Machaerus is a fortified hilltop palace overlooking the Dead Sea in Transjordan, southeast of the mouth of the Jordan river. The fortress was erected by the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BC) and was destroyed by Pompey’s general Gabinius in 57 BC, but later rebuilt by Herod the Great. Upon Herod’s death, his son Herod Antipas inherited the fortress where Salome is said to have danced in return for the head of John the Baptist. During the First Jewish Revolt, Jewish rebels took control of the fortress which was besieged and destroyed by the Romans in 72 AD.
Alexander Jannaeus, the second Hasmonean king of Judaea, first built the fortress of Machaerus around 90 BC in southern Perea. It was used as one of the depositories for his treasures and as an important strategic position. Machaerus later served as a base for Aristobulus II in his resistance against the Romans and Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, describes it as one of the strongest points in the region after Jerusalem. The Hasmonean state was conquered by the Romans in the 60s BC and the fortress was destroyed by the Roman commander Aulus Gabinius in 57 BC after he had suppressed the revolt led by Aristobulus II and his son Alexander.
King Herod the Great rebuilt the fortress in 30 BC and turned the originally defensive center into a lavish palace measuring approximately 110 meters east-west and 60 meters north-south. It was divided into two wings: the eastern wing contained a bathhouse with mosaic floors and five storage rooms, the western wing had a peristyle court surrounded on all sides by colonnades opening onto two halls on the south, triclinia. The wall surrounding the fortress was defended on both sides by a tower (see image reconstruction here and here).
After Herod’s death, the fortress passed to his son Herod Antipas, who ruled from 4 BC until 39 AD. It was during this time that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded at Machaerus. According to the Bible, Salome is said to have danced for Herod Antipas who, impressed by her performance, promised her anything she wanted. Encouraged by her mother Herodias, Salome demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter. His subsequent execution also took place in the fortress.
After the deposition and banishment of Herod Antipas, Machaerus passed to Herod Agrippa I until his death in 44 AD, after which it came under Roman control. At the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD the Roman garrison abandoned the fortress into the rebel’s hands, who held it up to 72 AD. In that year the Roman legate Lucilius Bassus besieged the fortress by building a siege ramp on the ridge of the hill, before taking and destroying it. The fortress was not rebuilt after that, but during the Byzantine period, the Christians built a church on the eastern hill, calling the site Machaberos.
The site was rediscovered by the Frisian explorer Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1807. The archaeological excavation of Machaerus first began in the 1960s by E Jerry Vardaman, and then in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by Virgilio Canio Corbo and Michele Piccirillo. Since Father Piccirillo’s death in 2008, the Hungarian Academy of Arts has conducted archaeological excavations and architectural surveys in the ancient hilltop.
Sometimes nickname the “Pompeii of Asia”, Gerasa, known today as Jerash, is one of the great classical cities of the Near East. Set in a fertile valley high in the hills of Gilead about 48 km north of Amman (Philadelphia), Gerasa is also the best preserved of the cities of the Decapolis and one of the best examples of a prosperous Roman provincial town. Boasting an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6500 years, Gerasa was transformed from a village into a considerable town in Hellenistic times and a colony under the Roman Empire. Most of its ruins remained buried in the soil for hundreds of years until they were discovered in 1806.
The history of the site dates back to the Stone and Bronze Age and was colonised, like Pella and Gadara, during the reign of Alexander the Great who settled retired Macedonian soldiers there. The city was then known as Antioch on the Chrysorhoas (Antioch on the Golden River) but remains from the Hellenistic period are scarce.
Following General Pompey’s conquest in 63 BC, the city and its lands were attached to the province of Syria and became one of the ten great Roman cities of the Decapolis League. This was the great turning-point in the history of the town. Over the next two centuries, trade with the Nabateans flourished and the city, then known as Gerasa, grew extremely wealthy thanks to local agriculture and iron-ore mining. In the middle of the 1st century AD the city was remodelled and a complete rebuilding programme was launched. It was laid out on a north-south axis intersected by two side streets running east-west and marked by tetrapyla. An inscription on the North-west Gate shows that the town walls were completed in 75-76 AD thus settingthe limits for the city’s growth. A large Temple of Zeus was built in Romano-Syrian type ca. 27/28 AD but was finished in the 160s. Nearby, the South Theatre was constructed in the 1st century AD.
The city was further enhanced in 106 AD when Trajan annexed the Nabatean kingdom and incorporated it into his new Province of Arabia, to which he added Gerasa. Trajan’s reorganisation marked the beginning of a new period of prosperity for the whole area with the construction of a great new road, the Via Nova Traiana, which linked the provincial capital (Bostra) in the north with the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. This new road led to a surge in the city’s prosperity, reflected in the implementation of a new building plan throughout the 2nd century AD. Hadrian paid a personal visit to Gerasa, staying in the city for a part of the winter of 129-30 AD. His prolonged visit was the signal for a fresh outburst of building activity, and a huge triumphal arch was erected to celebrate his visit. The Antonine period which followed saw the golden age of Gerasa. A new temple to Artemis was dedicated in 150 AD, a Nymphaeum was built in 191 AD, a Temple of Nemesis, now vanished, was built just outside the North Gate, and another, to Zeus Epicarpus (the fruit bearer), farther up the valley was built and paid by a centurion.
Gerasa’s fortunes peaked around the beginning of the 3rd century AD, when Gerasa was promoted to the rank of colony and boasted a population of 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants. The importance of the city continued under the Byzantine Empire. Gerasa held a large Christian community and between 400 and 600 AD, about fifteen churches were constructed here, often using stones and columns from earlier buildings, including the Temple of Artemis.
The Persian invasion of 614 AD caused a rapid decline in Gerasa’s wealth and population but despite its decline, the city continued to flourish during the Umayyad period. The city further declined with the devastating earthquake of 747 which destroyed most parts of the region.
The city was rediscovered in 1806 by Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, a German traveler, who described the remains. His report led to a visit by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer. Burckhardt’s description attracted more visitors and restoration of the ruins began in 1925. Excavation and restoration of Jerash have been almost continuous since the 1920s.