Machareus – Where John the Baptist was Beheaded


Amman – Jordan
One of Jordan’s undiscovered gems is Herod the Great’s ancient fortress of Machaerus (Mukawir), located by the village of Mukawir within an hour drive from Madaba. Originally built by The Maccabees, it was destroyed by Roman forces under Pompey, but thereafter the Romans, particularly in the time of Herod The Great, rebuilt and expanded the royal residence, military facility and prison the remains of which we can see today.

The fort was perched on a 700-meter-high hill in about 100 BCE. There, it is said, the beautiful Salome danced for Herod Antipas, who presented her with the head of John the Baptist to honor her wishes. According to Matthew 14: 9-12, “The king was sad, but because of the promise he had made in front of all his guests, he gave orders that her wish be granted. So he had John beheaded in prison. The head was brought in on a plate to the girl, who took it to her mother.”


The site overlooks the Dead Sea and is protected on three sides by deep ravines. Originally there was a fortress wall, 100 meters long and 60 meters wide with three corner towers, each 90 ft high. A rectangular plan was divided into two wings, between which passed a corridor about nine feet wide. The east wing was built around a courtyard. On one side of this was a bathhouse with mosaic floors, on the other five storage rooms. In the west wing are the remains of another courtyard, larger than the first, which was surrounded by colonnades. Beside this are two halls, which had columns that perhaps supported a second story.

There are a number of caves on the northeast side at the base of the hill and John the Baptist is reputed to have been held in one of them. This was also the side where the lower town grew up. It was inhabited by local people while the citadel was occupied by Jewish zealots who seized it during the revolt.


The greatest attraction of Machaerus, however, is the stunning panoramic view it presents of the surrounding countryside, the Dead Sea, and the West Bank. On a clear night you can easily make out the lights of Jerusalem and Jericho. Far removed from the tourist circuit, the quiet of this area transports you back into Biblical times. Indeed, shepherds and their flocks still find shelter in the myriad caves and grottoes around Machaerus. Hike down towards the Dead Sea from Machaerus and you will truly feel that you are on top of the world.

The site can be easily found if you follow GPS and there are many signs on the way pointing to its direction today. If you are coming from Amman you can choose a road through Madaba or drive to the Dead Sea first and then take a scenic road through the mountains by following the sign to Main Hot Springs. The entrance fee is 2 JOD for tourists and opening hours are from 8 AM to 6 PM daily. You can purchase water or soft drinks at the restaurant before your hike to the top of the hill and take a rest upon your return.


Facts & History

  • Location: 20 km southwest of Madaba, Jordan
  • Built: 1st century AD
  • Admission Fee: 2 JOD

The fortress Machaerus was originally built by the Hasmonean king, Alexander Jannaeus (104 BC-78 BC) in about the year 90 BC. It was destroyed by Pompey’s general Gabinius in 57 BC, but later rebuilt by Herod the Great in 30 BC to be used as a military base to safeguard his territories east of the Jordan.

Upon the death of Herod the Great, the fortress was passed to his son, Herod Antipas, who ruled from 4 BC until 39 AD. It was during this time, at the beginning of the first century AD, that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded at Machaerus.

After the deposition and banishment of Herod Antipas in 39 AD, Machaerus passed to Herod Agrippa I until his death in 44 AD, after which it came under Roman control. Jewish rebels took control after 66 AD during the First Jewish Revolt. Shortly after defeating the Jewish garrison of Herodium, the Roman legate Lucilius Bassus advanced on Machaerus with his troops and began siege in 72 AD. An embankment and ramp were created in order to facilitate Roman siege engines but 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 archaeological excavation of Machaerus was begun in 1968 by Jerry Vardaman, then of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and later director of the Cobb Institute of Archeology at Mississippi State University. In 1973, the German scholar, August Strobel, identified and studied the wall by which the Romans encircled the defenders within the fortress. In 1978-1981, excavations were carried out by Virgilio Corbo, Stanislao Loffreda and Michele Piccirillo, from the Franciscan Biblical Institute in Jerusalem.

External Links

Products & Services

 Jordan Country Guide – Lonely Planet
 The Rough Guide to Jordan
 Alex’s Collection of Hi-Res Photos – Jordan
 Map of the Site

Also in Jordan…


GPS coordinates: North 31° 33′ 55″ East 35° 37′ 37″
Map with directions

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