“Vörös wanted to involve other scientific institutions into a harmonious blend of skills and nationalities (Italian, French, Hungarian). Thus, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum worked alongside the Dominican École Biblique et Archéologique, accompanied by the Hungarian Academy of Arts, and all with the endorsement of the Royal Department of Antiquities in Jordan. The team, with its names and competencies are displayed at the beginning of this volume.”

His Eminence Cardinal Ravasi is the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology in the Vatican. The Foreword has been written for the 588-page-long academic monograph of MACHAERUS III (Jerusalem– Milan–Mount Nebo, 2019), that is the 56th volume in the Collectio Maior archaeological-excavation final-report monograph-series of the Pontifical Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem.

In 1968, the great archaeological adventure concerning the Herodian complex of Machaerus began through the work of the American Southern Baptists. This site is linked forever to the memory of the powerful New Testament figure of John the Baptist, “a prophet, indeed, more than a prophet”, as Jesus himself defined his Precursor (Mt 11,9). Precisely because John was not “a reed swaying in the wind” or a worldly character dressed in “garments of luxury” (Mt 11,7–8), and since his message scourged the authorities, the end of John’s existence would be depicted by the platter on which his head had been laid. The severed and silenced head would continue to cry out his appeal for truth and justice for centuries.

Before evoking, albeit allusively, that primary reference in the history of the palace-stronghold of Machaerus, it is necessary to start from the present time. The last fifty years saw both exhaustion and exaltation on the hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea; both visitors and archaeologists experienced this. After the American Baptist group, the Franciscans of the Holy Land went up to excavate it. Franciscans have, as part of their vocation, a historical-scientific instinct, an awareness to the importance of the origins of Christianity. Their excavation campaigns were directed by two Franciscans, respectively: Fr. Virgilio Corbo between 1978 and 1981; then by Fr. Michele Piccirillo from 1991 to 1994. I have personal memories of them, having known both and communicated with them.

A further step has been accomplished which is celebrated by an extraordinary documentary trilogy – the three impressive volumes on Machaerus which offer the richest and most vigorous portrait by a true protagonist, the Hungarian archaeologist Győző Vörös, a man so passionate about this enterprise that he settled down with his entire family in Jordan. With this third report of the excavations – which he conducts within a larger timeframe of twenty years, from 2009 to 2029, by the Royal Department of Antiquities in Jordan – he now offers the latest phase of his excavations from 2015 to 2018, thus sealing a significant “Golden Jubilee” of fifty years since the distant 1968.

As in the previous two monographs, the reader of this third volume turns into a visitor – indeed, a kind of pilgrim – invited to interweave history, art, tradition and even spirituality; among the spaces and monuments of Machaerus hovers always the figure of the Baptist, and his voice echoes with that vehement imperative recorded by the evangelist Mark: οὐκ ἔξεστίν σοι, “you are not allowed” (6,18). We speak of a “visit” because the pages that follow are illustrated with almost two thousand images and graphics whose colours almost allow the reader to dwell in those places and premises, admiring them, locating them on the maps and feeling, indirectly, the breath of the desert which envelops them. Yes, because this latest stage of the excavation – which is, suggestively, part of a permanent project and not of an occasional survey as often happens – has provided a treasure-trove, full of surprises.


Thus, the Northern Wing of the Herodian Royal Palace, previously unknown, has been brought to light. It has opened treasures that include terrae sigillatae, painted Nabatean vessels, an imported amphora with a Latin inscription in red ink, two ceramic vases with Greek inscriptions, splendid fresco and stucco plaster fragments, and so on. The most important architectural emblem is the emergence of a large royal mikveh, a monumental 3.7-metre-deep Jewish ritual bath, with its twelve access steps, the largest in all of Jordan. We find significant also a quite new atmosphere which accompanied this stage of the excavations.

“The exciting masterpiece that Caravaggio created during his stay in Malta in 1608, which is now kept in the Cathedral of Valletta” (Card. G. Ravasi). Oil on canvas, titled The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 370 cm x 520 cm, detail. This is the only work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, which bears the signature of the artist (“f.[ra] Michelang.o”) in the blood spilling from the cut throat of Saint John. The characters in the imaginative prison of the Machaerus Gospel-scene are depicted in contemporary, early 17th century clothes.

Vörös wanted to involve other scientific institutions into a harmonious blend of skills and nationalities (Italian, French, Hungarian). Thus, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum worked alongside the Dominican École Biblique et Archéologique, accompanied by the Hungarian Academy of Arts, and all with the endorsement of the Royal Department of Antiquities in Jordan. The team, with its names and competencies are displayed at the beginning of this volume. Other voices are added to the research team, resulting in a truly attractive collection of essays with differing timbres and specific interpretations, plus the necessary bibliography and appendices.

