The great builder

The Herod exhibition at the Israel Museum proves that the Judean king simply wouldn’t take impossible for an answer

Curators with the Hulda gate 521 (photo credit: ELIE POSNER/THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Curators with the Hulda gate 521
Herod, king of Judea for 33 years (37 to 4 BCE), and one of the great builders of ancient times, is getting his due at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, with a major exhibition, which opened on February 12.
Surprisingly, this is the first time that such an exhibition has been mounted. While specific Herodian sites have been featured in the past, no thematic overview of Herod’s building achievements has previously been undertaken in Israel or elsewhere. Now, the exhibition’s co-curators, David Mevorah and Silvia Rozenberg, have worked with designers Ido Bruno and Avi Or to transform 900 square meters of open floor space in the renewed museum into a striking, structured route for visitors.
Herod’s projects in the Land of Israel remain a commanding presence. “He was a genius in selecting locations,” Mevorah tells The Jerusalem Report.
In Jerusalem, the Western Wall is part of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount, upon which Herod rebuilt the Second Temple.
His Masada palace fortress tops the list of national park sites in the number of visitors. His other high-perched desert fortresses attract many hikers. He also built a city by the sea, Caesarea – its harbor was a wonder of construction in the ancient world. Were it not for the political situation, his Jericho winter complex would have a lot more visitors too.
“It’s as if the stars have aligned for the realization of this exhibition,” says museum director James Snyder, commenting on the “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” exhibition. Snyder views the display as “both natural and hugely important” for the museum, pointing out that it will stay open for eight months until October 5, longer than customary.
The first of the aligning stars, he explains in an interview with The Report, was the discovery in 2007 of Herod’s tomb, at Herodium, by archaeologist Ehud Netzer, following a decades-long search for the elusive monument. Secondly, he notes, the discovery came just at the time the museum was launching its major renewal, significantly expanding and upgrading its facilities.
Thirdly, Snyder adds, the museum has just the kind of expertise in archeological restoration and in the art of display on which the Herod exhibition is based. It makes “the interpretive material of the restored objects accessible to the visitor,” he says.
Netzer’s discovery was the pivotal point, and the resulting exhibition is a triumph – but it is tinged with sadness. Talks between Netzer and the museum had advanced to onsite preparations at the Herodium complex when the archaeologist fell to his death in October 2010 at the very point where he had unearthed the remains of Herod’s mausoleum. “This exhibition is a tribute to him,” says Mevorah, curator of the Second Temple period at the museum who was closely associated with Netzer.
The exhibition is organized around three themes: Herod’s palaces, his international relations, and the Herodium site. Visitors are ushered into a desert-like space, removed from the humdrum outside, and then into Herod’s throne room from the Jericho palace.
This royal space is the first of the restoration projects that are the heart of the exhibition.
It culminates in the two centerpieces on display – the decorated royal room at the theater that Herod built at Herodium, and the tomb monument itself.
Today, th e Herodium complex is part of a national network of archeological sites and is located a 10-minute drive southeast from the Har Homa neighborhood at Jerusalem’s southern edge. Historically, though, it is associated with a crucial incident in Herod’s tumultuous life. In 40 BCE, before becoming Judea’s all-powerful ruler under Rome, he and his followers fled in the dark of night from the Parthian troops who had invaded Jerusalem, to find shelter at Masada.
Historian Flavius Josephus, the principal source on Herod’s life, wrote that Herod’s flight, together with his mother, Cyprus, almost failed, as her wagon tipped over on a hill not far from the city. She was about to be killed, and the despondent Herod thought about suicide. But he rallied and managed to evade his enemies. This location became profoundly significant for him, and it is there that he later built a superb fortress combined with a summer palace for himself and his court. Named for him, Herodium remains a visible landmark opposite Bethlehem.
Years before his death, Herod had selected this spot to construct a fine mausoleum, 25 meters high, on the smooth artificial slope that still gives Herodium its remarkable cone-like shape today. Mevorah speaks with amazement about the “thousands of tons of earth and gravel” poured down by laborers to form the tightly compressed slope. The tomb must have been seen from a distance for some 70 years, until Jewish fighters seized Herodium during the Great Revolt against Roman rule.
The rebels then vented their anger at Rome’s agent Herod, with unusual intensity.
Netzer described the deliberate smashing of his sarcophagus into smithereens. The tomb was destroyed, and that is why the restoration work has been so crucial in staging the current exhibition at the museum.
Artifacts had to be reassembled and rebuilt with meticulous skill, a task that required no less than three years.
