A monument both to victory and failure

Sights and Insights: Dr. Wayne Stiles sees the Herodium as a paradoxical monument of a paranoid king.

By WAYNE STILES
December 12, 2011 10:48
4 minute read.
 Herodium bathhouse from above

Herodium bathhouse from above 311 DO NOT REUSE. (photo credit: BiblePlaces.com)

 
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Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.


Resembling a composite between a volcano and a New Mexico mesa, the Herodium dominates the landscape southeast of Bethlehem. Like Mount Tabor in the north, the Herodium has its own inimitable profile. Once you’ve seen it, you recognize it from then on.

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Herod the Great named the Herodium for himself as a memorial to a battle he had won there in 40 BC. Prior to the battle, a severe injury to his mother tempted the erratic Herod to take his own life. Instead, he faced the Parthians and Hasmoneans with fury and achieved a great victory.

Making use of an already-existing hillside, Herod constructed a 200-foot double wall around the top of the hill. This wall towered seven stories high, and fill dirt supported the wall all around—enlarging the appearance of the hill and giving it its unique flattop appearance.

Herodium from Nahal Tekoa (Photo: BiblePlaces.com)The view atop the Herodium allows one to see the towers on the Mount of Olives to the northwest, Bethlehem immediately to the northwest, and the Judean Wilderness as it slopes eastward into the Dead Sea.

The ruins from the Herodium boast a massive round tower, as well as three semicircular towers, a dining room, column fragments, a ritual bath, a furnace, a full-sized Roman bath, frescoes, and black and white mosaics—all typical of Herod’s opulent tastes.

Below the hillside rests the Lower Herodium, with formal ornamental gardens, a pavilion, bathhouse, a large palace, a monumental building, and a colonnaded swimming pool.

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The Herodium served as more than Herod’s summer country club. It was a place of security. Constantly fearing rebellion from his own subjects, the paranoid Herod constructed a series of palaces and fortresses—including the Herodium—to which he could flee in a moment’s notice. His paranoia also urged him to execute anyone he feared was plotting against him—including his wife and several of his own children.  

Herodium from below (Photo: BiblePlaces.comPerhaps because of Herod’s contemplation of suicide in the area decades earlier, he chose the Herodium as his final resting place. Josephus recounts Herod’s excruciating death at the Jericho palace. Dignitaries accompanied the funeral procession partway, and the pallbearers bore the coffin to Herodium (Antiquities 17:199; War 1:673).

For years, skeptics doubted the accuracy of Josephus’ claim that Herod’s tomb lay at the Herodium. Years and years of searching yielded no evidence. Finally in 2007, archaeologist Ehud Netzer discovered Herod’s tomb at the Herodium.

During the Bar-Kohba revolt in AD 132, the Herodium served as the headquarters of the Jewish rebels who transformed the fortress’ cisterns into a system of tunnels in case of Roman attack. The patriots also modified Herod’s dining room into a synagogue similar to those found at Masada and Gamla. In the fifth-century, the site served as a monastery. Christian symbols still are visible in the chapel.

Herodium in distance (Photo: BiblePlaces.com)At this time of year, Herod is best remembered for the Christmas story that never appears on holiday cards. Hearing that the “king of the Jews” was born in Bethlehem, the paranoid Herod sent and slew all the male boys under two years old in Bethlehem—a cryptic fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15. Of course, Jesus’ family got word of the impending threat and escaped by night to sojourn in Egypt until Herod’s death in 4 BC (Matthew 2:13-18).

Whenever I visit the area of the Herodium, I can’t help but think of the historical irony that Herod tried to kill a certain child—but failed. Instead, Herod himself died and was buried overlooking the very city where prophecy declared the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2). 

Herod constructed the Herodium as a memorial to an earlier victory. But to me, the site stands as an ironic monument of an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate a rival. 

What to do there:

Visit the Upper Herodium and see the towers, palace baths, dining room, frescoes, black and white mosaics, and the other ruins the site offers. Find a great panoramic view toward the east, and imagine Herod’s funeral processional making its way toward the Herodium (read Josephus’s account mentioned earlier). Looking out toward Bethlehem, read Matthew’s account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-18).

How to get there:
 
From Jerusalem, take Route 398 south 16 km. You can’t miss it.

Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.

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