David M. Jacobson, of University College London, establishes an unexpected parallel between the architectural elements of Machaerus and the Temple of Jerusalem, starting from the mikveh, a feature which was also present in front of the sanctuary of the Temple of Zion with the symbolic twelve steps evoked by the Mishnah (Middoth 3,6). Jean-Baptiste Humbert OP, archaeological director of the École Biblique, explains the ceramic material findings and demonstrates their restoration. Vörös, on the other hand, presents a series of archaeological objects from previous Franciscan missions to Machaerus (1978–1981) that had been preserved but never published; as did also Rosario Pierri OFM, director of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, and Asher Ovadiah, professor emeritus of the Tel Aviv University, in the analysis of a Machaerus stone discovered in 1978 and never presented with its Greek inscription.

Associated to this spectrum of subjects linked to this iconic site in the history of Christianity, are some contextual references. The port for Machaerus by the Dead Sea was Callirhoe, brought to light between 1985 and 1988 with the participation of Stefan Jakob Wimmer of the University of Munich, who outlines the results retrospectively. Naturally, this provides a comparison with the Gospel materials which Vörös has presented and further contextualises the events experienced in the stronghold and its surroundings.

Indirectly curious also in the Wirkungsgeschichte of the tragic story of the Baptist is based on a forthcoming production of Salome by Richard Strauss, which is intended for 2020 near the site of Machaerus, under the patronage of the Royal Court of Jordan. We know how prominent it was, in the history of art, to recall the beheading of the Baptist, which is commemorated in the Roman liturgical calendar on 29 August, but which is not present in the iconography of the Roman catacombs. The catacombs host eight scenes of the Baptism of Jesus by the Baptist (catacombs of St Callistus, Domitilla, Marcellinus and Petrus, Ponzianus). It suffices to consider the exciting masterpiece that Caravaggio created during his stay in Malta in 1608, which is now kept in the Cathedral of Valletta. Even more impressive for its provocative role is, however, the musical drama of Salome which Richard Strauss composed, based on the homonymous theatrical work written in French by Oscar Wilde in 1891 for Sarah Bernhardt, and performed for the first time in 1896.

Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (The National Gallery, London), c. 1607, rediscovered in a Swiss private collection in 1959. Oil on canvas, 91.5 cm x 106.7 cm. The old serving-woman in the background is represented with a commiserative visage and gesture. “The reduction to silence of the prophet, the talker, is theatricised by the exhibition of his severed head on a platter.” (Quotation from the Foreword)

Strauss had it translated into German by Hedwig Lachmann, he set it to music and presented it in Dresden at the Königliches Opernhaus on 9 December 1905, amid the harsh criticism of the audience who found the opera to be scandalous, sadistic and perverse. Indeed, the plot is disconcerting with the figure of Salome in love with Jochanaan, determined to possess him masochistically. She is attracted even by his vehement accusations and the total rejection of her sexual advances. In the end, after a series of tragic twists, the tetrarch Herod, although horrified, is compelled to concede to the woman’s request and deliver the bloody head of the Baptist on a silver tray. Salome utters words of love and passion and, at the end, kisses the decapitated head on the mouth. The erotic effects in the whole opera are enhanced by violent and insinuating music which is, at the same time, excessive and aggressive, obsessive and frenetic (one thinks of the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils”).

Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (The Royal Palace, Madrid), c. 1609. Oil on canvas, 116 cm x 140 cm. This painting was probably a gift of Caravaggio to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Fra Alof de Wignacourt. In the artistic composition the princess and the old maidservant are sharing the same right arm, which holds the tray. “The severed and silenced head in reality would have continued to cry out his
appeal for truth and justice” (Card. G. Ravasi).


The “Baptist” tradition has been widely documented in the past by the research of the scholar Edmondo Lupieri, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, and it notes the religious development through the centuries. In the wake of this, we would like to add two notes on the martyrdom of the Precursor of Christ. These are only outline observations offered to non-specialist readers who want, increasingly, to cross the perimeters of the archaeological fields to know the antiquities which Fr. Alexandre Dumas, the 19th-century author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, considered as “the aristocracy of history” (thus in his Impressions of Travel in Egypt and Arabia Petraea).

The first consideration concerns the passion and death of John the Baptist according to the evangelist Mark (6,14–29), which is more lively and intense than the Matthean parallel (14,1–12) and the brief and incomplete note of Luke (3,19– 20). In fact, it is surprising that in such a sober and essential Gospel such a large space is reserved for the Precursor whose person stands out; this contrasts with the Gospel of John where the Baptist is seen in close relation to Christ. Among other things, the adoption of the narrative technique of flash-back is suggestive. The Markan account of the event overlooks the topographical and chronological components, and the scene is dominated, paradoxically, not by the Baptist, who is not the explicit protagonist, but by Herod, Herodias and her daughter. The story begins with the account of rival brothers, Herod and Philip, fighting over a woman in which the voice of John cuts like a sword: “It is not lawful to keep your brother’s wife with you!”

