11 July 2016

Where Saint John the Baptist Was Beheaded – Hungarian Archaeological Excavations in the Fortified Herodian Royal Palace of Machaerus


Since 2009, the Hungarian Academy of Arts has been excavating Machaerus, the Herodian royal castle overlooking the Dead Sea in the Kingdom of Jordan, where Princess Salome danced and Saint John the Baptist was imprisoned and killed. The latter happening is not based purely on the holy tradition of Christian churches, but on the generally accepted authority of Flavius Josephus, the official historian of several Roman emperors, who had confirmed by the first century that John the Baptist was imprisoned and killed in Machaerus (Antiquitates Judaicae XVIII 5, 2). The archaeological site is a pilgrimage destination for both Christians and Muslims today, and also an important historical place for Judaism, one of the memorable scenes of the Gospels (Fig. 01). The royal courtyard of Machaerus gives one of the best archaeological parallels for the Herodian Lithostrotos-Gabbatha in the Jerusalem Praetorium where, according to the Gospel of John (John 19:13), Pontius Pilate pronounced his fateful death-sentence on Jesus of Nazareth.

Josephus described in details the citadel of Machaerus and its lower city (Bellum Judaicum VII, 6), – the rediscovery of the former was the achievement of the German explorer Ulrich Jasper Seetzen (1807), and the latter that of the French Dominican Father Félix-Marie Abel (1909). We should not forget though that Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land started only under the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great and by that time Machaerus had already been a deserted place for two and a half centuries; it became a destination for pilgrims only after its archaeological rediscovery in the 19th century. An exploratory trial excavation, conducted by the American ordained Baptist-Minister E. Jerry Vardaman (1927–2000) in June 1968, lasted three weeks, and all the 4,973 archaeological objects discovered in Machaerus were transported to the United States with the permission of the Jordanian government. However, Vardaman and his colleagues never published a word on their highly successful Machaerus excavations. These Machaeriaca archaeological objects are treasured in the basement of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University.

Fig 01. On the east bank of the Dead Sea, the ancient Oasis of Kallirrhoe (modern Ez-Zara) is visible in the foreground, and the archaeological site of Machaerus, marked with an arrow, crowns the horizon as an eagles nest. View from the Israeli seashore.

second and the third Machaerus excavations were led (in 1978–1981 and 1992–1993) by two well-known professors of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem: Fathers Virgilio Canio Corbo (1918–1991) and Michele Piccirillo (1944–2008) respectively. Although the results of their excavations were not included in evaluative Final Reports (as they had waited in vain for the publication of the results of the 1968 American Baptist mission), they published several remarkable preliminary articles. Besides, a summarising monograph and an article were published on the ceramic and numismatic materials by the members of the Corbo team, Stanislao Loffreda and Michele Piccirillo, respectively. Father Corbo concentrated primarily on the excavations of the citadel, and his final result was a sketched layout: the first ground plan of the interior of the fortified hilltop palace.

The Corbo-headed archaeological mission was also the first to prove that the castle of Machaerus was unquestionably one of the mosaic-decorated fortified palaces of King Herod the Great. They also confirmed the accounts of Josephus regarding the Hasmonean era and the First Jewish Revolt by means of architectural, ceramological and numismatic evidence. Following the unexpected death of Father Piccirillo in 2008, a Hungarian team resumed the excavations exactly where the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, led by two generations of Franciscan Italian academics, had left off. Our excavation tools and survey facilities included 21st century archaeological equipment and techniques. The Research Team of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, following detailed archaeological surveys and excavations, prepared in 2013 the first theoretical architectural reconstruction of both the Lower City (πóλις) and the Herodian Royal Fortified Palace (βασíλειον) of Machaerus (Fig. 02).

Fig 02. Theoretical architectural reconstruction of Machaerus city in the first rays of the rising sun, with the Dead Sea and Jerusalem in the background (superimposed on Jane Taylors aerial photograph from the east).

One of the greatest results of our ongoing excavations was the discovery of the previously unexpected vertical dimension of the citadel’s dead monument. Thus, when we unearthed the interior of the western bastion, we found that its walls, previously believed to be less than 1.5 metre high, included intact walls that were 8.75 metres in height. In another case, we discovered and fully excavated the 15.5 metre deep Hasmonean cistern of the citadel, and it can be proven that it was used even during the Herodian period
(Fig. 03, a-b). Very rich archaeological material came to light at this location as well. In total, we have opened more than 50 research trenches so far, for the better understanding of the groups of monuments in Machaerus’ citadel and its lower city.

The author finishes the archaeological excavations of the 15.5-metre deep Hasmonean cistern of Machaerus citadel (Fig. 03 a left), and Fig. 03 b shows its digital architectural model with a human scale. The full rainwater harvesting capacity of the artificial cistern was ca. 110,000 litres.

