Herod's fortress palace and the execution of John the Baptist


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Model of one of King Herod's palaces in ancient Jericho

King Herod's palaces

Salome at Machaerus, as portrayed by Rita Hayworth

Bad Bible women: Salome

The head of John the Baptist

John the Baptist

Solomon's temple, the walls of Jericho, the gates of Megiddo

Ancient buildings

Tombs: houses for the dead

Houses for the dead

Interior of a mud brick house in the 1st century style

Buildings Jesus knew

Jesus called Herod Antipas 'that fox'

Bible people: Herod

Harem women look out a palace window

Solomon's palace

Reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, 1st century AD

Jerusalem buildings






The approach to the fortress of Machaerus

The approach to the fortress of Machaerus. The land surrounding the fortress was so steep it was impregnable. John the Baptist, imprisoned there, could not have escaped. When it finally fell to the Romans, it was because some of the Zealots betrayed their fellow rebels to the enemy.

MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:Machaerus with the Dead Sea in the background

Aerial view of Machaerus with the Dead Sea in the background


computer generated model superimposed on the terrain of Machaerus

A computer generated model superimposed on the terrain of Machaerus. At the top are the palace buildings and fortress; below are the buildings of the lower city; to the left is the reconstructed aquaduct. John the Baptist was probably imprisoned in the lower city rather than the palace itself. The citizens of Machaerus suffered a terrible fate during the rebellion against Rome in the mid-first century AD. 
Photographer: David Kennedy. Superimposed image by Győző Vörös.


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:map showing location of Machaerus

The location of Machaerus in relation to Jerusalem. Machaerus stood between the Dead Sea 
and the Jordanian desert. Galilee was to the north.



 Key to the plan of the fortress of Machaerus

1 Point where the aqueduct connects with the fortress. 2 The east tower. 3 Peristyle, with cistern underneath. 4 The triclinium or banqueting room where Salome may have danced for Herod. 5 The thermal baths built by Herod the Great. 6 The north tower and remains of the lower city.


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:foundation wall that supported the aqueduct bringing water to the fortress

The foundation wall that supported the aqueduct that brought water to the fortress


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:within the walls of Machaerus

MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:within the walls of Machaerus

The area within the walls of the Upper City was limited but luxurious


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:One of the cisterns used for water storage

One of the cisterns used for water storage



Remains of a mikveh, the Jewish ceremonial bath for ritual purification


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:Remains of the Herodian baths

Remains of the Herodian baths. Considering the limited space, the allocation given to the Baths is lavish


This circa 1890's photograph shows a restored peristyle in Pompeii. The peristyle in Herod's fortress at Machaerus was of the same period as the Pompeian garden, and would have been similar in design


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:Mosaic floor pattern from Machaerus

Partially reconstructed mosaic floor pattern from Machaerus


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:The walls of the triclinium

The walls of the triclinium had a design that did not show any image of a living creature


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:hermits lived in the caves below the fortress

Since Machaerus was reputed to be the fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed, 
hermits in later centuries lived in the caves below the fortress


MACHAERUS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE:The death of John the Baptist at Machaerus


Machaerus - the fortress

Machaerus was never a safe place to be. A forbidding fortress, it was built to intimidate and control the troubled area between Palestine and Petra. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the fortress of Machaerus was the place in which John the Baptist was beheaded (Bellum VII.6.1-2). The fortress was remote enough to keep  dissadents like John the Baptist - out of the public eye where they could be executed quietly if the need arose. It had a tragic and cruel history. 

During the Jewish Revolt which began in 66AD, the Jewish rebels holed up within its seemingly impregnable walls. But the Romans, led by Lucilius Bassus, built siege works around the base of the fortress, leading up towards the walls. When the lower part of the fortress was captured and burned, the people in the upper city surrendered. 

Map showing location of Machaerus

The fortress of Machaerous was one of a string of strongholds that held Israel's enemies at bay. 
It guarded the Jewish state in the eastern province of Perea against the Nabataeans of Petra.

The Roman historian Josephus says that the naturally defended site was first  chosen by Alexander Janneus (BJ VII, 6, 2). King Herod later rebuilt the fortress, and when he died his son Herod Antipas, who governed that territory on behalf of the Romans, inherited it. 

The use of a siege ramp similar to the one used by the Romans at Machaerus is described in Jeremiah 6:6: 'Cut down trees and cast a mount against Jerusalem.' 
Strengthening the ramp of soil and stones either by a wooden skeleton or by the insertion of planks of wood remained a common device down to the Middle Ages. The ramps or banks were built to fill up any obstacles, to gain enough height to apply scaling ladders and rams. Dislodging stones from the lower portion of the walls was not always the best means of battering a way into a beleaguered fortress; if the ram could be aimed higher, the crumbling wall would carry with it a proportion of the battlements and its defenders. Moreover the fallen debris would form a continuation of the ramp, which would afford a traversable approach into the breach.' 
(Battles of the Bible, Herzog C & Mordechai G, p220)

The site
The isolated mountain on which the fortress stood is located at the end of a ridge between the Wadi Zerqa Ma`in to the north and the Wadi Heidan-Mujib to the south. Isolated by deep wadis surrounding it, the mountain forms two saddles, one to the south east and another to the north west.
There is an upper city on the top of the mountain, and a lower city on the steep northern slope.

The palace at Machaerus

Herod the Great added an elaborate palace inside the central area - according to Josephus, Herod 'built a wall round the summit and erected towers at the corners, each 27.4metres high. In the middle of this enclosure he built a palace, breath-taking in size and beauty'.

The upper city held the royal palace and at least three towers.  The main upper structure (possibly from the Herodian phase) was divided into two main wings by a paved corridor stretching north south. 

  • The eastern wing had a central paved courtyard covering a cistern with the thermae or bath-house on the south and elongated rooms on the north side. 

  • The western wing had a peristilium (an open porch and garden) on the north built on the top of a cistern, connected to a triclinium (dining room) on the south. 

Columns, capitals and bases of Ionic and Doric style have been found at the bottom of the cistern.
In its final phase a polygonal defensive wall was built on the perimeter of the upper city, possibly at the time of the Jewish revolt. 

Only a few houses have been excavated in the lower city. This area was connected to the fortress by a bridge 15meters high, which served as an aqueduct bringing water to the cisterns dug into the northern slope of the mountain. 



Mad, cruel King Herod lived there; Salome danced her famous Dance; John the Baptist was beheaded in its dungeons, or in a prison in the lower city. 


A forbidding fortress, it was built to intimidate the populace but also to shield them from invaders from the east.


It was east of the Dead Sea, guarding the Jewish state in the eastern province of Perea against the Nabataeans of Petra.

When Built by the Hasmoneans in 91BC, it was finally destroyed by the Romans in 72AD.


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Bible Architecture: Housing in Old and New Testament times - Architecture of the Bible; Bible Study Resource
Machaerus: Fortress and Palace; execution of John the Baptist; archaeology


Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher