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Set on a promontory east of the Dead Sea, Machaerus is one of the most important sites in early Christian History. According to first-century historian Flavius Josephus, King Herod Antipas executed John the Baptists at Machaerus (Ant. 18.5.2). Machaerus also witnessed a great battle between the Romans and Jewish rebels (Wars 7.6.2.), an event that led to its final abandoment.

History and Archaeology of Machaerus

The Macabean king Alexander Janneus founded Machaerus as a desert fort in the first half of the first century BC. Later, King Herod reused it and developed it. Josephus describes his palace as:  “after a magnificent manner, wherein were large and beautiful edifices” (War 7.6.2). In 30 AD his son, Herod Antipas, sentenced in Machaerus John the Baptist to death.

Machaerus in the New Testament

According to the Gospels, Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist after being accused by him of violating the contemporary Jewish Law of marriage since he married Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Furthermore, Herodias instigated her daughter Salome to dance before Herod Antipas and requested John’s head as a 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 by name in the New Testament. Still, it is mentioned in the parallel description of the first-century historian, Josephus Flavius “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” (Ant. 18.5.2). Josephus also adds that the execution stemmed from the fear of Herod Antipas of the piety and charisma of John the Baptist.

See a presentation on the site from a Christian point of view by Danny ‘the Digger’, on “The Watchman” show –

During the Jewish rebellion against the Romans (66-73 CE), the Jews took control of Machaerus. Yet, as the Romans laid a siege around the site, the rebels capitulated before the Roman attack had begun. The insurgents could leave, and the fortress was torn down and never settled again.

Locating Machaerus

Macherus / Machaerus (Michvar in Hebrew) is identified at Qalat el-Mishnaqa (‘The fortress of the gallows’), a fortified hilltop 30 miles southeast of Jerusalem. It is on the Jordan Valley’s eastern side, overlooking the Dead Sea’s northern part. The site is protected on three sides by deep ravines. The Arab village of Mukawir, east of the site, is preserving the site’s name. The German explorer U.J. Seetzen was the first Western scholar to visit the site in 1807 and identify the site. Several archaeological expeditions later excavated it. The excavations uncovered a palace designed around a central courtyard, with an elaborate bathhouse and several mosaic floors. Large water cisterns on the mountainside collected rainwater via an aqueduct.

Touring Machaerus

Machaerus is located in one of the most beautiful spots in Jordan. With the jaw-dropping view of the Dead Sea in the back, this is one of the most inspiring sites to capture Herodian royalty some 2,000 years ago. On a good day, one can also see all of the other Herodian desert fortresses from here – Masada, Herodium, Dok, Cypros, Hyrcania, and Alexandrion. Unfortunately, very limited restoration and development took place at the site. It is still waiting to be adequately developed for tourism, including a visitor center. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important sites in early Christian history.

A tour of Machaerus can be combined with a multi-day tour of Jordan.

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