Machaerus (Israël): Anastylosis Where John the Baptist was Beheaded

Restoration work gives archaeological context to Biblical scene

Megan Sauter

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Who beheaded John the Baptist in the Bible? What were the circumstances of his death? This famous Biblical episode—the notorious dance that ended in death—is recounted in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. The sordid details play out much like a Greek tragedy: Princess Salome dances before her stepfather, King Herod, at his birthday party. Pleased, he offers to grant her anything that she desires. After conferring with her mother, Herodias, Princess Salome asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. (Earlier, John the Baptist had angered Herodias by saying that her marriage to Herod was not legal; Herodias had previously been married to Herod’s brother, Philip, but had divorced him so that she could marry Herod.) Herod complies with the wish of Salome, and John the Baptist is beheaded.

Anastylosis machaerus

The palace-fortress of Machaerus sits on a precipice above the Dead Sea. Machaerus is the location of the New Testament episode featuring Princess Salome and John the Baptist. Photo: Courtesy Győző Vörös

Where did this event take place? Where was John the Baptist beheaded? According to the Jewish historian Josephus, he was beheaded at Herod the Great’s palace-fortress of Machaerus on the east side of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan (Antiquities 18.5,2). Herod had built the fortified palace around 30 B.C. over the ruins of the earlier Hasmonean fortress. In the January/February 2015 issue of BAR, Győző Vörös, the director of the Machaerus Excavations and Surveys, details the restoration work taking place at Machaerus—giving archaeological context to this Biblical scene starring Princess Salome and John the Baptist—in his article Anastylosis at Machaerus.”

Machaerus drawing

Where was John the Baptist beheaded? According to Josephus, he was beheaded at Herod’s palace-fortress of Machaerus. Photo: Courtesy Győző Vörös

Who beheaded John the Baptist? In the Bible, it says that King Herod, or Herod the ruler, beheaded John the Baptist. This was not Herod the Great but his son,Tetrarch Herod Antipas, who governed Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C.–39 A.D. Herod Antipas also infamously played a role in Jesus’ execution (Luke 23:6–12).

The royal courtyard at Machaerus where Salome danced before her stepfather, Herod Antipas, has been partially reconstructed by Vörös and his team from the Hungarian Academy of Arts. The stones where several Biblical figures walked are visible once more. Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herodias, Princess Salome—and perhaps even John the Baptist—had all tread this very floor.

A Doric column in the royal courtyard and an Ionic column in the bathhouse were restored at Machaerus according to the principles of anastylosis. Győző Vörös explains this term in his article: “Anastylosis is a Greek term used by architects and archaeologists to refer to the restoration of an ancient structure using only the original architectural elements to the greatest extent possible. One of the most famous examples of anastylosis is the 19th-century restoration of the Parthenon in Athens.”

At Machaerus, Vörös and his team used only original architectural elements to restore the two columns. Following the international conventions for anastylosis, the researchers reconstructed the columns at their original locations. Visitors to Machaerus are thus able to see the columns as they originally appeared in Herodian times.

Machaerus courtyard

Who beheaded John the Baptist in the Bible? The royal courtyard at Machaerus has been partially reconstructed. It was here that Salome danced before her stepfather, Tetrarch Herod Antipas. Photo: Courtesy Győző Vörös