JORDAN – On August 29, the Church celebrated the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, Patron of Jordan and Madaba, especially revered by the Christians of the country. It is a time to rediscover Machaerus, the hilltop Herodian fortress and place of death of the last prophet.
Discovering Machaerus with the archaeologist Dr. Győző Vörös
Perched on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, 30 kilometers from Madaba, stand the ruins of the Herodian fortress of Machaerus. It was destroyed under Pompey, and rebuilt by Herod the Great, sixty years later. It became a palace fortress, ideally located to govern the territories of the east of the Jordan River. From the Machaerus ramparts, it was possible to communicate with the most of the Herodian fortresses: Jerusalem, Herodion (near Bethlehem), Hyrcania (Judean desert), Masada and Alexandrion (north of Jericho). But these stones preserved by time testify especially to a well-known episode of the Gospels: that of the famous dance of Salome which resulted in the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.
Dr. Győző Vörös,a Hungarian archaeologist, resumed excavations of the site since 2008 following the work of the Franciscan archaeologist Fr. Michele Piccirillo. On this hot day of August, he took advantage of the presence of the Dominicans of the Biblical School for a comprehensive visit. The archaeologist passionately leads his audience a few centuries back. “It is probably here that the beautiful Salome charmed King Herod,” he explains in the midst of the ruins of one of the central chambers of the palace, still adorned with majestic columns revealing the grandeur of the time. Carried by the fervor of Győző Vörös, it is easy to imagine the famous scene, supported by the many pictorial or literary interpretations we know, from Caravaggio to Oscar Wilde.
Machaerus in the light of the Gospels
The Gospels of Mark and Matthew say that Salome, the daughter of Herodias, charmed the “king” with her talents as a dancer during a birthday party and that the latter allegedly made an oath to fulfill any of desires. “Whatever it is that you ask of me, I will give it to you, even if it is half of my kingdom.” (Mk 6:23). Salome would have then consulted his mother, who, exasperated by the accusations of John the Baptist who condemned his second marriage to Herod Antipas, would have told his daughter to demand ” the head of John the Baptist on a plate.” A prisoner of his oath, Herod ordered the beheading of the man whose life he wished to preserve, considering him “righteous and holy” (Mk 6:20).
The archaeologist Győző Vörös is Catholic and does not hide his strong faith as a valuable ally of his archaeological profession. “One can speak of this place like that of the Golgotha of John the Baptist. The historical evidence of the prophet’s death in this place are many, as well as those attesting to the death of Christ. It is a very powerful archaeological and biblical place. The Machaerus site is very important to Christians, the saint having preached on this site.” John the Baptist was martyred for Christ because he is the martyr of truth. But Christ is the truth, ” expressed Patriarchal Vicar Emeritus for Jordan, Bishop Selim Sayegh. In Madaba, one of the parishes bears the name “Beheading of Saint John the Baptist”. For many years, young people of the parish even carried out a festival to make known the Saint.
The site is also a place of pilgrimage for both Muslims* and Jews, symbolizing a spiritual stronghold for the three religions. “The citadel of Mukawir or Machaerus tells about a killing in the name of Faith and the love of a belief and principle. It is rooted in the landscape of religious memory as a testament and a place of pilgrimage, not only for Muslims but also for Christians,” said Prince El-Hassan bin Talal, founder and Royal Scientific Society of Jordan.