Herod the Great, a man renowned for his indiscriminate brutality, definitely had a taste for grand settings. How else can you explain his fortress-cum-palace of Mukawir? You can see the allure, commit some random acts of barbarity, behead a few people who have displeased you, and then calm your fury by drinking in the view across the Dead Sea. Lovely.
Herod is after all the man who ordered the massacre of all male infants in the Bethlehem region because a prophesy foretold the birth of ‘the King of the Jews’…as Jesus was once known. To be honest, I don’t think it took much to push Herod into homicidal acts.
He has been variously described as “a madman who murdered his own family”, and as someone “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition”. Today he’d be a reality TV star or Donald Trump. When he wasn’t ordering infanticide or widespread bloodletting throughout Judea, he was building things. This included the Second Temple in Jerusalem and also the fortress of Mukawir.
Extreme violence was clearly transmitted through the male line in Herod’s family, because the next inhabitant of Mukawir was his son, Herod Antipas. It was at Mukawir that the junior Herod is credited with ordering the beheading of John the Baptist. He did so at the request of Salome, who had beguiled him with an erotic dance.
This is where it gets messy. Salome was the daughter of Herod Antipas’ second wife, Herodias. Salome’s father was Herod Antipas’ brother Herod II, and she was therefore dancing erotically for her uncle. John the Baptist, who had a point, condemned the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias as incestuous. As well as having a fundamental lack of imagination when naming people, Herodias was also Herod Antipas’ niece.
Anyway, amidst this traditional family setting, Salome demanded John the Baptist’s head as reward for her dancing. Herod Antipas succumbed to his niece’s whim and ordered the execution in a cave reputed to be built into the hillside below Mukawir. They knew how to have fun in Biblical times.
Mukawir is a haunting, atmospheric place. Not much remains of Herod the Great’s fortress but what is left makes an impression. The building sits on top of a conical-shaped hill with spectacular views over the Dead Sea to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. You can see Jerusalem on a clear day.
It wasn’t a clear day. In fact I had the extraordinary pleasure of watching an enormous storm taking place over the West Bank and Dead Sea. The peals of thunder rolled around the hills, lightning illuminated the storm clouds and sheets of rain were falling over the hills of ancient Judea. It was a dramatic sight, not unlike the climatic scene in Raiders of the Ark.
As I stood watching the terrible beauty of the storm unfold before me, I realised the wind was blowing it my way. I could actually see the rain travelling across the Dead Sea…towards me. I calculated that if I didn’t move soon I was going to end up exposed on a Jordanian hillside during a storm. At best I was going to get very wet.
I retreated to find shelter and watched as the storm hit Mukawir. Given its history, it seemed appropriate.