Stormy skies and bloody history

We stepped off the minibus at an inconspicuous road junction high in the flat-topped mountains that rise above the Dead Sea. Wind whipped my hair around and forced us both into our coats, but the air was fresh, and after a couple days of sitting in cars and buses we were eager to stretch our legs, regardless of the weather.

“Mukawir?” I asked the nearest Jordanian, pointing down the road. “Aiwa,” he responded, ‘yes’. And so my boyfriend Ryan and I headed off in that direction, unsure of the distance, but excited to explore another one of Richard’s awesome stories.

Those who have read Richard Halliburton’s books might be wondering, what the heck is Mukawir? That’s not in any of his books. It’s the Arabic word for Machaerus, the ancient fortress that King Herod built, and the site where Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist. Richard made the long, arduous pilgrimage to the site in 1936. Now in 2015 the journey to Mukawir from Jerusalem still takes days to complete despite the two locations being separated by a mere 25 miles as the crow flies. Alas, humans are not as capable as crows, and we are limited by such inventions as national borders.

From the nearest town of consequence, Madaba, the few tourists who visit Mukawir do so by private car. But that sounded too easy, so instead Ryan and I upped the challenge by taking the far more complex and adventurous public bus.

Waiting for the bus to fill up in Madaba.

Waiting for the bus to fill up in Madaba.

Buses in developing countries tend to not leave on a schedule, but rather when they’re full. The bus to Mukawir took nearly an hour to fill, during which time the driver inched the bus forward, revved the engine, and laid on the horn for minutes on end. Of course, the locals know it’s all for show, and that there’s plenty of time for them to sit in the café and drink one more cup of coffee before getting on board.

The bus, when it finally did leave, took us southwest into the mountains that loom above the Dead Sea. It was in those windy hills that the bus let us off, and we found ourselves walking an unknown distance the rest of the way to Mukawir.

The wind had an icy edge to it, hinting at the winter storm due to arrive the next day. Grey clouds hunkered low over the barren landscape, as if they were physically going to push us out of their way. A stray dog howled at us from a dilapidated house, but we saw no other signs of life.

“Rather fitting weather for visiting Mukawir, don’t you think?” I asked Ryan. He glanced up at the heavy clouds and nodded in agreement. Not knowing how far from Mukawir we were, we began to guess which distant hilltop might be home to the ruins. At last, six kilometers later, we came around a corner into a face full of wind and saw the tumbled ruins on a hilltop Ryan had chosen. “See?” he gloated, “I should totally be a king.”

A bit of sunlight hitting Mukawir, Herod's ancient hilltop palace.

A bit of sunlight hitting Mukawir, Herod’s ancient hilltop palace.

“Out there?” I gasped. A more inhospitable location would be hard to find. The hilltop stood alone from the adjacent hills, protected in all directions by steep rocky slopes, and linked to gentler terrain only by a thin ridge. Dozens of black caves stood out against the pale rock, giving the hill a somewhat leprous look.

The site’s guard, clad in gloves and a winter coat, admitted us with a questioning look. Mukawir wasn’t a top tourist destination on a nice day, let alone a day like this, but we were more than happy to have the place to ourselves. We were barely through the gate before we started exploring the caves, wondering aloud which one Richard had spent the night in, and where John the Baptist had been held prisoner.

Up at the ruins proper, the horizon had disappeared into the threatening skies, and an eerie silver light shone on the tumbled stones and columns. Much has been reconstructed since Richard’s day, but still the site is barely more than a pile of rubble—it takes a lot of imagination to bring it alive.

The desolate view toward the Dead Sea from Mukawir.

The desolate view toward the Dead Sea from Mukawir.

Fortunately, Ryan and I have that in spades, and we were soon bringing the past to life. Ryan sat at the far end of what appeared to be a decent sized room in its day, acting the role of imperious King Herod Antipas on his birthday. I sashayed in, channeling my inner teenaged-girl-who-happens-to-be-an-incredible-dancer, and danced a sultry dance to awe the king. It worked, and he told me I could have anything my heart desired. Alas, though I was a phenomenal dancer, I had no will of my own, so I turned to ask my mother, Herodias, what to do.

Herodias was a vile woman. John the Baptist had slighted her by claiming her marriage to Herod was unlawful (Herod had divorced his previous wife in a rather unofficial manner), and she was holding a grudge. John the Baptist was already being held in the palace’s dungeon caves for what he had said, and Herodias saw her opportunity.

“Ask for the head of John the Baptist,” she instructed me. My eyes widened in dismay.

Ashamed and afraid, I approached the king and gave him my request. The king shuddered, but he was true to his word. Under the grey and heavy clouds, Ryan and I watched as John the Baptist, manacled and emaciated, was brought from the dank cave where he’d been held. And there in the very hall where I had just danced for the king, a good man was beheaded.

His head rolled across the stone floor and stopped at my feet. Had his blood splattered these very stones? My stomach lurched. In my mind I saw the executioner retrieve the bloody trophy and place it on a silver platter for Salome to bear to her mother. Herodias smiled a wicked smile, as cold as the wind that was now knifing through my jacket.

All that remains of Herod's ancient fortress at Mukawir.

All that remains of Herod’s ancient fortress at Mukawir.

I shook my head to clear away my imaginings—while following Richard’s credo that “the more imagination one has, the more travel means” I’d developed my imagination to an almost creepy point.

“So what’s the moral of the story?” Ryan asked from across the ruins of Mukawir.

“Easy,” I replied. “If your mother’s one desire is to kill a man, odds are you shouldn’t be taking her advice.”

And with that the wind picked up even more, finally driving us away from the ruins of Herod’s precipitous citadel—a stormy day well-suited to the site’s bloody history.

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  1. Sarah,
    I didn’t want your journey to end without letting you know how much I have enjoyed your blog. Your descriptions and insights are fascinating. You have been on very ancient lands and my soul finds the area full of wonder and many spirits.

  2. You are such a wonderful story teller and writer, thanks for allowing us to experience a glimpse of your adventures through your blog!

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