My Word: Of kings and Shakespeare
Contemporary geo-regional politics have an impact on Israel Museum’s monumental exhibition “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey.”
Herodium Photo: Courtesy of Shmuel Browns
"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
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
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.
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
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.
a man feared, respected and detested, who seemed to be able to move
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
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
For Herod, remembered by many Jews as the builder of the Second
Temple, also symbolized the Roman Empire they were rebelling
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.
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
Netzer’s efforts notwithstanding, it is hard to know the full
truth behind Herod’s story. History, like archeology, is not a precise
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
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
According to museum officials, the relics will eventually be
returned to Herodion after proper facilities to house them have been
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
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem