King Herod’s Ritual Bath at Machaerus

Ritual purification high above the Dead Sea

machaerus-view

In this old aerial photograph taken from above the Old City of Jerusalem, one can see Jerusalem (including the Dome of the Rock) and its environs, the Dead Sea and the clifftop site of Machaerus (circled) 28 miles away as the crow flies.

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.

In BAR, Vörös explains the importance of mikva’ot and ritual purification in Judaism:

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).

Herod’s desert fortress on the mountaintop of Masada was made famous as the site of the last stand between the besieged Jewish rebels and the relentlessly advancing Romans at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the Jewish defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.

machaerus-king-herod-mikveh

In 2016, Machaerus excavators discovered the mikveh King Herod and his family used for ritual purification. Photo: Courtesy of the Hungarian Archaeological Mission to Machaerus.

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.

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BAS Library Members: 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.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist

Anastylosis at Machaerus, Where John the Baptist was Beheaded

Herod Antipas in the Bible and Beyond

Baptismal Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” Added to UNESCO World Heritage List

The Masada Siege: The Roman assault on Herod’s desert fortress
 


 

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  • Alan says

    For those who think the baptism of John (Yochanan) was something new under the sun… recall that he was a Levite as was his father Zechariah (Tsekharya). He was overseeing a tevilah (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual_washing_in_Judaism#Full-body_immersion_.28Tvilah.29) in a mikveh (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh). The Jordan River (Nahar ha-Yarden) qualified as a mikveh as its flowing “living waters” originated from a natural spring (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jordan_River). This full-body immersion was required for converts (giyur) to the “sect” called The Way (HaDerech) in Acts — whether a Pharisaic/Saddusaic Jew or a Gentile proselyte (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_to_Judaism). The Septuagint (LXX) referred to the latter as a “stranger” [in the land].

    Everything Joshua* (Yehoshu’a) did was in accordance with the TaNaKh, which is an acrostic for Torah (=Law/Instruction), Nevi’im (=Prophets), and Ketuvim (=Writings).

    Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (NASB)

    * “Jesus” is a transliteration of the Latin; it is NOT a translation! The Septuagint (LXX) rendered Joshua, the son of Nun, in Greek as ‘Iesous; the same was used for Christ’s name in the NT. In Hebrew, it is rendered Yehoshu’a, and in Aramaic, Yeshua. Reuben Alcalay, a famous Hebrew lexicographer, stated that Yehoshu’a is closely related to “Let there be…” So, let’s be intellectually honest and start using the proper English translation: Joshua. I know the firstborn of Creation — through and for Him everything was made — would appreciate it!


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