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The Fortress of Machaerous

The name of the fortress, has been preserved by Mukawer, the name given by the Arab Banu Hamideh to the Roman-Byzantine ruins of the village existing in front of the fortress to the north.

Encircled in red is the fortress on top of the isolated hill

The fortress of Machaerous was one of the strongholds of the defence system of the Jewish state in the eastern province of Perea on the south boundary with the Nabataeans of Petra.

The naturally defended site was chosen by Alexander Janneus to build the fortress (BJ VII, 6, 2). It was demolished by Gabinius (57 B.C.E.). Aristobulus and his son Alexander sought refuge among the ruins (BJ I, 8, 6).

King Herod rebuilt the fortress (BJ VII, 6, 2-3). Upon the death of Herod, his son Herod Antipas inherited it. In the fortress John the Baptist was thrown into prison and put to death (AJ XVIII, 5, 1-2). On the death of King Agrippa I (44 C.E.), the fortress came under the direct administration of the Roman Praefectus Judaeae.

At the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt (66 C. E.) the Roman garrison abandoned the fortress into the rebel's hands, who held it up to 72 C. E. (BJ II, 18, 6). In that year Lucilius Bassus besieged the fortress, took it and destroyed it (BJ VII, 6,).

Later Byzantine sources mentions only the village of Machaberos (Georgii Cyprii Descriptio, n. 1082; Cyrilli Vita Sabae, 82).

Geographic information

The isolated mountain on which the fortress stood (Qal`at al-Mishnaqa, in Arabic, 700 m above sea level) is located at the end of a ridge between the Wadi Zerqa Ma`in to the north and the Wadi Heidan-Mujib (Arnon) to the south. The mountain isolated by deep wadis forms two saddles to the south east and north west sides. It could be reached from the Dead Sea on the west or from the region of Madaba on the east.


The name of Mukawer was registered by U. Seetzen in 1807, thus giving the possibility fo his successors to identify the fortress on Qal`at al-Mishnaqa. G. Ricciotti succeeded during his visit in 1936 in identifying in the jumbled rock heap piled up at the north west base of the fortress, the beginning of the siege ramp (agger). A. Strobel in 1973 careful surveyed and mapped the Roman siege works with the vallum, the camps and the towers.

A church was recorded by Duke de Luynes among the ruins of the village in 1864.


The first excavation attempt of the fortress was started by J. Vardaman in 1968. The work was resumed by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum directed by the late V. Corbo in 1978 to 1981, and continued in 1992-93 by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The three Franciscan Archaeologists during the first campaign of '78

Excavations have clarified the distinction made by Josephus' description of the upper city on the top of the mountain, and the lower city built on the steep northern slope.

Excavations have clarified the distinction made by Josephus' description of the upper city on the top of the mountain, and the lower city built on the steep northern slope.

The upper city was composed of the royal palace defended by four towers, of which only three have been identified. The palace results of two superimposed and mingled structures not well chronologically determined. The main upper structure (possibly the Herodian phase) was divided into two main wings by a paved corridor stretching north south. The eastern wing developed on the sides of a central paved courtyard covering a cistern with the thermae on the south and elongated rooms on the north side. The western wing had a peristilium on the north built on the top of a cistern, connected to a triclinium on the south. Stuccios, drums of columns, capitals and bases of Jonic and Doric style have been found at the bottom of the cistern.

Fr. V. Corbo ofm and Fr. S. Loffreda ofm drawing the plans atop the excavated ruins

In its final phase a polygonal defensive wall was built on the perimeter of the upper city, possibly to be related with the Jewish revolt. Traces of the revolt have been found inside the palace, like two ovens on the mosaic floor of the apoditerium, and a poor executed wall on the west side of the triclinium.

In the lower city, only few houses have been excavated inside the north large retaining and defensive wall surrounding the city. The wall was defended on both sides by a tower. Inside the north west tower could be reached the protected opening of a large cistern.

Excavating the fortress

The lower and upper city were reached from the east through a bridge 15 m. high which connected the fortress to the highplateau. It served also as an acqueduct diverting rain water to the cisterns hewn in the northern slope of the mountain. A lower aqueduct served the same purpose for the cisterns on a lower hight.

Excavations in the village of Mekawer have unearthed three Byzantine churches built in the sixth century. The central church was mosaiced at the time of Bishop Malechios.

With Masada, Hyrcania, Alexandreion and Cypros, Machaerous is one of the fortresses that Herod the King has inherited from the Hasmoneans. It was not inhabited before the Hasmoneans, nor it was ever reoccupied after the destruction of the Romans. Few is left of the Herod's palace. The walls were razed to the foundation level and only in one case a door with its threshold was found. Quite nothing is still known of the Hasmonean fortress buried and reused in the later fortress. More can be expected from the excavations of the houses of the lower city.

A comparison between the real Machaerous and the one described by Josephus strenghthens the impression that the historian allowed himself too much liberty in the description abetted by the desire to glorify King Herod and the Romans military might capable of the impossible to even assault an inaccessible fortress like Machaerous.


  1. Corbo, V. 1978. La fortezza di Macheronte. Rapporto preliminare della prima campagna di scavo: 8 settembre - 28 ottobre 1978, Liber Annuus 28: 217-238.
  2. -----------1979. La reggia-fortezza erodiana. Rapporto preliminare alla seconda campagna di scavo: 3 settembre- 20 ottobre 1979, Liber Annuus 29: 315-326.
  3. -----------1980. La fortezza di Macheronte (Al-Mishnaqa). Rapporto preliminare alla terza campagna di scavo: 8 settembre - 11 ootobre 1980. Liber Annuus 30, 365-376.
  4. Corbo, V., and Loffreda, S. 1981. Nuove scoperte alla fortezza di Macheronte. Rapporto preliminare alla quarta campagna di scavo: 7 settembre-10 ottobre 1981. Liber Annuus 31: 257-286.
  5. Piccirillo, M. 1981. Le monete della fortezza di Macheronte (El-Mishnaqa). Liber Annuus 30: 403-414.
  6. Strobel, A. 1974. Das römische Belagerungswerk um Macharus. Topographische Untersuchungen. ZDPV 90: 128-184.

© Michele Piccirillo ofm
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum


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