Monumental enough for Herod the Great?
The Israel Museum’s exhibit on the life and legacy of the controversial king opens this week.
Herodium Photo: Courtesy of Shmuel Browns
From 37 BCE until his grisly demise in 4 BCE, Herod the Great ruled over
World history has anointed few with the epithet “the Great.” He
masterminded and engineered the Jerusalem Temple – among the most magnificent
temples in the ancient world; the fortress-complex at Masada – the most-visited
site in Israel; Caesarea – in its day, the largest all-weather harbor built in
the open sea; imposing cities, aqueducts and, finally, Herodium – the most
spacious palace known to us in the Greco-Roman world before the common
A giant who moved mountains, Herod was respected, feared and
despised. Reckoning with Herod is indispensable to interpreting the historical
and material landscape of Israel.
Herod’s passion lives on. Herod proved
to be archaeology professor Ehud Netzer’s nemesis.
The Israel Museum
staff have been toiling for three years to present Netzer’s discoveries in the
first exhibition in the world dedicated to Herod.
Commensurate with his
life and work, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is unprecedented in
grandeur and expense. Displayed in 900 square meters, approximately 250
artifacts related to Herod are exhibited, many for the first time. To show even
this tiny sampling of his massive production, Herod fittingly required the
museum to reinforce its very foundations and raise its ceilings.
Roman historian Josephus Flavius records extensive narrative about Herod, nearly
a century after the events. Though he describes in detail Herod’s majestic
funeral procession to Herodium – performed according to Herod’s own orders –
Josephus mysteriously neglects to mention the location of Herod’s
While working on the excavations at Masada in the 1960s, Yigal
Yadin introduced a young architect, Ehud Netzer, to Herod by reading from
Josephus Flavius: A young Herod governs the Galilee in 40 BCE. While imperial
powers are maneuvering for control over Judea, a contest for the kingship
erupts. Herod rushes to Jerusalem to bolster the Rome-backed king.
contender allies with the Parthians and takes Herod’s brother captive. Feeling
endangered, Herod flees from Jerusalem with the rest of his family and adherents
by cover of night, the Parthians in hot pursuit. His mother’s wagon overturns,
endangering her life, and Herod prepares to commit suicide. His supporters
uplift his spirits and help him repel the assailants. Herod conveys his
entourage to Masada and journeys to Rome to solicit help.
In one week, he
secures the support of the Roman Senate to quell the insurgence and is awarded
sovereignty over Judea. Herod vows to commemorate the fateful night at the
desolate crossroads of his life. He builds a palacefortress complex that he
names Herodium, the place he chooses for his own burial.
His interest in
Herod piqued, Netzer began his own excavations at Lower Herodium in
Intent on uncovering Herod’s tomb, he continued to dig for the next
35 years. Herod overcame topographic opposition to his designs with engineering
wit and sheer force. He leveled bedrock, buttressed a sloping mountain and
channeled water from Solomon’s Pools via aqueduct. Herod built a Roman bathhouse
equipped with Jewish ritual baths, a large swimming pool and reservoir,
transforming a barren site into a luxurious oasis of high Roman culture with
Netzer followed his intuition about Herod and began
excavating halfway up the mountain.
Beside the staircase that rises to
the summit, with a clear view to Jerusalem, Netzer unearthed five pink limestone
pieces of an ornate sarcophagus, marred by hammer blows. Based on the excavation
layer, the sarcophagus had been smashed in antiquity by Jewish zealots who
regarded Herod as a Roman puppet-king, Netzer reasoned. He also revealed the
dissembled base of Herod’s mausoleum. In May 2007, Netzer triumphantly announced
that he had found King Herod’s tomb and two sarcophagi belonging to members of
Based on fragments, Netzer drew on his familiarity with
Herod’s oeuvre and his expertise as an architect and archaeologist to imagine
Netzer conceived a colossal three-story monument – 25
meters high. The first level is cube-shaped. The second, a cylinder, is crowned
with a conical roof. The carefully ornamented architecture combines Jewish,
Roman and Nabatean elements representing Herod’s biography.
funerary urn, for example, honors Herod’s Nabatean mother, Cypros. A model of
the mausoleum based on Netzer’s reconstructive drawing is installed at the
entrance to the Herodium park.
Continuing to excavate on the other side
of the staircase, Netzer uncovered an intimate Roman theater with a loggia where
Herod had presided over performances and entertained his royal
From the precarious ledge where Netzer fulfilled his life-long
ambition to unshroud the tomb of Herod the Great, Netzer fell. Overlooking the
course of Herod’s own funeral procession, Netzer’s broken body was borne from
Herodium on a stretcher. He died on October 28, 2010.
request to display his Herodium tomb-area discoveries, on February 12, 2013, the
Israel Museum exhibition in Jerusalem opens. Based on Netzer’s drawings, museum
staff constructed a life-size replica of the top level of Herod’s mausoleum –
from 30 tons of architectural stone pieces, including half-ton columns. Inside
the structure, the three sarcophagi will be on view.
In addition to items
from Herodium, artifacts from Herod’s palaces at Cypros, Masada and Jericho, as
well as exquisite glass period pieces borrowed from New York’s Metropolitan
Museum of Art give a taste of Herod’s refined habits. From the pantry at Herod’s
palace-fortress at Masada, large clay amphorae attest to the luxury and
sophistication of Herod’s palate: apples, honey, fine wine and a savory Roman
fish sauce. One amphora bears an inscription of Herod’s name in Latin and Greek,
“King of the Jews”.
For an in-depth day with Herod – at Herodium and the
Israel Museum and/or tours of Herod's other sites, please contact Shmuel Browns