Monumental enough for Herod the Great?

The Israel Museum’s exhibit on the life and legacy of the controversial king opens this week.

Herod370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Shmuel Browns)
(photo credit: Courtesy of Shmuel Browns)
From 37 BCE until his grisly demise in 4 BCE, Herod the Great ruled over Judea.
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 era.
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.
Jewish 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 tomb.
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.
The 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 1972.
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 Jewish annotations.
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 Herod’s family.
Based on fragments, Netzer drew on his familiarity with Herod’s oeuvre and his expertise as an architect and archaeologist to imagine the mausoleum.
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.
A Nabatean 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 guests.
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.
Fulfilling Netzer’s 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 at