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Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

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Machaerus

Jordan

 

The hilltop fortress of Machaerus, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea and 53 kilometres southwest of Amman, is recorded as the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded.

Machaerus

Herod’s stronghold of Machaerus (© Visitjordan)

John preached a baptism of repentance at the Jordan River and foretold the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who was his cousin.

He also criticised Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee and Perea, for unlawfully marrying his half-brother’s wife, Herodias — thereby earning her enmity.

Herod Antipas imprisoned John, but Mark’s Gospel says he protected him, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man”, and “liked to listen to him” (6:20).

The governor’s birthday banquet for the leaders of Galilee gave Herodias her opportunity to get rid of John. Her daughter, Salome, danced for the gathering and so enthralled Herod that he offered her whatever she wanted — “even half of my kingdom” (6:23).

Machaerus

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1531 (The Yorke Project)

Salome, who was probably no older than 14 (so her dance might not have been the erotic performance usually imagined), sought her mother’s advice and then asked for John the Baptist’s head.

Herod, “deeply grieved”, gave the order. John was executed and his head brought in “on a platter”. John’s disciples took away his body for burial. (6:26-29)

According to the historian Josephus, John’s execution took place at Machaerus. An early Christian tradition says his body was buried at Sebastiya in Samaria, which Orthodox Christians believe was also the venue for the banquet.

 

Herod built ‘breathtaking’ palace

Machaerus (the name means “black fortress”) was one of a series of hilltop strongholds established by Herod the Great — the father of Antipas — along the edge of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea.

Machaerus

Ruins of Herod’s palace on Machaerus (© Dan Gibson)

Protected on three sides by deep ravines, it afforded seclusion and safety in times of political unrest. Fire signals linked Machaerus to Herod’s other fortresses and to Jerusalem.

On top of the mountain, more than 1100 metres above the Dead Sea, Herod erected a fortress wall with high corner towers. In the centre he built a palace that was “breathtaking in size and beauty”, according to Josephus. Numerous cisterns were dug to collect rainwater.

When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, Machaerus passed to his son Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea (an area on the eastern side of the Jordan River) until AD 39.

 

Jesus appeared before Antipas

Herod Antipas had married Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas of Nabatea, the kingdom whose capital was Petra. But while visiting Rome in AD 26 he stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip I and fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias.

When Phasaelis learnt that Antipas intended to divorce her and marry Herodias, she obtained permission to visit Machaerus and from there fled to her father in Nabatea.

Machaerus

Herod Antipas, by James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Antipas’s rejection of Phasaelis added a personal note to existing disputes with King Aretas over the boundary of Perea and Nabatea. In AD 36 Aretas attacked Antipas and completely destroyed his army.

According to Josephus, some of the Jews saw this devastating defeat as divine retribution for killing John the Baptist.

Some time before the war with Aretas, Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and brought before Pontius Pilate. When Pilate learnt that Jesus came from Galilee, he sent him to Herod Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time.

Luke’s Gospel says Antipas “had been wanting to see him for a long time” and “was hoping to see him perform some sign”. He questioned Jesus at length, but Jesus gave no answer. Antipas then mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate in an elegant robe. (23:8-11)

Romans captured fortress by deception

In AD 39 Herod Antipas was accused of conspiring against the Roman emperor Caligula, who exiled him to Gaul.

At the time of the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66-73), Machaerus was in the hands of Jewish rebels. Roman forces took the fortress only by deception — they captured a young Jewish defender and threatened to crucify him if the rebels did not surrender.

Machaerus

Columns from Herod’s palace on Machaerus (© Dan Gibson)

When the rebels agreed to abandon Machaerus, the Romans systematically dismantled the Herodian fortifications.

Excavations at the site have uncovered remains of Herod’s palace, including rooms designed around a central courtyard, an elaborate bath and floor mosaics.

Below the hilltop ruins on the eastern side is the village of Mukawir, where excavations have found evidence of three Byzantine churches built in the 6th century.

 

In Scripture

Herod Antipas executes John the Baptist: Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 14:1-12; Luke 3:18-20

Jesus appears before Herod Antipas: Luke 23:8-11

 

References

Brisco, Thomas: Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
Cox, Ronald: The Gospel Story (CYM Publications, 1950)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Kilgallen, John J.: A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land (Loyola Press, 1998)
Maier, Paul L. (trans.): Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel Publications, 1988)
Meyers, Carol L., Craven, Toni, and Kraemer, Ross S. (eds): Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)

 

External links

Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist (Biblical Archaeology Society)
Mukawir Fortress (Nabataea.net)
Where Saint John the Baptist was Beheaded (Hungarian Review)
Lost biblical fortress of Machaerus restored after 50 years of excavations (Jordan Times)

Petra

Jordan

Petra

Pilgrims holding a service in Petra Church (Seetheholyland.net)

 

The “rose-red city” of Petra in southern Jordan, famous for its rock-cut monumental buildings, was once the setting for a thriving Christian community with several significant churches.

An early account tells of Christians in Petra being martyred during the persecution of emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century, for refusing to offer sacrifice to Roman gods.

Nevertheless, a Christian presence persisted. Bishops from Petra attended Church synods and councils from AD 343, indicating that the city had become a significant Christian centre.

Crosses chiselled into sandstone walls show which large tombs were converted into churches. Then a succession of new churches was built.

Petra

Multicoloured sandstone at Petra (Seetheholyland.net)

The Roman historian Epiphanius mentions that the conversion of Petra’s residents was a slow process throughout the late 4th and 5th centuries.

Then a monk called Mar Sauma arrived with 40 brother monks in AD 423. They found the gates locked against them, but a rainstorm struck with such intensity that part of the city wall was broken, allowing them in. Since the storm had broken a four-year drought, the water-dependent Nabateans saw the event as miraculous and even pagan priests converted to Christianity.

 

Exotic animals in mosaics

Three churches from the Byzantine era — called the Petra Church, the Blue Chapel and the Ridge Church — have been discovered. They are clustered on the ridge to the north-east of the Colonnaded Street that runs through Petra’s main city area, past the Temple of the Winged Lions.

Petra

Aisle of mosaics in Petra Church (Seetheholyland.net)

The large triple-aisled Petra Church, a basilica dedicated to St Mary, was probably the ancient city’s cathedral.

Little of the interior remains except for well-preserved mosaics carpeting the 70-square-metre floors of each of the side aisles. These depict local, exotic and mythological animals, as well as personifications of the Seasons, Ocean, Earth and Wisdom.

The secular nature of these mosaics is probably explained by a reluctance to tread on sacred images.

Just west of the church proper is a stone-paved atrium, with a cistern sunk into the centre to catch water. Further west is a baptistery, with a cross-shaped baptismal font.

The basilica was destroyed by a fire, probably in the early 7th century.

 

Scrolls revealed business deals

Petra

Petra Church atrium and water cistern (Bernard Gagnon)

The fire that destroyed the Petra Church also carbonised an invaluable hoard of papyrus scrolls cached in a church storeroom. The 152 scrolls — the largest collection of written material from antiquity found in Jordan — lay undiscovered until 1993.

Written mainly in cursive Greek, they have been painstakingly deciphered to reveal details of births, prenuptial arrangements, marriages, business deals, wills, properties disputes and tax responsibilities of about 350 members of the community.

One of the main figures identified in the scrolls is Theodorus, who married his cousin Stephanous in 537, when he was aged about 24. Later ordained a deacon in the Petra diocese, Theodorus was also a successful landowner with extensive business interests.

Petra

Baptistery of Petra Church (Seetheholyland.net)

A son of Theodorus is recorded as being responsible for paying local taxes on a vineyard — at the rate of 47.5 per cent! This affluent family apparently owned much property in the Petra region.

 

Church overlooked the city

The Ridge Church had a commanding position, with a 360-degree view of the central city, atop the northern slope of the valley in which Petra sits.

The oldest church in the city, dating from the 4th century, it had two side aisles separated from the nave by five columns on each side.

Behind it, city walls across the valley would have protected Petra against invasion from the north.

Petra

Granite columns at Blue Church (David Loong)

Between the Petra Church and the Ridge Church is the Blue Chapel, so named after its four blue Egyptian granite columns, topped with Nabataean horned capitals, that collapsed in an 8th-century earthquake but have been re-erected.

The chapel also had blue sandstone flooring and blue marble furnishings — including a blue marble pulpit.

This building is believed to have been converted into a residence and chapel for Petra’s bishop.

 

Tombs and temples were converted

Other buildings converted to Christian churches include the Urn Tomb and al-Deir (Arabic for “the Monastery”).

Petra

Urn Tomb at Petra (Chris Yunker)

The Urn Tomb, the first of the four Royal Tombs just north of the amphitheatre, still bears an inscription to “Christ the Saviour” on one of its inside walls.

Al-Deir, the biggest and most grandiose monument in Petra, is in the hills overlooking the city from the north-west. A visit involves a walk of about an hour from the city centre, up 800 rock-cut steps.

At 50 metres wide and 45 metres high, it is much bigger than al-Khazneh (“the Treasury”) — the famous monument that appears to visitors arriving through the gorge called the Siq (and in which the climax of the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was set).

Originally cut out of the rock to serve as a mortuary temple, al-Deir was apparently later adapted to Christian use. It seems to have acquired its name of the Monastery from the crosses painted and inscribed on its inner walls.

Two Greek monks were recorded as living in the building in 1217.

 

Petra was in biblical Edom

Petra

Al-Deir, Petra’s biggest monument (Dennis Jarvis)

In biblical times Petra was a city of the Edomites, whose ancestor Esau settled there after he was tricked out of his rightful inheritance by his twin brother Jacob. Scholars believe Petra was then called Sela.

By the middle of the second century BC, the Edomites had been displaced by the Nabataeans. These former nomad herdsmen made Petra their multicoloured sandstone capital city, transforming it into a desert oasis by using ingenious aqueducts and cisterns to conserve water from flash floods.

The Nabataeans also controlled trade routes from Arabia to Mesopotamia and Syria, exacting high tolls from caravans which passed their way.

Petra

Overview of some of Petra’s monuments (Chris Yunker)

One tradition has the Three Wise Men buying their gold, myrrh and frankincense at Petra on their way to Bethlehem.

The greatest Nabataean king was Aretas IV (9 BC to AD 40), whose rule extended as far north as Damascus. His daughter Phasaelis was married to Herod Antipas, who divorced her to marry Herodias, his brother’s wife. Aretas IV then marched on Herod’s army, defeated it and captured territories along the West Bank of the Jordan River.

In AD 106 Petra was annexed by the Roman empire. Rome’s diversion of the caravan trade and some devastating earthquakes in subsequent centuries put the city into decline.

 

Poet recanted his rosy view

From the 13th century Petra was abandoned. It remained forgotten by the Western world until 1812 when a young Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised as an Arab pilgrim, persuaded a local guide to take him there.

Petra

Pink sandstone cave at Petra (Seetheholyland.net)

Burckhardt’s published account inspired the English clergyman John William Burgon to write his prize-winning poem Petra, with its line “A rose-red city — half as old as Time!”

The poem, published in 1845, ran to 366 lines — much longer than the extract generally offered in anthologies.

Burgon, who later became dean of Chichester Cathedral, had never visited Petra when he composed his poem. He did so in 1862, describing it in a letter to his sister as “the most astonishing and interesting place I ever visited”. However, perhaps reflecting his ill health at the time, he added: “But there is nothing rosy in Petra by any means.”

Administered by: Petra Development and Tourism Regional Authority

Tel.: +962 (0)3 215-6020 (Visitors’ Centre)

Open: 6am-6pm (4pm in winter)

References

Basile, Joseph J. “When People Lived at Petra”, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2000
Bikai, Patricia Maynor: “The Churches of Byzantine Petra”, Near Eastern Archaeology, December 2002
Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Burckhardt, Johann Ludwig: Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (John Murray, 1822)
Burgon, John William: Petra, a prize poem (Oxford, 1845)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gochis, Djinna, and Michaels, Christine: “Mysterious Petra Rediscovered”, Catholic Near East Magazine, fall 1978
Goulburn, Edward Meyrick: John William Burgon, late Dean of Chichester : a biography, volume 1 (J. Murray, 1892)
Milne, Mary K.: “Rose-Red City, Half as Old as Time”, CNEWA World, September/October 2002

 

External links

Rose-Red City, Half as Old as Time (CNEWA)
Petra: The Churches (Nabataea.net)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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