Regarding our architectural surveys, the most important results of our investigations to date have been the determination of the three historical periods of Machaerus city, the detailed analysis of the architectural space development of the buildings – individually, and in the context of building-complexes –, and the preparation of their theoretical reconstructions. The complete architectural description of the monuments (with graphic and photographic documentation) was extended to all those building elements that were no longer
in situ on the archaeological site. Following the surveys, we prepared three-dimensional digital monument-models, in order to provide a foundation for the later theoretical reconstructions. The illustrations of the anastyloses of the Doric and Ionic columns (Fig. 04, a-b) and the present illustrations on the theoretical reconstructions of the fortified Herodian royal palace give an idea of the nature of our efforts.

Computer visualisation of the theoretical architectural reconstruction of one complete Doric column and one complete Ionic column of the Herodian royal palace of Machaerus, before the technical implementation on the archaeological site. (Fig 04, a-b)

Besides detailed building-diagnostic and archaeological-stratigraphical field- and wall-examinations of the monuments, our research method included so-called comparative archaeological and architectural inspections. The Machaerus castle had been an element of a military fortress-network created in order to defend Jerusalem from the east during the last centuries BC and the first centuries AD. After Jerusalem itself, these fortresses (Masada, Herodion, Hyrcania, Cypros, Doq and Alexandreion) represent the closest Late Hellenistic (Hasmonean), Herodian and Early Roman architectural parallels and archaeological analogies in relation to Machaerus. Therefore, our research team spent extensive periods on the West Bank to conduct comprehensive archaeological and architectural examinations of these fortifications, in order to better understand Machaerus, and in light of our finds, we were able to create its theoretical-architectural reconstructions (Fig. 05, a-b).

Panoramic photograph and map of the Herodian fortresses of Judea, from south to north: Masada, Machaerus, Herodion, Hyrcania, Jerusalem, Cypros, Doq and Alexandreion. The photograph was taken from the hill, rising to the east of Machaerus, proving that there was a direct visual connection between the West Bank Herodian fortresses and the Trans-Dead-Sea Machaerus. Thanks to these two illustrations, the words of Pliny the Elder
become very clear: “Machaerus, once next to Jerusalem, the most strongly fortified place in Judea” (Pliny, Historia Naturalis V, 15, 16). (Fig. 05, a-b)

The royal courtyard of Machaerus with its apsidal throne-niche in the axis was unambiguously the most important architectural space of the Herodian castle on the east bank of the Dead Sea. The tragic birthday-party of the freshly remarried Herod Antipas was celebrated with Princess Herodias in this courtyard. Many people were invited, even from Galilee, from the northern half of his tetrarchy: An opportunity came on Herod’s birthday when he gave a banquet for the nobles of his court, for his army officers and for the leading figures in Galilee” (Mark 6, 21). It was the largest architectural space in the fortified palace of Machaerus, where the Tetrarch was able to receive a large gathering of these official guests. The royal courtyard of Machaerus had to be the very place where, according to Josephus, Antipas delivered his death-sentence on John the Baptist. Machaerus was the Golgotha of the Baptist, as Jesus himself put his future death in parallel with that of John the Baptist with the following statement: “They did not recognise him but treated him as they pleased: and the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands. The disciples understood that he was speaking of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17, 12–13).

The archaeological remains of the Jerusalem Praetorium where Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate are probably lost for good. However, we have here, in the former palace of King Herod, one of the closest architectural and archaeological parallels of its courtyard. On the Gabbatha (“elevation”) of the Machaerus palace even the in situ Herodian Lithostrotos (“stone pavement”) survived in the royal courtyard. After detailed architectural and archaeological studies on the field, conducted by the Research Team of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, we were able to reconstruct the original Doric architectural space that was designed according to the classical Early Roman canon with the Greek module of 34.5 cm (Fig. 06, a-d).

The architectural cross section (6a) and longitudinal (6c) section drawings together with the layout plan (6b) and the reconstructed space in the Herodian royal courtyard of Machaerus. The architectural reconstruction drawing (6d) is not an imaginary or suppositional illustration on the royal courtyard. As it is detectable through the photomontage of the original architectural elements in the illustrations, all the details are based on archaeological evidences. When we put together the information provided by Josephus and the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, we came to the conclusion that it had to be the scene of the tragic birthday of Herod Antipas, where Princess Salome danced, and where previously Antipas (from the throne seat) and John the Baptist (facing him) had their conversations: “because Herod was in awe of John, knowing him to be a good and upright man, and gave him his protection. When he had heard him speak he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20). Without the porticusgangway-corridor, less than 10 per cent of the column drums and pavement stones survived,with only one in situ column base and a single capital! However, this fragmented information allows for the complete theoretical reconstruction of the architectural space, including a complete column anastylosis with the proper Doric entasis. During the excavations of the lower city of Machaerus, several additional architectural fragments and column elements will come to light that will be incorporated into the next phase of our monument presentation.

