Herod takes the road

A decades-long excavation at the famed Herodion just south of Jerusalem culminated in archeologist Ehud Netzer’s discovery of Herod’s tomb in 2007. Now, the Israel Museum has launched an exhibition to examine the life and legacy of the controversial king

Herod tomb reconstruction 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Herod tomb reconstruction 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Of all the noteworthy characters who have conquered, ruled or simply traipsed through this oftvisited part of the world over the millennia, there are few more colorful, and possibly none more controversial than Herod the Great.
Herod, a.k.a. King of the Jews, ruled the roost here from 37 BCE to 4 BCE which, by any standards, amounts to a considerable stint. Besides displaying nerves of steel, a tendency to dispense with anyone who got too close for comfort – that includes killing off one of his wives and three of her children – Herod spent much of his 69 long years on Earth putting up some of the most magnificent edifices ever seen in these parts. That certainly comes across in the exhibition about the king and some of his work which opened at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem last week.
While Herod’s monumental projects in Caesarea, Jerusalem and Jericho are well documented, primarily by firstcentury Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, the king’s final resting place remained a mystery for centuries.
Archeologists from all over the world searched for Herod’s tomb and it was eventually found, in 2007, by internationally acclaimed Hebrew University lecturer and archeologist Prof. Ehud Netzer, at Herodion on the edge of the Judean Desert.
Netzer devoted much of his life to Herodian excavations and remains, and finding the tomb capped four decades of intensive, if not feverish, exploratory work. Netzer died in 2010, at the site of his greatest discovery, and the exhibition, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey,” is dedicated to his memory.
The show was curated by David Mevorah and Dr. Silvia Rozenberg, both of whom knew Netzer well and worked alongside him at Herodion.
“This was a very big project,” says Mevorah, referring to all the restoration and other work involved in bringing the finds to the museum and making them presentable to the public. “To tell you the truth, it was a bit of a crazy idea.”
It may have been crazy, but the end result is magnificent. There are exhibits that simply blow you away, by virtue oftheir scale. These include a gargantuan building stone that came from Herod’s ambitious attempt to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and a capacious bathtub from the caldarium, or hot room, of the bathhouse at Cypros, not to mention a reconstruction of the tomb itself.
For Herod it was not just about size, and he evidently had a good grasp of aesthetics, as amply conveyed in the partial reconstruction of the throne room at Jericho, with its richly painted wall panels, and delightful fragments of wall paintings adorned with floral, geometric and naturalistic decorative patterns. We also get some idea of what went into producing the attractive end product, and the display cabinets contain bowls with green, pink, yellow, blue and cinnabar pigments from Herod’s palace at Jericho. That was quite a find.
“The archeologists found bowls with the original pigments at Jericho,” exclaims Mevorah. “That is practically unique anywhere in the world. I think they found something like this at Pompeii, and one other place in the world.
It is an incredible find. These are the actual colors the painters used on the walls there.”
One section of the show is devoted to some of the intricate stonework found at various Herodian digs.
“He used really hard stone but you can see the quality of the finishing is on the highest level,” notes Mevorah.
“Sometimes we are talking about capitals that sat on top of very high pillars, and it would have been very hard to appreciate the artisanship of the work, but Herod was a stickler when it came to aesthetics.”
AS THE title suggests, the theme of the show is based on Herod’s funeral procession from Jericho, where he died, to Herodion where his body was interred.
For Mevorah and his exhibition-producing cohorts, that meant taking the public into the desert, and the show kicks off with two outsize photographs of desolate spots in the Judean Desert.
“Just to find locations, with a 180- degree sweep, with no buildings, took some effort,” says the curator. “We put so much into this exhibition. We wanted to take people into the landscape where Herod died.”
The first display area of the exhibition is the handsome throne room at Jericho. The exhibit hung around for quite a while before it was ready to be shown to the public.
“Ehud [Netzer] and our team starting taking the frescoes off the wall in Jericho in 1981,” explains Mevorah. “If the panels had not been taken off the walls there they would have turned into dust. We stored them here at the museum until now.”
While the throne room is surprisingly (relatively) diminutive, you certainly get a sense of the majestic.
“The colors Herod chose for this room indicate his high status in the Roman world,” Mevorah continues.
“Such colors were only used by very wealthy people. It’s a status symbol.
The red shade, that’s cinnabar, which came from the private quarry of [Emperor] Augustus in Spain. The fact that he gave Herod access to his quarry reflects how close they were.”
While it is a good idea to curry favor with the powers-that-be, sometimes it doesn’t do to put on too much of an ostentatious show of one’s wealth. The curator says that Herod was a wily character.
“He was very careful not to get too flashy. You’ll see his coins in the exhibition – they are bronze and small, and he doesn’t put his head on them.”
Herod practiced Judaism, even though in certain religious quarters he was not accepted as a bona fide member of the Jewish people, and was aware of the sensitivity of, for example, putting his own image on the coins he minted.
“He only used floral and geometric and such-like symbols on his coins,” Mevorah notes. “Mind you, we discovered that he was much more expansive and ostentatious at Herodion, but that was a sort of country club, tucked away from the rest of the country. That’s why he built his palace there, and did all his partying there.”
Herod liked to host visiting Roman dignitaries at Herodion, as well as some of his other palaces, and always made sure that the storerooms were kept well stocked with the finest wines, grain and fruit he could lay his hands on.
