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Excursion to Jordan: fifth day (May 13, 2004)

Today we have a long journey in front of us: we plan to visit the fortress of Machaerous and then to proceed towards the Arnon brook with the biblical sites of Tell Dhiban and Khirbet Aroer; afterwards we will move to Umm ar-Rasas and finally take the Desert Highway to Petra.

Machaerous, Mekawer

Panoramic view from the village of Mekawer towards Qalaat al-Mishnaqa (which means the fortress of the hanging). In the background, faintly appears the Dead Sea.

The road winding up to Machaerous along its southern side. The SBF decided to excavate Machaerous because Flavius Josephus wrote that, in this place, Herod Antipas ordered the beheading of John the Baptist in compliance with the will of Herodias, his illegitimate wife (cf. Mk 6:17-29 par.).

Scanty ruins of Machaerous, a fortress which was destroyed by the soldiers of the Roman general F. Silva in 70 A.D. In particular, we are exploring the remains of the triclinium where the dancing scene of Herodias’ daughter, Salome, occurred.

Plan of Machaerous after the SBF excavations in the years 1978-1981.
(V. Corbo, S. Loffreda, M. Piccirillo).

red, the Hellestinic structures;
black, the Herodian buildings;
green, defensive wall by the Jewish zealots.
1: Aqueduct (ending point)
2: East Tower
3: Peristilium and central cistern
4: Triclinium
5: Herodian Thermal Baths
6: North Tower and remains of the "Lower City"

Detail of the Herodian Baths. A first fortified palace was built by the Asmonaeans (in 90 B.C.) as a defense against the Nabataeans. Machaerous was first destroyed in 55 B.C. after Aristobulus’ rebellion against Pompey, who sent Gabinius, the governor of Syria, to demolish the fortress. Herod the Great started to rebuild the palace from 30 B.C. The zealots, finally, made it one of their strongholds during the war against the Romans (67-72 A.D.).

External wall of the Herodian palace, towards the north. The arabic name of Machaerous is Qalaat al-Mishnaqa. The evangelical episode of the Baptist’s death finds a parallel in F. Josephus. According to him, the Nabataean King Aretas IV waged war against Herod Antipas to revenge an insult received by him when Herod repudiated his daughter Sahudat in favor of Herodias the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip.

F. Josephus speaks about a feeling, which was widespread among his contemporaries, that Herod’s defeat came as God's retribution for his misdeeds: Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him (Ant. 18:109-119).

Remains of the Lower City mentioned by Josepus are still seen on the northeastern slope. Machaerous was destroyed in 70 A.D. after a long siege. The siege was directed by the Roman generals Cerealis and Lucilius Bassus. The Romans had just completed the encircling wall (vallus) and were still building the attack ramp (agger) when some of the zealots betrayed their fellows by giving up the fortress to the enemy.

Natural caves used by the Bedouins to keep their flocks safe. Some of this caves were part of a water system, created to assure a steady water supply to the fortress of Machaerous.

Church of Bishop Melechios in the village of Mekawer. In the bishop list of Madaba, Melechios finds place at the end of the 5th century. A Greek inscription in the north aisle mentions Sergios and George, servants of Christ.

Aroer, Khirbet Arair

On the right are the ruins of Khirbet Arair, a fortified site placed on the brook Arnon (which is visible downhill). The names of Aroer and Arnon appear in the Mesha Stele, at line 26: I have built Aroer, and I constructed the military road in Arnon. Aroer is mentioned in many biblical passages detailing the southern border of the territory possessed by the Israelites (Dt 2:36; Nm 32:34; Gs 13:9.16). The site was excavated by E. Olávarri in 1964.

Our group stands in front of the Arnon gorge (wadi Mujib). The river Arnon has dug this impressive canyon, 5 km wide and 700 m deep, in the course of many millennia. Eusebius of Caesarea writes: Up to our days this is a dangerous place, with steep sides, called Arnona. It extends to the north of Areopolis and there are many military positions guarding all this place, given the terrifying nature of the region.

Umm ar-Rasas, Mefaat

Aerial photo of the ruins of Umm ar-Rasas
1: Castrum
2: Church of the "Tabula"
3: Church of the Lions
4: Church of St. Paul
5: St. Stephen Complex
6: To the Tower.

Umm ar-Rasas is identified with Mefaat, a town of the Levites in the territory of Ruben (Gs 13:18; 21:31; Ger 48:21), and with Kastron Mefaa of Roman-Byzantine Epoch. The Umm ar-Rasas excavations were conducted by M. Piccirillo on behalf of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and of the SBF, starting from 1986. The main inscription in the Chuech of St. Stephen situates the laying of the mosaics (or their subsequent restoration) at the time of the bishop Sergius, while John (son) of Isaac son of Lexos, a person most loved by God, was deacon and archon of the Mefaonites, in the year 680 of the Arabian Province (785 A.D.).

Apse of the Church of St. Stephen, decorated with two different layers of mosaics during the 8th cent. A.D.
In the many inscriptions discovered inside the church we can read many names of benefactors and faithful: Peter of Rabbos; Samuel and Abesobeos, father of Ouaias; Moses and his brother Damian, sons of Theodorus; Cassianus (son) of Abosobeos of Rabbos, and Paul his son; John son of Lai and George one of his sons; Theodorus son of Goumela and Samuel his son; Kiriakos of Rebbos deacon, and his son Sergius.

The nave of the Church of St. Stephen (m 21x10,50) with representations of life scenes and biblical sites. The vignettes are arranged according to their geographical position: the Transjordanian region is on the southern side, Palestine is on the north side, and Egypt is in an internal frame. Transjordan is represented by the cities of Kastron Mefaa, Philadelphia, Madaba, Esbounta, Belemounta, Areopolis, and Charachmouba. Two more toponyms pertaining to this region, Limbon and Deblaton, are found among the inscriptions with names of benefactors.

Two vignettes with the cities of Madaba (Midaba) and Jerusalem (Hagia Polis). The bishop Job, the priest John and the bursar Ise were the promoters of this work. Six mosaic masters signed it: Staurachios from Esbus, Euremios, Elias, Constantinus, Germanus and Abdela.

Medallion in the sanctuary of the Church of the bishop Sergius. The Greek inscription gives the name of the most holy and most blessed bishop Sergius, and of the priest Procopius, by whom interest this work was brought about in the year 587 A.D. Part of the Church of the bishop Sergius was taken over by the memorial Church of St. Stephen in the 8th cent.

Row of arches in the Church of St. Paul. The church draw its name from a graffito carved on one of its roof's tiles: St. Paul, save the Blues and Papiona of George, the lector. Amen. Regrettably, mosaics and inscriptions pertaining the floor decoration of this church are in a bad state of preservation.

View towards south of the ruins of Umm ar-Rasas. In the background is the main defensive wall of the Roman castrum, with sides of 139x158 m. The Notitia Dignitatum, a public record from the 5th cent. A.D., mentions Mefaa together with a legion camp, assigned to the Dux Arabiae. Kastron Mefaa was the residence of a cavalry squadron: the equites promoti indigenae.

The tower of Umm ar-Rasas stands inside a vast monastic complex. Probably, the tower had been the abode of a recluse (a religious man living alone in a secluded room), and may been imagined in the vignette of Kastron Mefaa which is found in the Church of St. Stephen.


View of the Crusader castle of Shobak (Mons Regalis, Mont Royal). The fort was erected in 1115 A.D. by Balduin I, the Latin king of Jerusalem. because of its strategically favorable position it was kept in order by the Ayyubids (Saladin's descendants) and newly rebuilt by the Mameluke sultan Bibars in the 13th cent.

Shobak: two boys are ready to provide a “local taxi” for a trip in the roundabouts.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

External Links

Machaerous (the SBF excavations)

Le antichità cristiane nel villaggio di Mekawer (SBF Liber Annuus)

La fortezza di Macheronte in Giordania (Archeo - Firenze)

Aroer (Encyclopedia)

The Kings Highway

Umm ar-Rasas (the SBF excavations)


 SBF main, Index

Biblical Excursions

Biblical World



Umm el-Jimal



W. Kharrar




M. Nebo




Umm er-Rasas





Archaeological Museum

Iraq el-Amir

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