“Practically everything has gone through the hands of our team of restorers,” says cocurator Rozenberg, an expert in classical-era art. “They had an enormous assignment, piecing together an endless number of fragments like a giant puzzle.” An example is the intricate opus sectile floor from Jericho, or the painstaking recreation from tiny pieces of plaster of a fanciful wall painting at Herodium.
Alternately, heavy stones moved from the excavation to the museum had to be reassembled on a reinforced floor to recreate the upper part of Herod’s tomb. “When Netzer made his discovery,” recalls Rozenberg, “he drew the tomb structure the way he thought it had looked. When we actually put the stones together, some adjustments were needed.”
The tomb remained a mystery for decades.
Josephus, devoting much attention to the domineering king, described the spectacular funeral procession moving south from Herod’s Jericho palace, where he died, all the way to Herodium at the edge of the Judean Desert. There, the king had erected in advance the monument to be seen from afar in glorification of his memory. The “Final Journey” in the exhibition’s title refers to the funeral.
But Josephus, who was often specific about locations, wasn’t so with regard to the tomb. Netzer, a professor at the Archeology Institute of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, had been digging in Herodium since the 1970s to locate it, but to no avail. “Thirtyfive years ago,” relates Mevorah, “he came within one meter of the tomb’s podium. But he missed it.”
As a young man, Netzer had graduated from the architecture faculty of the Haifa Technion, then joined Israel’s premier archaeologist at the time, Yigael Yadin, in his renowned Masada excavation. Yadin urged him to obtain a doctorate in archeology in Jerusalem. He did, thus launching a remarkable career in the exploration and interpretation of Herodian sites, particularly Jericho, where he unearthed an astounding royal complex, and Herodium. He became an authority on the Herodian period.
His tenacity finally paid off with the tomb’s dramatic discovery. With an architect’s eye, he concluded that the tomb was actually an imposing three-tier monument. The upper tier is now reconstructed for the exhibition at the museum. The restoration includes four of the seven graceful urns that were used in the tomb as decorations. In its work on the exhibition, Mevorah asserts, the team has brought back into existence a range of objects that were all broken up centuries ago.
In all likelihood, the mini-theater in the prevalent Roman style that Netzer also unearthed at Herodium was built in advance of the visit to Judea in 15 BCE by Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa was second in command to the Roman Emperor Augustus, and precisely the type of imperial personage Herod was eager to impress. Carved into the hillside, the semi-circular 400-seat theater was topped by an unusual royal box, which was actually a large room and overlooked the facility.
In typical style, the room was used to host the king’s privileged guests. The excavating team was amazed by plastered walls painted in the dry technique known as secco. On-site stabilization work was carried out. Later at the museum labs, complex restoration was undertaken from crate loads of fragments. The royal room in the exhibition features an exquisite landscape scene on one of the walls.
Herod was variously described as megalomaniac, cruel, murderous (he had his own wife, Mariamme, and three sons killed), scheming, sycophant (toward his Roman overlords) and more. While admiring his monumental projects, Josephus painted Herod’s character with a dark brush and dwelt upon his sinking into depravity during his illness, as he was nearing death.
The New Testament pinned on him a babykilling campaign, and the Talmud saw in this converted Edomite an agent of the hated Rome.
“He has suffered from poor public relations,” states curator Mevorah. “He was a highly complex personality, and incredibly talented.” As the team working on the exhibition progressed in its task, he adds, so grew their appreciation of what Herod had accomplished.
The museum’s approach to Herod’s reign connects with what Netzer wrote in his book, “The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder.” He pointedly referred to a “time of relative tranquility in the Roman world, when the fruits of Herod’s administrative and economic policies were becoming evident.”
Snyder regards Herod as a “regional ruler” within the broad context of the Roman Empire, able to navigate the ship of state with diplomatic skill over many years. He credits Herod with “creating a climate that enabled the flourishing of Jewish culture” during these years of the Second Temple era.
Archaeological objects from museums abroad were sent to Jerusalem to highlight the international contacts that Herod pursued. He cultivated and manipulated an array of relationships, especially among the Roman elite – the key to his long reign. For example, the head of Livia, wife of Augustus, is shown. And he made sure that expensive products from abroad, the finest wines, were regular features of court life.
Films with graphic animation created for the exhibition assist the viewer in understanding the construction projects on display. Whatever the assessment of Herod’s character, there can be no doubt about his achievements, be it the aqueducts that equaled his Roman model or the famous northern palace on Masada’s steep rock – all proof that this builder wouldn’t take impossible for an answer.