Jewish kings at Jericho

The late archeologist Ehud Netzer excavated the West Bank city’s Hasmonean and Herodian winter palaces until Israeli access was no longer possible.

Jericho.Cypros 521 (photo credit: From the book)
Jericho.Cypros 521
(photo credit: From the book)
The Hasmoneans and King Herod knew how to enjoy themselves far from the tumult of Jerusalem and yet to stay close enough to the city in case of an emergency. They found at Jericho a temperate winter climate and plenty of water, and they spared no effort to live comfortably there.
The late Jerusalem-born architect and archeologist Prof. Ehud Netzer (1934- 2010), who discovered Herod’s tomb at Herodion in 2007, was excavating at Jericho at the same time. This final volume, Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho: The Finds from Jericho and Cypros – the fifth in a series on these excavations – is dedicated in his name, since it could not have been published without his support and extensive knowledge.
The intensive excavations of Jericho’s Hasmonean and Herodian winter palaces – which included the earliest synagogue found in Israel to date, as well as the large farmstead serving the palaces, the water works and pools, the industrial area for production of balsam and date wine, and the discovery of unique Roman-style gardens with sunken flowerpots and Ionic Peristyle courtyards – started in 1973 and lasted until 1987. They resumed in late 1990 and continued until 2000, at which point Israeli access was no longer possible as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Netzer used the writings of Josephus as his guidebook. He named the ruins of one palace after John Hyrcanus (134-108 BCE), and the palace fortress on Cypros Hill after Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE). The twin palaces that Queen Shlomzion Alexandra (76-67 BCE) built, he named for her sons, Hyrcanus II – whom Herod’s servants drowned in 49 BCE at the age of 18 while he was cooling himself in Jericho’s fishpond – and Aristobulus II, who was killed in 30 BCE. Both were murdered because their very existence was a challenge to Herod, who with Roman assistance became the king of Judea in 37 BCE.
Herod’s first palace was constructed at a time when Hasmoneans were still his next-door neighbors. The second one was built following an earthquake in 31 BCE.
Local and Italian artisans constructed the third palace in 15 BCE using an innovative Roman building technique. Herod apparently leased the land from Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, who had received Jericho as a gift from Mark Anthony. Herod died in 4 BCE, and a Roman governor took over the palaces.
The remains of the palaces and their surroundings were well-suited to Netzer’s grasp of architecture, for it enabled him to reconstruct their past features. Fortunately there were few new buildings over the site, leaving untouched the broken – but still significant – sunken, tiled floors.
The artifacts were stored at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where a staff of scholars processed and analyzed them.
Netzer hoped that one day a park would be erected at the site, but his untimely death and the Israeli withdrawal from Jericho cut these efforts short.
Eventually Netzer extended his excavations to additional sites in the Jericho area. He had thus rescued other archeological sites from destruction and contributed to our better understanding of the defenses of the entire Jericho oasis, one of the earliest human settlements in history.
The present volume, edited by Rachel Bar-Nathan and Judith Gartner, contains contributions from 15 scholars.
The well-listed artifacts include ceramics, pottery, gemstones, coins, stone and metal implements, architectural decorations, military equipment, and Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic inscriptions.
Bar-Nathan and Kathryn Gleason describe the well-irrigated royal gardens, which were impressively tended in the desert environment. To save water, Herod, in the prevailing Roman style, buried ceramic planting pots in the dry soil so that only their tops were visible; the earth around the pots would thereby remain dry, while the pots themselves would be filled with water.
The finds from the Cypros Palace fortress were relatively meager, but combined with those of Jericho they presented a more comprehensive picture of the Hasmonean and Herodian material culture.
The palaces had pools and a steam bath similar to that found at Masada. What was remarkable were the tiles on the floor of the caldarium (steam room) supported by little columns (suspensura). The local and imported tiles were laid in certain geometrical designs, just like at baths in Greece and Rome. Wealthy Jews, like other residents of the Roman Mediterranean, were quite enthusiastic about the benefit of such baths.
Frankie Snyder and Assaf Avraham describe in detail the opus sectile (cut work) floor in a caldarium of the palatial fortress at Cypros. Such tiled floors were considered more prestigious than regular mosaic floors. There were two Roman-style bathhouse complexes at Cypros, and the crowning glory of one was the polychromatic opus sectile floor of the caldarium and entranceway. Herod used building materials that were native to the locality and rarely imported marble. The colorful tiles for opus sectile floors were the only exception.
A long list of the members of the field staff who participated in the expeditions, the team that recorded the finds and conducted the initial study during the excavations, those who reexamined and assembled the artifacts for preservation, and all those who participated in the publication of this well-printed and -bound volume deserve our thanks. They preserved for us an illuminating testimony from our remote past.