Mk 6:17-20 John is imprisoned by Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great, and ‘tetrarch’ (ruler) of Galilee and Peraea) in his fortress at Machaerus in 27AD (see 3 on Map 3) because John has told him that his marriage to Herodias, his half-brother Herod Philip I's estranged wife, is wrong (see Leviticus 20:21).
Herod the Great built a number of magnificent palaces during his thirty-three year reign as the ‘King of the Jews’. In addition to Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, he built strongly defended fortresses at Herodium, 8 miles / 13 km south of Jerusalem, at Machaerus, east of the Jordan Valley, and at Masada, on the south western shore of the Dead Sea (see Map 3).
Decorated wall in Herod's Palace
Herodium was built on the site of Herod’s victory over the Parthians in 40BC. Herod built a huge artificial mound here by slicing the top off a neighbouring hill. He then built a pleasure palace on the well-defended summit, complete with a sauna and bathhouse. When he died in 4BC, Herod was buried in an elaborate tomb just outside the hilltop fortress. Modern visitors can see remains of the dining room and Roman bath within the hilltop citadel, as well as remnants of the swimming pool and stadium in Herod’s summer palace at the base of the mound.
Machaerus was originally built as a hilltop fortress by the Hasmonaean king Alexander Jannaeus in c.90BC, but was re-built by Herod the Great in 30BC to guard his territories east of the River Jordan. Excavated remains of the Herodian palace, including a large courtyard, an elaborate bath and fragments of mosaic can be found on the isolated Jordanian summit that rises over a thousand metres above the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.
Masada was undoubtedly Herod’s masterpiece. Those who climb the 1200 feet / 400 metres to the summit of the isolated peak on which Masada stands (or take the cable car to see the magnificent view out across the Dead Sea) get a good idea of the former glory of Herod’s most dramatically situated palace. Ruins of the palace at Masada include beautifully decorated and colonnaded rooms on three separate terraces, and reconstructed hypocausts where underfloor cavities provided warm air central heating two thousand years ago. Looking out across the desert, visitors can spot the line of aqueducts that brought water to the sixteen huge cisterns (holding 40 million litres of water) beneath the palace. On the northern side is a seige ramp where the Roman army eventually broke through the walls of the fortress in 73AD and brought to an end the Jewish rebellion that had started in 66AD.
Roman seige fort below the summit of Herod's palace at Masada
Other palaces built by Herod the Great included the magnificent winter palace at Tulul Abu el-Alaiq, whose remains can be seen west of Jericho. This incorporated an earlier palace built by the Hasmonean kings John Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus between c.120 and 80BC. Herod’s winter playground – where he died in 4BC – was equipped with swimming pools and a sunken garden, while a hippodrome / theatre for entertainment at nearby Tel es-Samrat was supplied with water by a series of aqueducts constructed along the sides of the Wadi Qilt.