of Bishop Malechios. About 2 km to the east of the palace-fortress.
Location on map
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Compilation of information, editing, translations, photos: Universes in Universe, unless otherwise indicated