Archaeologists excavate (and reconstruct) a massive ritual bath inside Herod’s fortress of Machaerus

ritual-bath-herod-fortress-machaerus_1Reconstruction of the royal bathhouse inside Machaerus.

A Hungarian archaeological mission conducting their excavation on the ruins of the ancient Jewish fortress of Machaerus – that originally stood tall on the eastern (now Jordanian) shore of the Dead Sea, has come across a huge ritual bath (mikveh) complex. Possibly constructed for the royal family, the massive bath with its immersion pool has a monumental access point with 12 steps, while being connected to a reserve pool in case its water ran low. In fact, considering its sheer dimensions, researchers have established that this mikveh is the biggest of its kind in Jordan, and actually resembles the unique scale of the mikvehs of Qumran, another Biblical site on the other side of the Dead Sea.

While Machaerus is known for its association with King Herod and the infamous site execution site of John the Baptist, the fortress (with its name possibly derived from Greek Makhaira or ‘sword’) was originally built by the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus, circa 90 BC. It strategic location served a two-fold purpose, with its high vantage point allowing clear views of other nearby allied strongholds – thus facilitating communication through smoke and fire signals in case of attack, and the rocky terrain acting as a natural barrier to the approaching enemy.


Classical columns standing atop the ruins of Machaerus with the Dead Sea in the background.

To that end, the Machaerus was constructed as a massive bastion on a lofty plateau known as Mukawir, which rises 800 m high above the Dead Sea. And so even after the stronghold was destroyed by Pompey’s general Gabinius in 57 BC, Herod recognized the defensive potential of the site, which led to the renovation and extension of the Machaerus in 30 BC. Interestingly enough, the immense strategic value of the fortress in whole of Judea partly related to its bird’s eye view of the capital city of Jerusalem. In that regard, rabbinic writings talk about how the smoke of the sacrificial offerings in the Second Temple of Jerusalem was actually visible to the defenders of Machaerus. Roman sources, including Pliny the Elder, also mentioned how the site boasted the strongest fortification in the region, right after Jerusalem.

Recent archaeological excavations, conducted by a Hungarian-Jordanian team, led by Dr. Győző Vörös, have rather complemented such ancient sources. For example, the team was successful in identifying the substantially large yet intact interior walls present on the western side of the citadel that rose to 30 ft in height. But this desert complex was much more than just a military stronghold. Herod was able to build his palace with a courtyard inside the guarded compound, which in turn was furnished with a Roman-style bath, an expansive triclinium (dining room) and a small royal garden (peristyle) surrounded by porticoes. Additionally, the archaeologists also found a pretty large underground cistern (around 50 ft deep) that was used for watering the fortress gardens and the Roman-style thermae.


Jerusalem circled in the background, viewed from Machaerus.

The aforementioned massive ritual bath (mikveh) in question here was actually discovered around 10 ft below the palace courtyard, hidden by two millennia long accumulation of sand and dirt, in spite of having vaulted stone ceiling. This fascinating finding was accompanied by a range of other historical items, including dozens of Hasmonean and Roman coins, and 47 ostraca (broken pottery shards with Aramaic inscriptions).

Unfortunately, when it comes to history, the stronghold of Machaerus suffered the wrath of the Romans once again in 71 AD (during the First Jewish–Roman War). In fact, the citadel was captured by the very same Roman legion (X Fretensis) that laid waste to the Jewish zealot stronghold of Masada – and in both cases the attackers devised the tactic of using siege ramps to assault the perched strongholds. However, unlike in the case of Masada, the Romans possibly pardoned some of the Jewish rebels trapped inside Machaerus, with the exception of around 1,700 men who wanted to escape from the lower grounds of the citadel.


Reconstruction of the entire fortress/palace of Machaerus.


The 50 ft deep cistern at the subterranean level of the fortress.

Via: Haaretz / JewishPress / Images Courtesy of the Hungarian Archaeological Mission to Machaerus

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