Machaerus Desert Fortress

The fortified mountain palace of Machaerus is infamous as the place where Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist, whom her step father Herod Antipas had imprisoned there for two years.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14:1-12)

Machaerus is one of three fortified desert retreats built by Herod the Great (father to Herod Antipas); the others being Masada and Herodium. It’s the only one east of the Jordan river, today in the country of Jordan, 40km south of Madaba, near the village of Mukawir. The stronghold at Machaerus was first built by the Maccabees, the Jewish dynasty that ruled the region for about 100 years before the Roman client-King Herod the Great launched his dynasty in 37 BCE. Machaerus was destroyed by the Romans in 57 BCE and restored by Herod around 30 BCE.

There’s little excavation and restoration and no signage at Machaerus, so bring your imagination and a guide. Aside from the historical context, the serene atmosphere and 180-degree views of the Dead Sea and rugged, deeply etched desert are well worth the climb, especially at sunset. The walk from the parking area to the top looks more daunting than it is. A moderately fit person can do it in 15-20 minutes. Wear sturdy walking shoes, carry water and avoid midday heat.

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A network of small castles extend eastward along ancient trade routes from Amman, the capital city of our mystery country. They are important examples of early Islamic architecture, built in 7th and 8th centuries by Umayyad caliphs. Although they are collectively referred to as castles, they include forts, towers, baths and caravanserai. Built in the early Islamic period, when figurative art was common, some of the castles shelter lovely frescos of dancing-girls, hunting parties, assembled rulers and cavorting animals. Later, depictions of humans and animals was discouraged in Islamic art. Qasr Kharana, about 40 miles east of Amman.

 

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NAME THAT COUNTRY

In the north of our mystery country, the Greco-Roman Decapolis city of Pella was built on a site that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. (Hellenistic Greeks named the city after the Macedonian birthplace of Alexander the Great.) Archaeologists have discovered a substantial fortification wall from the early Bronze Age and a Canaanite temple, as well as remains from Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods; and there’s still a great deal to be excavated. Pella does not attract as many visitors as the better known and more flashy Decapolis city of Jerash, but most who do visit are impressed by its subtle, evocative quality and beautiful setting.

 

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