Ritual purification high above the Dead Sea
Jewish ritual baths—called mikva’ot (singular: mikveh)—are immersion pools used in ritual purification. A large mikveh—the largest thus far uncovered in modern Jordan—was excavated in 2016 at King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. This mikveh was used by King Herod and his royal family to purify themselves in accordance with Jewish religious law (halakhah).
King Herod’s personal ritual bath was not the only mikveh at Machaerus, though. In “Machaerus: A Palace-Fortress with Multiple Mikva’ot,” published in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Machaerus excavator Győző Vörös presents a brief history of the excavations that uncovered four ancient mikva’ot installed over the span of almost 100 years at Machaerus.
The Hebrew Bible stipulates that bathing is required after certain events to become ritually pure again. For example, after recovering from leprosy, a person was to bathe (Leviticus 14:8–9). After coming into contact with a grave or with a dead person, it was necessary to bathe (Numbers 19:19). Men were to bathe fully in “living water” after having genital discharges before they are able to present an offering or sacrifice (Leviticus 15:13–15). They were also to bathe after emissions of semen (Leviticus 15:16).
Machaerus is perhaps best known as the place where Salome danced for her stepfather, Herod Antipas (r. 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.), and ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. Perched on a clifftop high above the Dead Sea, Machaerus was where King Herod the Great (Herod Antipas’s father and predecessor) built a lavish palace-fortress around 20 B.C.E. The site was occupied by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–72 C.E.) and became one of the last strongholds to fall.
The royal mikveh discovered in 2016 had 12 steps (which are still intact) that led down to a depth of 12 feet. A vaulted stone roof once covered the bath, and attached to it was a 20-foot-deep cistern-reservoir that fed in water. The mikveh went out of use in 71 C.E., when Machaerus was destroyed by the Roman army unit known as the Legio X Fretensis (the Tenth Legion of the Sea Straits).
King Herod’s mikveh gives us a glimpse into the activities of the royal family at Machaerus. To learn about the other mikva’ot at Machaerus, including a modest one used by the common people found in the lower city, read the full article “Machaerus: A Palace-Fortress with Multiple Mikva’ot” by Győző Vörös in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in June 2017.
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