Martyrdom of John the Baptist returns to Mukawir castle in performance

Performers and officials gather after the event on October 9, 2022. (Photos: Matthew Petti/Jordan News)
In the first century AD, John the Baptist became the first and only prophet to be martyred because of a dance performance. On Sunday evening, Lebanese performers reenacted that fateful day and sang in honor of the prophet’s message at Mukawir, a historic castle in Madaba where John spent his last days.اضافة اعلان

The performance was put on by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in collaboration with a visiting Lebanese performance troupe and local youth, including a Boy Scouts chapter. Father Joseph Soueid, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Maronite Church in Jordan, composed the music.

Catholic Scouts perform the bagpipes alongside MC Rula Samain at a ceremony honoring John the Baptist in Mukawir, Madaba, on October 9, 2022.

“Here in Mukawir, like in every corner of this good country, a glorious history is being told, in a place that has been home to various civilizations, that has stood the test of time,” said MC Rula Samain. “We are meant to gather here to remind the world that the beginning was here, that we are here, and that we have never relinquished the values and virtues of our ancestors.”

Samain referenced Jordan as an important place in the lives of both John and Jesus, who preached “peace, goodness, and affection among creation”.

Tourism Minister Nayef Al-Fayez similarly emphasized John’s role within multiple religions: “For both of us, Muslims and Christians, (John’s life) is a message uniting us together in Jordan”.

John, known as Yahya ibn Zakaria in the Islamic tradition, was a religious preacher who lived two thousand years ago. He famously baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, then ran afoul of the authorities by preaching against King Herod of Jerusalem.

Performers carrying torches march towards the stage during a song honoring His Majesty King Abdullah at a ceremony in Mukawir, Madaba, on October 9, 2022. 

Herod had left his wife to pursue his brother’s ex-wife Herodias, a relationship that John considered highly sinful. Herodias and her daughter Salomé tried to silence John once and for all during Herod’s birthday celebration, held at Mukawir, then known as Machaerus.

Salomé put on a dance show, and Herod was so pleased with his birthday present that he promised his stepdaughter anything she wanted, “up to half of my kingdom”. Urged on by her mother, Salomé asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Herod obliged, executing the prophet.

These events are confirmed by both the Bible and the writings of Flavius Iosephus, a Roman Jewish historian from the time. The Qur’an also speaks highly of John, and his head is said to be buried in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus.

Performers carrying torches gather onstage during a song honoring His Majesty King Abdullah at a ceremony in Madaba on October 9, 2022.

A few years after his infamous birthday party, Herod was overthrown by his nephew in a conspiracy with the Roman emperor Caligula. In 72 AD, Machaerus was destroyed by Roman forces. The castle remained in ruins until it was excavated by Christian scholars in the 1960s and 1970s.

Last year, archaeologist Győző Vörös claimed to have discovered the exact dance floor at Mukawir where Salomé was handed John’s head.

Sunday’s performance was held on a rocky outcropping overlooking the castle. The hills rolled downwards towards the Jordan Valley, and the mountains of the West Bank loomed in the background. The horizon lit up in hues of pink as the sun set over the Dead Sea.

The show began with a performance by the Catholic Scouts, who marched down the aisle with drums and bagpipes.

Lebanese performers sing and dance at a ceremony honoring John the Baptist in Mukawir, Madaba on  October 9, 2022..

Soueid introduced a song he wrote in honor of His Majesty King Abdullah, praising the Jordanian monarchy for championing moderation and helping the Kingdom’s neighbors. During the song, another procession carrying torches walked down the aisle. They joined local youth waving Jordanian flags on stage.

Then it was time for the reenactment.

Dancers in historical costumes acted out key parts of John’s story. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the sky appeared to turn orange with anger, while the actor playing Herod sang about his rage over John’s preaching.

“Herod vowed to silence ‘the voice that crieth in the wilderness’, but feared people’s anger,” Samain narrated, referring to one of the prophet’s titles in the Bible.

Other scenes depicted life in Herod’s royal court and the admiration Jesus’ disciples showed for John’s message.

In a rousing climax, the actress playing Salomé pranced across the stage as guards brought out a platter covered in a purple cloth.

“Thank you, Herod, for being such a cruel man, and thank you, Salomé, for what you did. Because in a way, without it we would not be here today celebrating such a great man, a great prophet, a great intercessor,” Soueid said.

Actors playing Jesus and his disciples act during a ceremony honoring John the Baptist in Mukawir, Madaba, on October 9, 2022.

Afterwards, the singers and dancers gave performances about the need for peace in the world, the importance of trusting in God, and the role that all people can play in carrying out the prophetic message.

Before the event, Soueid, who is originally from Lebanon, told Jordan News that he wanted to both “serve the Kingdom and its message” and take advantage of the “holiness of its land”, which led him to plan the performance with the help of Member of Parliament Majdi Al Yaqoub and other history enthusiasts.

“The goal was to revive the heritage of the ancient and unique village of Mukawir,” Yaquob explained.

Alongside Mount Nebo, the Mukawir castle is one of Madaba’s main Christian pilgrimage sites, he said.

He said that Madaba would host a “Jordanian edition” of the performance in the future and continue to develop Mukawir as a tourist destination.

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