Some of the produce he used for his feasting came from this part of the world, but he had no qualms about importing goods whenever the need arose, or the fancy took him. Some of the amphorae – storage jars – in which wine was shipped in from overseas are on display in the exhibition, complete with pottery stoppers.
A time line on the wall as you pass by the reconstructed throne room puts things in chronological perspective, and gives you an idea of what Herod did and when, and sometimes to whom.
“He killed his oldest son only five days before he died himself,” Mevorah notes. “He killed the most beloved of his four wives, and he had 10 children in total. He wasn’t exactly an easygoing person. Josephus and the New Testament depict him as the ultimate villain. If he heard about anyone, any inkling at all about someone who might pose a threat to him, it was off with his head. Herod was paranoid, but people really were out to get him,” laughs Mevorah. “Anyway, his system worked. He lived to the age of 69, which is very good going for those times. Not only that, he ruled for 33 years, and that was a time of peace and prosperity.”
There may have been regional peace, but the man in charge didn’t have too much of an easy time himself. “I don’t think he had one moment of tranquility his entire life,” proffers Mevorah.
“For starters, he built lots of projects at the same time, and they were all gigantic – one bigger than the other. And he was always keeping tabs on the political situation, here and abroad.”
Mevorah says that Herod built monumental projects because he wanted to cement his place in history. The spacious design of the exhibition area fed off the subject’s scale, but it was also for practical purposes.
“We knew we’d get a lot of people coming to the show so we made sure there was plenty of room – so that it doesn’t get too crowded and to enable members of the public to appreciate Herod’s work,” explains Mevorah.
IN ADDITION to the impressive finds, reconstructed and otherwise, Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey uses the latest technology to get the patrons into a Herodian state of mind.
There are several screens dotted along the exhibition route with clips about some of the king’s projects, with aerial swoops across the archeological sites, and cleverly crafted animated supplements that give you a good idea of how things looked 2,000 years ago.
“All the animation was done by a very talented young artist who only finished his studies at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design] a year ago,” says Mevorah. “I think he did a fantastic job.”
While Herod may not have been too laid-back, he certainly made sure he had all the amenities to hand, should he find a quiet moment. The bathtub from Cypros looks definitively designed to enable the king to soak some of his worries away and, according to Mevorah, Herod was largely instrumental in introducing the indigenous population to the benefits of washing.
“Before Herod came along, and brought the Roman bathhouse culture to this part of the world, people here did not wash too frequently. And this was high technology. The fresco paintings, the construction, the stucco work – this is all of the very highest quality.
Herod helped to raise the standards of technology here, the likes of which had never been seen here before.”
While Herod may have gone for broke on all his projects, Mevorah says the king was not reckless.
“He used local labor because the expertise could be found here, and also he didn’t want to splash out money on bringing artisans in from abroad when he could get cheaper labor here. He also quarried the construction stones close to the building site. He was an expert at logistics.”
The king was also pretty good at finding good spots for his palaces and fortresses.
“He was a wizard at finding great locations,” says Mevorah. “I am sure his engineers cursed him all day. But you also get the sense that Herod knew something about engineering himself.”
Herod, apparently, also had green fingers. One of the cabinets contains an assortment of plant pots with holes in the base.
“These were used for gardening. We found them placed in straight lines in the garden. We think he used them to plant trees from which you get balsam [which can be used to produce remedies as well as vinegar].
He took gardening ideas from the Hellenistic style of gardening and ran with them. Using plant pots with holes in a garden is special.”
In addition to taking care of the aesthetics of the exhibition, Mevorah and his team had some pretty stiff logistical challenges to deal with. There is, for instance, an enormous and striking capital atop a concrete pillar.
“We pieced that together from nine fragments,” says Mevorah. “It weighs three tons.”
The restoration of the tomb edifice itself also necessitated some serious constructional deployment.
“We had to put in new foundations beneath this room, to hold the weight of all this,” says the curator.
A screen on the wall near the tomb shows the various stages of the excavations and reflooring work – once again bringing the layman into the thick of what it took to bring Herod’s work to the museum.
The Temple is also front and center in the exhibition.
“That was undoubtedly Herod’s biggest project,” explains Mevorah.
“According to Josephus, he used 10,000 workers for the building work, plus 1,000 kohanim to do the work in places where non-kohanim were not allowed to go. He also did some fundraising for his projects, and he always took care to make sure his donors got a mention – just like today’s donor plaques.”
Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey is as user-friendly as it is visually impressive.
“All our thinking about putting this exhibition together was based on how to simplify things and keep the texts brief and to the point,” says Mevorah.
“It has been such a privilege to have been involved in this show,” says Israel Museum director James Snyder. “We moved 30 tons of material here, and spent three years working on archeological finds, and doing restoration work, and assembling it all so we actually had an archeological narrative which people could understand is such an unusual thing.”
Snyder says the exhibition is, in fact, an extension of Netzer’s original idea for displaying the finds to the public.
“Ehud’s idea was really about Herod’s last journey, from Jericho to Herodion, but our expanded idea was to look at the whole accomplishment so the story wouldn’t be the man, it would be the accomplishment. For New Yorkers it’s like talking about [iconic New York City builder] Robert Moses, but that doesn’t mean anything here. We wanted to show the whole picture [of Herod’s work], which makes it all remarkable.”
Mevorah and Rozenberg also compiled a handsome and hefty tome for the exhibition which, happily, includes some texts penned by Netzer.
“You know, you normally write the introduction to a book at the end, but I am glad I insisted that Ehud write something before the book was finished,” says Mevorah. “This is very much about him and everything he put into finding all these wonderful things.”