Castle of Herod the Great


Machaerus is known locally as Qala’at Al Meshneq (Castle of the Gallows), a fitting name given that it is renowned as the place where John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas, the successor of Herod the Great. The castle is about 2km past Mukawir village and easy to spot. If you don’t feel in the mood for a climb, it’s worth coming this way just to see the hilltop fortress framed by sea and sky.

From the car park, a stone staircase leads down to the main path, which climbs the hill in a clockwise direction. Near the base of the climb, a small track leads around the main hill to the right, past a number of caves. Legend has it that the gruesome execution took place in one of these caves. Flocks of choughs wheel through the air in suitably ominous fashion.

The main path climbs eventually to the castle. At the top, the modest ruins are unlabelled, but you can just about make out the low-lying remains of the eastern baths and defensive walls.

The reconstructed columns southwest of the deep cistern mark the site of Herod Antipas’ palace triclinium; this is the site where Salome reputedly danced. According to the Bible, John the Baptist had denounced Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, as Jewish law forbade a man to marry his brother’s wife while he lived. Bewitched by his stepdaughter Salome’s skill as a dancer, the king promised to grant her anything she wished. To take revenge on the Baptist, Herodias told her daughter to ask for John's head on a platter.

So, at the request of Salome, John was killed at Herod’s castle, Machaerus. Provocative Salome has inspired painters and writers ever since.

The Romans built a siege ramp on the western side of the hill when taking the fort from Jewish rebels in AD 72; the remains are still visible.

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