Located about 5 kilometers from Qumran on an isolated hill at an altitude of 200 meters, the Hyrcania citadel offers visitors a breathtaking view of an endless lunar landscape against the contrasting backdrop of the sky’s deep blue.
The construction of Hyrcania (known today in Arabic as Khirbet al-Mird, or fortress ruins) is commonly attributed to the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus, who is said to have built it toward the end of the second century BCE. However, some sources contend that the fortress was actually constructed under the reign of Hyrcanus’s son, Alexander Jannaeus. Archaeologists have not yet excavated carefully enough to make a conclusive ruling on the proper attribution.
In the years following its construction, the Hyrcania served as one of the treasure houses of Salome Alexandria, the wife of Jannaeus, until it was destroyed by the Romans in 57 BC.
Immediately after taking over the throne in 37 BC, King Herod the Great rebuilt the fortress and began using it as a place to imprison and execute his rivals. Just a few days before his death, in fact, the king sent his last victim to Hyrcania: his own son Antipater, who was then buried there. Archaeologists have since discovered a structure resembling a funerary monument on the site and have begun asking whether it may have marked Antipater’s burial place.
Today, a substantial retaining wall from the Herodian times is clearly visible. Also notable are the remains of the aqueduct system by which the desert fortress channeled rainwater to its cisterns.
At the transition between the fifth and sixth centuries CE, St. Sabbas the Sanctified (also known as Mar Saba) founded a cluster for hermits near the site. This cluster was one of several satellite clusters (also known as larvas) built near to the primary Mar Saba monastery, located 4 kilometers to the southeast. The site was inhabited by monks until the fourteenth century. Between 1923 and 1939, the community aimed to re-establish their presence at the site, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Visitors today will find only empty monastic cells and a chapel from that period that incorporated structures from previous ages. The floor of the chapel’s sacristy is notable for its fine mosaics.