It is Herodias who dominates. She is portrayed fully with her homicidal intention, like that of the biblical Jezebel against whom the prophet Elijah had risen (1Kings 19,2; cf. 21,17–24). It is she who leads the plot involving the weak and embarrassed Herod Antipas, seventh son of Herod the Great, who could not escape the secret charm of the Baptist’s ascetic and severe character. Then comes the birthday party, enhanced by the dance of the daughter (nameless in Mark) of Herodias. A single verb underlines the “pleasure” (ἤρεσεν) of the king, unlike the subsequent artistic tradition that has amplified excessively the seductive ability of this girl, seen as the archetype of the femme fatale. Following this, there is a manoeuvre between mother and daughter conducted behind the scenes, consumed between the area reserved for most of the males in the court and the dining room where the women dined. The promise of Herod Antipas, clearly disproportionate and sealed with an oath, is marked by the excited and feverish situation in which the actors are involved, a state of excess which ends with the terrible request of the young woman.

As noted by a commentator on the Gospel of Mark (2004), Camille Focant, “… the reduction to silence of the prophet, the talker, is theatricised by the exhibition of his severed head on a platter. The misunderstanding of the word and the confusion between speaking and eating could not be more outrageous. In some way, the cutting word is cut and presented on a platter. […] The prophet dressed and nourished in a wild way (Mk 1,6) dared to criticise the king’s attitude. The civilised court of the latter is barbarised by an assassination that follows a forbidden union and imprisonment by a thoughtless oath. The king himself is imprisoned in his contradictions and only offers a mockery any more of royal power, forced to submit to executing the imprisoned prophet but one who is nevertheless the free bearer of the word.”


The Markan account just cited can be proclaimed ideally among the ruins that were brought to light by the archaeologists at Machaerus. The philo-Roman Jewish historian Josephus (37/38 – after 103) situates the event in that fortress, as noted in his work, Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, 5, 1–2; n. 109–119). There is a more detailed historical contextual background recounted in those pages. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and the Samaritan Maltace (one of his ten wives), had married the daughter of the king of the Nabataeans (their capital was the famous Petra), Aretas IV, who reigned from 9 BC to 40 AD, and who is mentioned by St Paul in his flight from Damascus (2Cor 11,32). Then, the tetrarch Herod Antipas had fallen in love – as the Gospels note – with his sister-in-law Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, with whom she had a daughter, Salome.

Faced with the insult suffered by the repudiation of his daughter and a controversy over borders, King Aretas declared war on Herod Antipas. The outcome was devastating for the latter, so much so that he had to appeal to Emperor Tiberias for support. Josephus connects this defeat of the Tetrarch with the martyrdom of the Baptist, seeing it as a divine punishment for that crime. Moreover, the new marriage contracted with Herodias clearly contrasted with the Mosaic Law: “You will not uncover the nakedness [read: you will not have sexual relations] of your sister-in-law; it is the nakedness belonging to your brother … If one takes the wife of his brother (still alive), it is an impurity” (Lv 18,16; 19,21). For the Gospels, this is the direct cause of the extermination of John. But let us now listen to the testimony of Josephus, which is known also to, and confirmed by Origen (Contra Celsum 1,47), and by Eusebius of Caesarea (Historia Ecclesiastica I, 11,4–6). The interpretation of the baptism preached by John is also surprising, for it is considered not as a cathartic act of the remission of sins, but as a consecration rite of the righteous person.

Josephus writes: “(116) 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’: (117) 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 (βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι); for that the baptism (τήν βάπτισιν) would be acceptable to him (to God), if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins (μή επί τινων ἁμαρτάδων παραιτήσει χρωμένων), but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (118) Now when others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. (119) Accordingly he (John) was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death (κτίννυται). 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 to him” (Jewish Antiquities XVIII, 5, 2; n. 116–119).


This source is the testimony of the historian that gives a political reason, and not an ethical reason (like the Gospels), as if John had become the standard-bearer of a popular rebellion before the defeat in the war against King Aretas: the Baptist “…was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death”. In that palatine area that overlooks the Dead Sea, and where now archaeology has revealed in its entirety the relics of its past, even in the pulsation of its ancient daily existence, an act of abuse of power was committed, in all of its brutality.

Machaerus, therefore, may today still be an emblem of the many crimes of history, but above all it is an epiphany of courageous witness to truth and justice, as the anthem that serves as a prologue to the fourth Gospel sings: “A man sent by God came: his name was John. He came as a witness to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him” (Jn 1,6–7). In these desert spaces resound his prophetic voice that had defined itself thus: “I am the voice of one crying in the desert. Make straight the way of the Lord!” (Jn 1,23).

Vatican City, 3 May 2018

The cover of MACHAERUS III (Jerusalem – Milan – Mount Nebo, 2019)

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