Machaerus Fortress, Madaba, Jordan

The remains of the fortress of Machaerus is located near the current-day village of al-Mukāwir, 14 miles southwest of Madaba and fifteen miles southeast of the mouth of the Jordan river on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.1 Driving south from Madaba along the King's Highway to al-Mukāwir, it is a short hike up the isolated conical hill past the village, where the ruins of the palace of Machaerus lie atop a hill with steeply sloping sides, except for a saddle, connecting the perch with a ridge to the north east.2 The Hasmoneans fortified the site, but it was destroyed by Gabinius. The Fortress-palace that Herod built at the site measured approximately 110 meters east-west and 60 meters north-south.3 It was divided into two parts: The eastern part contained elements of a bathhouse, paved with mosaics, the western part had a peristyle court.4 The site commaned an expansive view of the Dead Sea region.5 During the 1st century BCE, the hill was a stronghold of the Jewish Hasmonean revolt against the Selucids, and was fortified to be a buffer against Nabatean power. During the latter half of the 1st century BCE, Herod the Great built one of his fortress-palaces on the site, and according to Roman historian Josephus, it is the site of John the Baptist's beheading.6 In 66 CE, it was a stronghold of the Jewish rebels during the First Jewish revolt, and was destroyed when the Romans finally took control of the fortress seven years later. Today, of the palace ruins, a few rooms are discernable, as are the remains of the Roman assault ramp on the far slope of the hill, and the line of an aqueduct.7 The oldest mosaic in Jordan was found in the baths complex, but has since been moved to Madaba for display.8  





The Hasmonean State and the building of Machaerus: The Hasmonean state was the political entity established by the Maccabees during the 2nd century BCE, which encompassed the entire territory of Judea.9 Under the reign of Alexander Yannai (103–76 B.C.E.), the Hasmonean state reached the apex of its power.10 Yannai ruled over the whole of the sea coast, from the Egyptian border to the Carmel, with the exception of Ashkelon, extending his rule over some of the Greek cities of Transjordan and working to establish absolute authority as king and as high priest.11 Yannai built the Machaerus in southern Perea, east of the Jordan River and adjacent to the border of Nabatean Arabia, to serve as one of the depositories for his treasures.12 Machaerus also served as a base for Alexander and Aristobulus in their resistance against the Romans, and Pliny describes it as one of the strongest points in the region after Jerusalem in his Historia Naturalis, while Strabo lists the fortress among the Hasmonean strongholds.13 The Hasmonean kingdom was largely characterized by its Hellenism, as the Greek nature of the kingdom was evident in many of its' aspects: Alexander Yannai adopted the title basileus (king); the Hasmonean sovereigns had Greek names in addition to their Hebrew names; and the architecture, according to Josephus and the book of Maccabees, consisted of a high structure with seven towers crowned with pyramidal tops, similar to edifices that have survived in the Nabatean city of Petra.14 The Hasmonean state was conquered by Pompey in 63 BCE, amid strife between the Hellenistic Hasmonean rulers and the Pharisees.15 

Herod the Great and architecture: Born about 73 BC, son of Antipater and his Nabataean wife, Cypros, Herod was declared the king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC, shortly after his father's death, although Herod was not secure on the throne for another three years.16 Of Idumaean origina, Herod married Mariamne, one of the last Hasmonean princesses in order to secure his position as ruler of Judea, although he later had her killed due to accusations of poisoning attempts against Herod made by Herod's mother and sister in 29 BC.17 Herod was quick to curry favor with the Romans to whom he owed his power, paying taxes to the Romans as well as naming his great port city Caesarea. Herod was well-known for his architectural projects; he built and rebuilt many cities in Judea, and most famously he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. It is said by sages of the time that "he who has not seen Herod's building, has never seen a beautiful building."18 In response to the increasing antipathy of his subjects, Herod built a string of mountain fortresses which also served as royal palaces, several of which were on the sites of former Hasmonean structures, including Machaerus and the more famous Masada. These citadels served as both palaces and fortresses both during Herod's lifetime as well as during the First Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire. Much of current knowledge about Herod come from historian Flavius Josephus, although his works at Machaerus, Masada, Caesarea, and the portions of the Second Temple are still around today.

John the Baptist: A Jewish prophet, considered by Christians to be the forerunner of Jesus. There are two main sources of data regarding the life of John: the Gospels, the earliest of which were in circulation during the latter part of the 1st century, and Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, written following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.19 According to Luke 1:5-80, he was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, who was also a kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his birth was miraculously foretold. John was beheaded at Machaerus by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who imprisoned him in revenge for John's condemnation of his incestuous marriage to his brother's wife, Herodias.20 Herodias' daughter Salome danced for Herod, who rewarded her by offering her whatever she wished. On the advice of her mother, she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.21 Honoring his promise, Herod commanded that it be done.22 Luke 9:7–9 relates that when Herod later heard that Jesus was being identified with the resurrected John, he became curious about the subject of the rumor.

