Makawir attracts Christian pilgrims, despite dark past

The hilltop palace, 66km south-west of Amman, is said to be the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded.
Saturday 14/09/2019
The ruins of the Makawir fortress where John the Baptist was said to be imprisoned. (Hasan Tamimi)
Captivating history. The ruins of the Makawir fortress where John the Baptist was said to be imprisoned. (Hasan Tamimi)

MADABA - It took one dance, one wish and one head on a platter to surround Makawir, also known as Machaerus, in Jordan with a dark and macabre history.

The hilltop palace, 66km south-west of Amman, is said to be the place where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded after Salome’s enticing dance bewitched King Herod Antipas and led to what is known as the Decollation of Saint John the Baptist.

Today, Makawir rises from its tormented past as a popular tourist site, with more than 2,200 visitors in the first quarter of 2019, the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism said.

“The location has a dark, though great, history,” said archaeological and cultural activist Rana Naber. “It provides panoramic views of the whole area all the way to the Dead Sea. It was the stronghold of Herod the Great, whose son Herod Antipas inherited this amazing fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed.”

“What happened at the palace in Makawir is truly interesting and was described in the Bible as the event that led to the beheading of John the Baptist who had publicly criticised King Herod, labelling him a sinner after marrying his brother’s wife,” Naber said.

The story, as related in the Bible’s Gospel of Mark, goes that Salome’s dancing captured the senses of Herod Antipas, who promised her anything she wanted — even half of his kingdom.

“Salome’s infamous dance has inspired many painters and writers. Her wish to have John the Baptist’s head on a platter, which was granted by Herod, was depicted in many paintings and one of the most famous is by Gustave Moreau, a French Symbolist painter whose main emphasis was the illustration of biblical and mythological figures,” Naber said.

In addition to Madaba, Mount Nebo, Anjara and Tell Mar Elias, Makawir is among Christian pilgrimage sites.

It takes about one hour to drive from Madaba — the City of Mosaics — to Makawir. The road is known as the King’s Highway, a 5,000-year-old roadway first mentioned in the Bible as the route that Moses wished to follow when he led the Israelites through the land of Edom.

“The site overlooks the Dead Sea and tourists need to climb a winding staircase up to the mountain. Truly, a very unique experience and worth the effort,” Naber said.

The fortified palace was built by Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus in 90BC on a plateau 800 metres above the Dead Sea to defend Peraea against the Nabataeans.

Locally, Makawir is referred to as Qala’at Al Meshneqa — the Castle of the Gallows — because of its association with the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist.

Dirar Hourani, a Jordanian expatriate, said he was attracted by the history of the place, which he often visits when he returns to Jordan.

“It has a very interesting history and, as a Christian, I easily relate to the place associated with the story of how John the Baptist was killed,” he said. “The remoteness of the fortress and the winding road to reach it makes it look like a very exciting adventure for all to experience.

“The story behind the Castle of the Gallows is well-known and it is one of the reasons behind the attraction of the place. Just imagine a king promising his stepdaughter anything she wished for even half his kingdom simply because he liked her dance.”

Salome, said to be 14 at the time, is believed to have taken advice from her mother when she asked for John the Baptist’s head, Naber said.

“After the death of Herod Antipas, his properties were taken by the Romans, who installed a contingent of soldiers at Machaerus and, in 70AD, the governor of Judaea, Lucilius Bassus, led an assault against the castle and destroyed it,” she said.

Naber said the story is only part of the experience of visiting Makawir.

“It is not only the story that is captivating. The whole experience of climbing the stone staircase, which leads down to the main trail, is really amazing. There is a hill to climb and a small path to walk through where visitors can witness a number of caves in one of which the beheading of John the Baptist took place according to the story,” she said.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II said mass at Makawir before a crowd of 20,000.