"Brush up your Shakespeare,” goes the old Cole Porter hit from Kiss Me, Kate that I found myself humming lately. It started with the extraordinary discovery of the remains of King Richard III buried very unroyally under a parking lot in Leceister in the British Midlands.

No sooner had I brushed up on the Bard’s version of Richard III, than I had cause to recall another perennial Shakespearean hit, Antony and Cleopatra. The reason was the death and burial of another king, and another historically controversial and complex one at that.

On February 12, a day ahead of its official opening, I participated in a press tour of the Israel Museum’s monumental exhibition “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey.”

This presents approximately 250 archeological finds from the king’s relatively recently uncovered tomb at Herodion, in the Judean desert, among other sites.

Following extensive restoration, the exhibits (on display through October 5) include three sarcophagi from Herod’s tomb and restored frescoes from Herodion, his private bathtub from the palace at Cypros; never-before-seen carved stone elements from the Temple Mount; and an imperial marble basin thought to be a gift from the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Initially a friend and supporter of Marcus Antonius – who as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony double- billed with Cleopatra in the play that took their names – after the defeat of the Roman leader, Herod famously switched allegiances, and instead courted the favor of Augustus.

Herod, who reigned from 37 to 4 BCE, earned his appellation “The Great” both for his incredible feats of construction and for the death and destruction that surrounded him.

Few have left their mark on local history and the landscape in the way that Herod did as the builder of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, whose loss is still mourned today; the fortress-cum-palace complex atop the cliff at Masada (today one of the most-visited sites in the country); the palace, fort and port at Caesarea; and the palace at Jericho.

He was a man feared, respected and detested, who seemed to be able to move mountains.

Israel Museum director James Snyder proudly notes the landmark exhibition – the first of its kind anywhere – gives an idea of his achievements as a regional leader for the Roman Empire, on the one hand, necessarily loyal to the imperial mandate, and on the other hand sensitive to Jewish cultural needs in Second Temple times.

The exhibition gives visitors an idea of Herod’s remarkable building projects (so great that the museum floor had to be reinforced to support even the partial reconstructions, weighing some 30 tons) and his complex diplomatic relations with the Roman emperors and nobility (hence my reciting lines such as “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” as I gazed on the statue of Cleopatra).

Most dramatically, it basically takes museum-goers on a reconstruction of the funeral procession from the beautifully frescoed throne room at his winter palace in Jericho; through Jerusalem; to the colossal, three-tiered mausoleum he built for himself facing the Holy City at the Herodion.

Hearing about the huge efforts of engineering involved in preparing the exhibition, I couldn’t help but wonder, yet again, just how Herod’s workers managed to create such impressive edifices without the assistance of modern technology.

One thing is for sure: Herod had an ego more than commensurate with his achievements. One reason his burial place remained undiscovered for so long was, paradoxically, his order that no building in the area be more prominent. Originally, Herod apparently intended to be buried at the foot of the hill, but later decided on a higher site – hence the monumental staircase that was constructed for his funeral procession.

Archeologist Ehud Netzer labored on finding Herod’s final resting place for some 35 years, starting at the middle level of Herodion in 1972 and finally uncovering the tomb in 2007. In a tragedy that contains its own dramatic twist of fate, in October 2010 Netzer fell from a ledge as he presented his findings to an Israel Museum team whom he had already persuaded to mount an exhibition. He died of his injuries three days later and the show is dedicated in his memory.

Of the three sarcophagi found at the site, the curators believe the one made of a special reddish stone and decorated in an unusual ornate manner was Herod’s. Although it bears no inscription, the fact that it was found deliberately smashed into hundreds of pieces – painstakingly put together for the display – suggests that the Jewish rebels who took over Herodion after Herod’s demise deliberately destroyed the sarcophagus that contained the remains of the ruler they so detested, according to assistant curator Rachel Caine, who guided a group of journalists on the unusual tour.

For Herod, remembered by many Jews as the builder of the Second Temple, also symbolized the Roman Empire they were rebelling against.

Curator Dudi Mevorach describes Herod as an enigma. Similar to the manner in which Richard III suffered terrible PR at the hands – or quill – of Shakespeare, so most of what we know of Herod comes to us courtesy of Roman historian Josephus, a controversial figure in his own right.

Josephus describes the monarch as a cruel megalomaniac, who, like Shakespeare’s Richard, did not even spare members of his own family.

And he has been branded a baby killer by many Christians.

Nonetheless, all those involved in the museum project seem fascinated by his obvious strength, power and abilities.

Netzer’s efforts notwithstanding, it is hard to know the full truth behind Herod’s story. History, like archeology, is not a precise science.

Contemporary geo-regional politics also have an impact on the exhibition. Israeli archeologists, for example, cannot carry out excavations on the Temple Mount.

Although some of the exhibits are stunning – the wall paintings, geometric- patterned floors and a marble basin, for example – some of the more prosaic items also caught my eye. A row of stone plant holders from the Jericho area, fashionable among the Romans, who did not plant directly into the ground, reminded me of the ones that nearly all my friends and acquaintances used to buy on the road to Jericho in the pre-intifada days, when it was safe for Israelis to visit the area, also providing a boost to the local Palestinian economy.

Members of the Palestinian Authority have complained that the work for the exhibition was carried out illegally in areas beyond the 1967 border, although museum director Snyder seems to think this is much ado about nothing. All the archeological digs were carried out according to international conventions and protocols laid down in the interim peace accords, he said.

According to museum officials, the relics will eventually be returned to Herodion after proper facilities to house them have been established.

Unfortunately, as is evident from the exhibits, periods of peace and prosperity in this region were brief.

My dream – not only for a midsummer night – is that one day visitors from all around the region will be among the thousands enjoying a day at the museum.

In Richard II, Shakespeare says, “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” but I prefer his sentiment: “All’s well that ends well.”

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

liat@jpost.com

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