The architects of King Herod the Great erected his Machaerus fortified palace in c30 BC on the ruins of the Hasmonean fortress of the Jerusalem high priest-king Alexander Jannaeus. The centre of the hilltop castle was constituted by the royal courtyard. Its alignment was completed on the mountain’s peak by using the Pythagorean triangular set ratio of the 3:4:5 triple for the good angle alignment scale of the architectural space. With the same so-called
pygme-unit, that is the Greek-forearm module (34.5 cm or 13.6 in., called Pygmaioi, from pygmê, the length of the forearm, much smaller than a cubit: it is only the length from the elbow to the wrist-joint of the knuckles) they designed not only the courtyard, but also the colonnade of the Doric tetrastyle porticus (1 column-base radius = 1 module). The intercolumniation was two column diameters (Systyle) on the short side and three (Diastyle) column diameters on the long side, respectively. Vitruvius, the chief architect of Emperor Augustus warned that when columns are placed three column diameters apart or more, stone architraves break (Vitruvius, De architectura III 3.4). As no architrave-stones survived on the Machaerus, most probably the Herodian builders used Lebanese cedars instead of stones.

The surviving Doric column drums come from similar columns, and not only from one column. In the Doric peristyle courtyard there were originally 24 similar columns (plus the 4 heart-shape-form ones at the corners), of which 11 column-prints survived on the Stylobate. However, the Herodian royal bathhouse was Ionic in style, meanwhile the courtyard was Doric. It is confirmed not only by the in situ column-bases, but by the archaeological artefacts as well, that came to light during the excavations of the two different spots in the royal castle. Inside the Apodyterium hall of the bathhouse there could have been originally (most probably) 12 similar Ionic columns on the Crepidoma (with much smaller diameters than the Doric drums) (Fig. 07, a-b).

The accomplished Ionic column-anastylosis in the context of the tentative architectural visualisation: the colours are based on the archaeological evidences. The artistic vision of the Machaerus bathhouse (the Caldarium and Apodyterium halls) in cutaway architectural reconstruction-model, as viewed from the north-east. (Fig. 07, a-b)

In the meantime, from the surviving architectural elements we were able “to Lego” together only one Ionic and one Doric complete columns.
In March–April 2014 we re-erected these Herodian columns on the two very places where the First Franciscan Archaeological Mission (led by the late Father Virgilio Corbo) found in 1979 and 1980 the only two in situ column-bases of the castle (Fig. 08).

The two re-erected complete Herodian columns of Machaerus with the Dead Sea and Masada in the background. (Fig. 08.)

Our complete column re-erections are fulfilling the legal requirements of the monument-anastylosis in international conventions of monument presentations, as we used (i) exclusively original architectural elements, (ii) re-erected them on the original spots, (iii) as they originally appeared. Their heights fit the classical Early Roman architectural canons: the Doric column is 11 modules: 380 cm; the Ionic column 19 modules: 475 cm. We had serious difficulties during the puzzling in-space with the individual drums, because of the two column entases. The Doric entasis has a conical shape in the column shaft, meanwhile the Ionic entasis has cigar-shape form (like a pregnant column). The Doric column even fits the classical 11-module standard of the Greek pygme-unit of the courtyard perfectly: the module was the same horizontally and vertically in the Herodian architectural space. Both re-erected columns were originally decorated with plaster, thus giving the finish-coat appearance as if they were white marble monoliths, like in Alexandria or Rome!

Machaerus, a key scene of the Gospels, has always been an inspirational site for Bible, Gospel, religious or history-book illustrators. In 2014, when opera fans celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, we were also able to act as consultants on the authenticity of sets for his Salome in opera houses around the world, based on the text of Gustave Flaubert and Oscar Wilde, who described Machaerus resorting to their artistic imagination (Fig. 09).

This 3D architectural model not only reproduces the surviving colours of the royal Herodian courtyard, but the Lithostrotos-pavements are also an authentic reconstruction of the original one. (Fig. 09.)

As a result of our archaeological excavations and architectural Lego-puzzle works, the actual place of this Gospel site, hidden for centuries, was revealed
(Fig. 10).

Among the walls of this royal castle four figures of the Gospels were living: King Herod the Great, his son Tetrarch Herod Antipas with his second wife Princess Herodias, and their daughter Princess Salome, from the previous marriage of her mother. When we visit today the archaeological spot, we also visit virtually the scene of the Calvary of Saint John the Baptist.

The archaeological mission of the Hungarian Academy of Arts is currently working on the archaeological excavation of the Lower City of Machaerus, where (according to Josephus, as well as the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke) the political house arrest of Saint John the Baptist, in the company of his disciples took place. The present author published the first two scientific excavation-final-report academic monographs on the history, archaeology and architecture of Machaerus as the 53rd and 55th volumes of the Collectio Maior excavation-final-report series of the Jerusalem Pontifical Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, published by Edizioni Terra Santa and titled: MACHAERUS I & II (Milan, 2013 & 2015) (Fig. 10).


(Illustrations by architects Tamás Dobrosi, Tamás Dósa Papp, Imre Balázs Arnóczki and graphic artist István Őri Kiss, members of the Hungarian excavation team.)

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