Machaerus

MACHAERUS (mă-kē'rŭs, Gr. Machairous) was Herod’s southernmost Stronghold east of the Dead Sea, built by Alexander Janneus (90 b.c. ?) and called by Pliny “the second Citadel of Judea.”

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History and Geography

Machaerus (modern Mukawir) is located on a high mountain overlooking the sea, between modern Wadi Zerqa Ma`in and Wadi el-Mojib. The fort was on the border of Perea, the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. To the south lay the domains of Aretas, Herod’s Father-in-law, King of the Nabateans.

Machaerus was fortified by Alexander Janneus (BJ, VII, vi, 2). It was taken and destroyed by Gabinius (ibid., I, viii, 5; Ant, XIV, v, 4). Herod the Great restored it and, building a city here, made it one of his residences (BJ, VII, vi, 1, 2); he constructed an impressive palace on a hill opposite the fortification (Josephus, War 7.6.2). Herod Antipas possessed it when he received the territory of Perea.

Herod’s Wife escaped from Machaerus to her Father in the Arnon Valley, twelve miles (twenty km.) to the south, when Herod tried to replace her with Herodias. In the subsequent troubles Herod occupied Machaerus with Herodias and Salome, and here John the Baptist died (Matt.14.3ff). In the Great Rebellion Jewish Zealots were starved out of Machaerus by the Romans and the fort was razed. The citadel was held by a Roman garrison until 66 AD, which then evacuated it to escape a siege (BJ, II, xviii, 6). Later by means of a stratagem it was recovered for the Romans by Bassus, circa 72 AD (BJ, VII, vi, 4).

Machaerus in the Bible

The name Machaerus does not occur in the New Testament, although Josephus does associate it with John the Baptist. He reports that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded at Machaerus (Antiq. 18. 5. 4). According to the account in the gospels (Matt 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29; Luke 3:19f.), it was during the celebration of his birthday that Herod Antipas ordered the death of John the Baptist.

Machaerus in Josephus

The wife of Antipas, daughter of Aretas, privately aware of his infidelity, asked to be sent hither (Josephus, Ant., XVIII, v, 1). Here Josephus has fallen into confusion if he meant by the phrase "a place in the borders of the dominions of Aretas and Herod" that it was still in Herod’s hands, since immediately he tells us that it was "subject to her father." It was natural enough, however, that a border fortress should be held now by one and now by the other. It may have passed to Aretas by some agreement of which we have no record; and Herod, unaware that his wife knew of his guilt, would have no suspicion of her design in wishing to visit her father. If this is true, then the Baptist could not have been imprisoned and beheaded at Machaerus (ibid., 2). The feast given to the lords of Galilee would most probably be held at Tiberias; and there is nothing in the Gospel story to hint that the Prisoner was some days’ journey distant (Mr 6:14 ).

Archaeology

Scattered remains of the fortress, palace with the roadway joining them, and aqueducts and cisterns, are visible today. In the early summer of 1968, Jerry Vardaman excavated in various areas of the site. The termination of the Pottery sequence near the end of the 1st century indicates abandonment of the site after the Herodian period. The attractive view of the Dead Sea, the commanding position with Herodium and Alexandrium visible on the west bank, and the presence of hot springs nearby no doubt made this a delightful residence for the healthy and ailing Herods.