Welcome to Herod’s Palace!

Shula Kopf visits a site that shows the entire story of Jerusalem from the British down to the very bedrock with every period in between.

The Kishle after the excavations. (photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
The Kishle after the excavations.
(photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
THE PLACE to dig into this archaeology story is at the topmost layer, the Kishle prison in Jerusalem, adjacent to the Tower of David.
The year is 1947, and the Kishle, built by the Ottomans, is now a British prison. Shmuel Matza, a 20-year-old member of the Irgun, an underground Zionist paramilitary organization, is arrested by British police on suspicion of hiding an illegal arms cache.
He is thrown into a Kishle cell that smells of urine and sweat and sleeps on lice-ridden rags on the floor with 20 other prisoners, mostly petty thieves. Shafts of light slanting in through small, barred windows barely lift the gloom.
In a show of defiance against the British Mandate he takes the only tool available – his fork – and etches on a wall the symbol of the Irgun: a hand clutching a rifle on a map of greater Israel and the Hebrew words “Only Thus,” meaning that only through armed struggle will a Jewish state be born. With idle time and not completely satisfied with just one graffiti, the young man takes his fork again, this time to an adjacent wall, and carves his name, a Star of David and the sentence “Long live the Hebrew state.”
The kings, crusaders, priests and prophets who left their marks on Jerusalem across the centuries are long gone, but Matza is still alive and remembers his time in the Kishle vividly.
“I wanted to show the British that we are not afraid of them and even in prison we do what we can,” says the spry 88-year old who still works as a litigation attorney in his downtown Jerusalem office. A 15th generation Jerusalemite on this mother’s side, Matza tells The Jerusalem Report the story of his four-day imprisonment and, chuckling, ends with half a quip – “and the rest is history.”
The rest is history, indeed.
During his incarceration, Matza had no idea just how much history was layered beneath the prison’s stone floors, built atop debris that had been accumulating over thousands of years. Recently, archaeologists dug 10 meters deep, slicing through Jerusalem’s turbulent timeline all the way down to the First Temple period in 8 BCE and King Hezekiah. Nor did Matza know that his adolescent graffiti would become a part of such an important archaeological site, which includes the only surviving remnant of King Herod’s palace.
Every ruler worth his salt recognized the strategic importance of the city’s western hill before it slopes down to the Valley of Hinnom and each left traces for posterity. Remnants of a wall dating back to King Hezekiah provide historians with new information about Jerusalem’s western boundaries during the First Temple period. The two-year excavation was completed 14 years ago, but the Kishle opened to the public only in the past few months.
“In this one space, you have the entire story of Jerusalem,” says Amit Re’em, who was the leading archaeologist on the dig. Showing a reporter around the site he can hardly contain his excitement. “After I finished the excavation and I saw everything below me, I said, ‘Oh my God, I have the entire story of Jerusalem from the British down to the very bedrock with every period in between.’ It is a journey through the entire timeline.”
But the most profound discovery is evidence of Herod’s palace.
“We can say with 90 percent certainty, given all the archaeological evidence, the huge foundations and the sewage system uncovered in the Kishle, that there is no other conclusion but to say, ‘Welcome to Herod’s palace,’” Re’em declares to The Report.
THESE BELATED regards from Herod could have implications for the more than one million Christian pilgrims who visit Jerusalem each year. If Herod’s palace stood here, then it is the likely location of the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate and not in the eastern part of the Old City where the Via Dolorosa begins.
This news has already caught the attention of the foreign press.
Rev. David Pileggi, minister of Christ Church, an Anglican congregation across the street from the Tower of David museum, is not surprised by the findings.
“We expected this,” he says, suggesting that the first station of the cross might need to move from the Via Dolorosa to the Tower of David. “Now that they have found archaeological proof, we are saying that here you have the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus. I don’t know if it’s going to become a place of pilgrimage, but it will attract more Christians to visit the tower,” he tells The Report.
Re’em, who today serves as Jerusalem District Archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, treats the subject with caution.
“I’m an archaeologist. I deal with physical evidence,” he says. “Now you are asking me questions about theological interpretation and here we have to be very careful. I can tell you the date and function of these walls.
Carefully, I could point to theological and historical interpretations and, carefully, I can say that maybe Herod’s palace was used by the Roman procurator when he tried Jesus.
In Caesarea, the Roman government sat in Herod’s palace and it’s only logical that they would do the same in Jerusalem. But, you have to be careful.”
For decades, the Kishle stood derelict; first under the Jordanians, and when, in 1967, Israel gained control of the Old City, archaeologists excavated around the Tower of David citadel ignoring the prison. It was only when Eilat Lieber, head of the newly created education department, came up with the idea to convert the abandoned building into a children’s museum that plans were set in motion.
But, first, it was decided to do a salvage dig under the prison floor.
“It was difficult and complicated because the Kishle, built by the Ottomans in 1834, wasn’t strong enough and we had to bring engineers to fortify it,” Lieber tells The Report.
