Machaerus, the fortress of Herod the Great

by | Asia, Destinations | 5 comments

Machaerus, also known as Mukawir, is an archeological site in Jordan. In truth, there is not a lot of it left, so one has to ask: Is it worth visiting Machaerus?

Well, if you have any interest in biblical history, the answer is a resounding yes. Imagine standing on the site where Salome danced and the head of John the Baptist was presented on a platter! According to the New Testament and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, this is where it happened. Right here!

View of fallen stones at Machaerus

Where is the Fortress of Machaerus?

Machaerus is a short distance from the King’s Highway in Jordan. It is approximately 14 km east of the Dead Sea, 74 km from Amman and about 43 km south of Madaba. Machaerus is located in the tiny village of Mukawir and is sometimes referred to by this name.

Our visit to Machaerus

We visited Machaerus as part of our trip to Jordan and for this stretch of the trip, we were on bicycles. By the way, if the bike guide tells you the terrain is flat, roll your eyes and look sceptical because I can confirm that the landscape in this area is anything but flat! I managed to puff my way up most of the hills, but I was not the only one who got off and walked up the steepest bit.

Cyclists cycling uphill to Machaerus

We left the King’s Highway and cycled to the parking lot at Mukawir. There is a small charge to visit the ruins, but this was included within our guided trip. We left our bikes in the parking lot, which was empty. Ours was the only group at Machaerus when we visited. Only one other couple arrived just as we were leaving.

At this point, I should perhaps mention that the weather was awful. It was rainy, cold and foggy. Yes, this was Jordan! If you have read my post on exploring Petra, you will know that the site was flooded when we visited and we came close to being evacuated. By now we were used to the unseasonal weather in Jordan.

The Trail 

Trail leading up hill to Machaerus

From the parking lot we followed the trail, downhill and stepped at first, and then uphill and gravel for the rest. It was not a difficult trail and took about 30 minutes going at a steady pace.

Steps leading down from Machaerus

Gravel path leading into fog

4 figures walking up paved trail

People walking on paved trail

Along the way, we could see various caves. Apparently, it was in one of these where John the Baptist was beheaded.

Caves in the hillside with hikers in foreground

Doorway into cave in hillside at Machaerus

At the top of the hill, we could see the ruins of Machaerus. As mentioned previously, little remains – the remnants of a few ancient structures strewn on the ground, a few columns which have been badly repaired and had, according to the guide, recently fallen over.

Fallen stone column amid other stones and ruins

Ruins, stones on the ground

View over Machaerus with group of people in background

Fallen column and other debris

There was an underground chamber, probably a cistern or storeroom, covered by a safety grate.

Grate covering underground chamber

We walked around the perimeter of the fortress where the magnificent views, for which Machaerus is famed, can be seen. Or not.

The views from Machaerus

The surrounding landscape was swathed in fog when we visited the fortress of Machaerus. Our guide, who had visited scores of times, was at pains to tell us that this was very unusual and he was quite apologetic. We should have been able to see across to the Dead Sea, over to Jerusalem and Jericho. The views, he assured, are fabulous. Occasionally, the cloud shifted a little to tantalise with just a vague impression of what we took to be the Dead Sea, but unfortunately, we did not get to admire these wonderful views.

A foggy view

Shadowy hint of Dead Sea in the fog

(I could now go into an Artificial Intelligence App, create an image of the views from Machaerus and just pretend the fog cleared, but that would not be true of our experience!)

The History of Machaerus

The fortress of Machaerus was originally constructed in the reign of Hasmonean King, Alexander Jannaeus, some time around 100 BC. This early fortress was destroyed in conflict, but its location high on the hill with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape gives it a clear military vantage point. Consequently, the fortress was re-built by Herod the Great in 30 BC. Machaerus was now more than just a military fortress and was transformed into a royal palace. When Herod the Great died, it passed to Herod Antipas, his son.

It was Herod Antipas who captured and imprisoned John the Baptist. John the Baptist had spoken out about Herod’s relationship with Herodias, his brother’s wife. As the gospels describe, it was at a banquet in the halls of the castle at Machaerus that Herod promised Salome, the beautiful daughter of Herodias, anything she wanted in return for a dance. Herodias saw her opportunity to take revenge on John the Baptist and instructed Salome accordingly. Reluctantly, Herod had to follow through on his promise and the holy man was executed.

This story has been the subject of several films. The one I remember most is the Rita Hayworth and Stewart Granger film from 1953. I have not seen the more recent one (2013) directed by Al Pacino, but think I may now have to search it out.


Is it worth visiting Machaerus?

There are several reasons why it is worth visiting Machaerus.

Firstly, it is situated in beautiful countryside so the journey there and the hike up to the castle itself is really memorable. Even in the disappointing weather conditions we encountered, we could appreciate how stunning the landscape is.

Another reason for visiting Machaerus is to see the wonderful views from the fortress. This, of course, comes with a caveat that if the fog rolls in (unusual) these views will not be visible.

The third reason and for me the most important reason for visiting Machaerus is the history. One does not have to be religious to appreciate that this site is of enormous historical significance. I find it quite moving to stand on the very spot where these events took place, where Salome danced and the gory deed was done.

What do you think?

Other posts about Jordan in which you may be interested:






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  1. This sounds right up my alley — adding to my Jordan list!

  2. I found when I visited Troy in Turkey a similar situation. There wasn’t much left and you really had to use your imagination to envisage what the city would have been like – but it was still wonderful to visit and I’m glad I did. Sounds like Machaerus is similar – I’d still go!

  3. I see what you mean about there not being as much left to see, but still wanting to be in the place for biblical reasons. When I was in Rome I almost cried a few times thinking about the events that took place there. Thanks so much for sharing! This was cool to see.

  4. I am glad you kept the fog in the photo. It added another dimension to your story that gave it depth. I had not heard of these ruins before but wow! I would love to see them.

  5. Though there isn’t as much to see, the Biblical history of the location is fascinating and amazing. I had no idea this was where much of the things like John the Baptist being beheaded happened here. I also like that you included your foggy photos to show the side of travel blogging that is so real. It happened to me at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina too.


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Hello!  I’m Jane. I live in the Lake District in the north of England with my husband, Peter. We love to travel, but this is a great place to call home.

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