Judea under Roman Rule from the 1st Century BCE to the 1st Century CE: The Roman Empire took control of Judea from the Hasmoneans in the 60s CE as the sons of Alexander Yannai's widow, Salome, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus fought one another for the throne of Judea.23 In 63 CE, the Roman general Pompey, who was based in Syria, marched on Jerusalem, ostensibly in support of Hyrcanus, and easily conquered most of the city, save the Temple, which was defended for three months by Aristobulus' supporters.24 The Temple fell in the late autumn, and a massacre ensued; thousands of captives were enslaved and sent to Rome. Jeruslaem and its' territories were required to pay tribute to Rome.25 The former kingdom of Judea was ruled by the Romans for the next seven centuries, until the Arab conquests.26 Under the Romans, Hyrcanus was given the title Ethnarch but only nominal power, while the noble Idumean family, Antipater and his sons were given the real power in the kingdom.27 This is considered the first of the three stages of Roman rule in the region, which ended in 40 BCE when the Parthians invaded Judea, deposed Hyrcanus, exiled him to Babylonia, and placed another member of the Hasmonean dynasty, Mattathias Antigonias, on the throne.28 Herod, backed by Antony and Octavian, was crowned in Rome in 40 BCE, and gained control of the land three years later in 37 BCE, beginning the second stage of Roman rule in Judea. This was a stage of transition, wedged between a time of autonomy under the auspices of an aristocratic Jewish family, and a time of direct Roman administration.29 Following Herod's death in 4 BCE, uprisings break out in Judea which were brutally put down by the Syrian governor, Varus.30 As Judea was split between Herod's three surviving sons, Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip, the resentment of non-Hellenized religions and nationalistic sections of Jewish society rose despite Rome's power and the futility of any later attempts at rebellion against the Romans.31 

First Jewish Revolt: According to Josephus, the First Jewish Revolt was precipitated by a trivial dispute between the Greek and Jewish communities in Caesarea, no more than a superficial incident, part of an explosive chain of events.32 Direct Roman administration of Judea (renamed Judaea by the Romans), established in 6 CE following the misrule of Herod's son Archelaus had been resented by the Jews for decades, a feeling which was exacerbated by the corruption and insensitivity of the majority of the Roman procurators.33 The Romans were unable to maintain law and order as large portions of the region were ruled by various bands of Jewish rebels including zealots, freedom fighters, bandits, and messianic enthusiasts.34 The war lasted from 66 CE to the fall of Masada in 73 CE.35  Josephus writes of the Machaerus during the First Jewish Revolt being taken over by the Zealots.36 According to Josephus's writings, Machaerus remained one of their strongholds even after the fall of Jerusalem.37 In 72 CE, as organized resistance in Judea was at an end, three isolated strongholds were left: Masada, Herodium, and Machaerus, on the western and eastern banks of the Dead Sea, respectively.38 Emperor Vespasian assigned Roman legate Lucilius Bassus to capture the final three Jewish rebel garrisons.39 Although they occupied a strong defensive position, the garrison at Machaerus quickly capitulated after a short siege, and the fortress was destroyed by the Romans.40 

Machaerus in the Modern Era: "The site was visited in the 19th century by J.L. Burckhardt, H. Tristram, and C.R. Conder. F.M. Abel made a survey of the site in 1909. In the 1920s a sculpted head identified by P. Ilton as the head of Salome was said to have been found in a cave 80 feet north of Machaerus. Excavations were first made at the site by J. Vardaman in 1968, but the results were never published. In the early 1970s Strobel made a survey of the Roman siege-works around the site. Bassus' unfinished ramp is still visible on one side of the site. Father V. Corbo undertook major excavations at the site from the late 1970s. A few tombs from the first century C.E. were recently investigated at the site."41

Suggested Further Reading: 

  • Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations by Martin Goodman
  • The Jewish Revolts Against Rome, A.D. 66-135 : A Military Analysis by James J. Bloom
  • A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People: From the Time of the Patriachs to the Present edited by Eli Barnavi
  • The Jewish Revolt AD 66-74 by Si Sheppard
  • The Rough Guide to Jordan by Matthew Teller
  • The World of the Bible by Roberta L. Harris
  • The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A.D. 66-70 by Martin Goodman
  • The First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History and Ideology by Andrea M. Berlin and J. Andrew Overman 
  • Josephus: The Complete Works by Josephus, translated by William Whiston 
  • The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman




al-Mukawir, Jordan

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