“It was dug out with a spoon and, of course, they found traces of the palace and a hello from Herod.”
Lieber came daily to see what treasures might be discovered and dreamt about it at night.
“I thought we would find silver and gold but, of course, after thousands of years it’s only the stones that remain, but the stones themselves are the story.”
Even when excavations were completed in 2001, the Kishle remained closed, empty other than the birds that fly in through the windows. Lieber had left the Tower of David museum for another job but, upon her return two years ago as director, she raised funds to clean up the site and open the Kishle to the public.
The Kishle is an archaeological dig in the raw, not yet civilized by perfect lighting, ropes and signs in two languages. Sandbags are still stacked throughout. You get a sense that the archaeologists have just put away their trowels and are out for a coffee break.
All that remains of the Turkish prison are bits of rusting metal welded to the ceiling where bars were once attached.
The whole site has been dug down some 10 meters deep and about 50 meters long to reveal the various strata. With an arched, cross-vaulted Ottoman ceiling, it is a cavernous, silent cathedral of ancient stones that had been untouched by daylight for millennia. A small, high window on the distant opposite wall lets in a beam of light that softly lands on the stones recently uncovered, adding to the sense of sanctity. A metal stairway descends from the top to the level of excavations below.
RE’EM HAS had practice in the past few months showing journalists and other visitors around. Even though this is his umpteenth tour, he exudes such energy that one can imagine that he dug out the entire site on his own.
“The story is the stones themselves. They are the treasure,” he says.
We are standing on the stairs at the top peering down to the dig. Using a laser pen, Re’em explains layer by layer.
“You see the plaster pools down there?” he asks. “There were 10 all along the eastern façade of the building. Inside, we found ceramics and coins dating to the Crusader period. We took the plaster and analyzed it chemically and found pigment of red paint. It was, in fact, a factory for dyeing cloth in the Crusader period.”
How can he be so certain? “This is the perfect moment where archaeology shakes hands with historical sources,” Re’em explains. “Benjamin of Tudela [a 12th century Spanish Jew who had traveled in Europe and the Middle East for more than 10 years] visited Jerusalem and he wrote that at the foot of the Crusader king’s palace there were three Jews who owned a business for dyeing clothes.”
We go several layers deeper and here Re’em conjures up another Jewish figure, Josephus Flavius, the 1st century historian who wrote about the Jewish revolt against the Romans and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
“He tells us that south of the three towers built by Herod was Herod’s palace. It was luxurious with gold, silver, expensive furniture and lots of fountains and baths. He writes that the palace rose in its beauty above the Temple Mount. After the destruction in 70 AD, Josephus tells us that the palace was not destroyed and was occupied by the Roman 10th legion.
You are looking at the retaining walls and foundations of Herod’s palace,” Re’em says.
The technique used here to create an artificial platform with a retaining wall is identical to Herod’s other structures – the Temple Mount, Caesarea, Masada and Herodion.
The stones uncovered in the Kishle were foundation stones not meant to be seen by the human eye. Re’em did find several fancier stones, typical of Herodian masonry, but they are second-rate, chipped or cracked, deemed unfit for the palace, he says.
The thought crosses a visitor’s mind that the good stones, mason’s pride, are long gone but the second-rate ones, hidden for 2,000 years, survived.
“He fought Mother Nature, flattening out the hills, changing the topography for his purposes,” says Re’em. “What you see here are the only known remains of Herod’s palace.
We don’t know what happened to the superstructure.
Maybe it was destroyed by the Crusaders, by the Ottomans, or maybe it is still waiting for us archaeologists to reveal if we dig under the police station just next to the Kishle prison.”
Under the retaining wall, Re’em points to the main sewage system of the palace, which directed water toward the west, to the Valley of Hinnom.
“If you read Josephus Flavius’s description, there was a lot of water in the palace, a mikve, fountains, and swimming baths. The high priest, Annas, hid in the tunnels during the big revolt of 70 AD,” he says.
As Re’em speaks, one can almost imagine the high priest crouching below under the cover of darkness.
There is one mystery that Re’em is still trying to unravel. He found traces of a Hasmonean wall at least five meters wide, which means it was higher than Jerusalem’s walls today. Someone razed the wall to the ground and incorporated it into the foundations of the palace.
“Something bizarre happened,” he says Re’em posits two theories – one functional, that the wall stood in the way of Herod’s building plans, and the other political.
“Herod was a strong and cruel ruler. In those days there was no media or Internet.
If a new ruler wants to say to the people that the days of the Hasmonean dynasty are over, he destroys the fortifications that are a symbol of their power and builds new ones,” he explains.
Future plans for the Kishle include building a glass floor over the entire site and melding high-tech to ancient stones, enabling visitors to see three dimensional holograms of the various structures that existed here in ancient times. Undoubtedly there will be perfect lighting, climate control and signs in several languages. In the meantime, sandbags are still strewn about and birds fly at will into the Kishle through the open windows.