Review: Mount Machaerus

Mount Machaerus

An Introduction to the Historical, Archaeological, and Pilgrim Site Overlooking the Dead Sea in the Kingdom of Jordan
By Győző Vörös
(Amman: The American Center of Research, 2024), hard cover, 171 pp., 96 figures; free download available from the ACOR website.

Reviewed by Konstantinos Politis

Finding Phoebe

With Mount Machaerus, Győző Vörös has authored an invaluable summary of his superb four-part publication series about the spectacular Herodian citadel that dramatically overlooks the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in Jordan.[i] It is written in an easily accessible style for students and visitors to appreciate the ancient site without compromising academic content. The colorful illustrations and architectural reconstructions are particularly useful in bringing to life a hitherto unknown but important palace of the early Roman period.

This concise book includes a century of the most important studies and discoveries of Machaerus. The first chapters begin with a comprehensive review and interpretation of John the Baptist’s days at the citadel as mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 14:1–12) and by Roman accounts (esp. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.109–119). Colorful maps, images, and sketches indicate the strategic location of the site. Next, the early 19th-century “rediscovery” of Machaerus and its identification near the modern village of Mukaur or Mukawer is described; it is intriguing that a form of the name was preserved for millennia and alludes to the persistence of an oral tradition about John the Baptist in the vicinity.

The first hundred years of research (up to 2007) is recounted with labelled topographic photographs and plans. The successive archaeological excavations and finds of both American and Italian scholars are recounted. Vörös also gives his own analysis and interpretation of the discoveries, which in some cases were enigmatic. But his perseverance and dedicated scholarship succeeds in bringing some of these “lost” finds to light.

In Chapter 3, Vörös spells out the aims of the new Hungarian mission that he directs: “to document all available information and to describe the ruins of the citadel.” This decade-long project (2009–2019) not only carried out extensive fieldwork, but also conducted comparative architectural investigations. The result was a clear understanding of all the structures at Machaerus and the drawing of rectified plans along with accurate (and beautiful) architectural restorations. The theoretical reconstructions and physical restorations of Doric and Ionic columns in the Herodian palace are particularly impressive, as only a few fragments survived.

Vörös skilfully and convincingly defines “two distinct components” of his investigations in Chapter 4: historical sources and archaeology. He demonstrates that “Machaerus is a perfect example of historic archaeology” and that there is concordance between the two disciplines. Archaeological discoveries have verified ancient accounts. This important conclusion is expanded in chapters 5, 6, and 7, where architectural reconstructions coupled with imaginative biblical illustrations make the site and its legendary episode come to life.

The last chapter highlights the fact that Machaerus and Kallirhoe, its port on the Dead Sea, continued to function during the Byzantine and early Islamic periods as pilgrimage sites. This explains why the latter is prominently portrayed (and undoubtedly the former, had the depiction not been damaged) on the unique sixth-century mosaic floor map at Madaba in Jordan.

Vörös not only exceled in updating our academic understanding of Herodian Machaerus but also conducted professional conservation and restorations of the buildings (particularly the palace complex). This succeeded in preserving and presenting the ancient site for future generations. Furthermore, his tireless and enthusiastic public outreach, through lectures and various programs, has kept the site alive and relevant to locals and visitors alike.


[i] See Machaerus I: History, Archaeology and Architecture of the Fortified Herodian Royal Palace and City Overlooking the Dead Sea in Transjordan. Final Report of the Excavations and Surveys 1807–2012 (Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2013); Machaerus II: The Hungarian Archaeological Mission in the Light of the American-Baptist and Italian-Franciscan Excavations and Surveys. Final Report 1968–2015 (Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2015); Machaerus III: The Golden Jubilee of the Archaeological Excavations. Final Report on the Herodian Citadel 1968–2018 (Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2019); and Machaerus: The Golgotha of John the Baptist. The Herodian Royal City Overlooking the Dead Sea in Transjordan, Where Princess Salome Danced. Archaeological Excavations of the Hungarian Academy of Arts 2009–2021 (Budapest: Publishing House of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, 2022). Machaerus III won the 2021 BAS Publication Award for “Best Scholarly Book on Archaeology.”

Konstantinos Politis is a seasoned field archaeologist of the eastern Mediterranean lands ranging from prehistory to Ottoman times. His focus has been on late antiquity to the early medieval period.

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