16. Machaerus: The Execution site of John the Baptist

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After giving the “Sermon on the Mount” and performing the “Swine Miracle” all the synoptic Gospels describe how Jesus returns to Capernaum for some unknown time, and performs various acts. According to Luke he then heals an ill woman, and brings back to life the daughter of Yair, “head of the Synagogue” at Capernaum (Luke 8:40-56). At this stage Jesus also ordains 12 disciples to announce of the arrival of “kingdom of Heaven” (Luke 9:1-6). Luke then mentions that “Herod the tetrarch” hears of the deeds occurring in the north, and is confused whether this is John the Baptist, or one of the Biblical prophets who returned from the dead. “But Herod said, ‘I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?’ And he tried to see him.” (Luke 9:9). “Herod the tetrarch” is no doubt Herod Antipas (4 BCE-39 CE), one of the sons of Herod “the Great” (37-4 BCE).
An aerial view of Machaerus

An aerial view of Machaerus. Photo © Jane Taylor www.janetaylorphotos.com

The parallel passages in both Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29) mention important additional details: earlier Herod Antipas had imprisoned John the Baptist after being accused by him of violating the contemporary Jewish Law of marriage, since he married Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother, Herod Philip. Furthermore,Herodias instigated her daughter Salome to dance before Herod Antipas, and request John’s head as reward. Herod followed her request, and so he gave an order that John the Baptist be beheaded.

The site of imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, but it is known from the parallel description by Josephus Flavius, the first century CE historian: “Accordingly, he [John the Baptist] was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2). Josephus also adds that the execution really stemmed from the fear of Herod Antipas of the piety and charisma of John the Baptist.

Macherus/Machaerus (Michvar in Hebrew) is identified at Qalat el-Mishnaqa (“The fortress of the gallows”), a fortified hilltop 45 km SE of Jerusalem, on the eastern side of the Jordan valley, overlooking the northern part of the Dead Sea. The site is protected on three sides by deep ravines. The name of the site is preserved in the name of an Arab village on the plateau east of the mountain – Mukawir.

Machaerus was first developed by the Hasmonean kings in the first century BCE, and was re-developed again by King Herod “the Great” during his reign (37-4 BCE). According to Josephus, Herod “the Great” protected the mountain top by a fortress wall 100 meters long and 60 meters wide, with three corner towers, each 30 metershigh. A palace was built in the centre of the fortified area “which was after a magnificent manner, wherein were large and beautiful edifices” (War of the Jews 7.6.2). A water system which included several cisterns enabled the collection of large amounts of rain water. After the death of Herod “the Great”, in 4 BCE, his kingdom was split between three of his sons. Herod Antipas inherited the governorship of the Galilee and the eastern side of the Central Jordan valley (The Perea) including Machaerus. It was during his reign that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded there. After the death of Herod Antipas, Machaerus passed to Herod Agrippa I (37-44 CE), and then came under Roman control. During the Jewish rebellion against the Romans (66-73 CE), the Jews took control of the site. After a battle which reached the stage of a Roman siege around the site, the Jewish rebels capitulated before the Roman attack had begun. The rebels were allowed to leave, and the fortress was torn down, leaving only the foundations intact.

The site was never settled again.

David Down, editor of "Archaeological Diggings" visiting a cave in Machaerus presented as the presumed prison where John the Baptist was kept before beheaded.

David Down, editor of "Archaeological Diggings" visiting a cave in Machaerus presented as the presumed prison where John the Baptist was kept before beheaded. © Archaeological Diggings.

Macaherus was first visited and identified in 1807 by the German explorer U.J. Seetzen. The first archaeological excavations were carried out at the site by the American archaeologist J. Vardaman in 1968, and in 1973 A. Strobel identified and studied the Roman siege wall around the mountain top. Excavations at the site continued with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in the years 1978-1981, and by the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in 1992-1993. The excavations recovered a palace designed around a central courtyard, including an elaborate bath and mosaic floors. On the lower eastern slope more architectural remains were revealed. Large water cisterns were also documented on the side of the mountain. The lack of remains from later periods attests that the Roman destruction of the site in 72 CE was systematic and complete. Today part of the palace on the hilltop is paved and restored, but most of the site is still waiting to be properly excavated and developed for tourism.

Plan of the Acropolis of Machaerus after the Excavations of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum

Plan of the Acropolis of Machaerus after the Excavations of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Red marks Hellenistic remains. Black marks Herodian buildings, and green marks defensive walls added by the Jewish rebels. © Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.