Fit for a king

A visit to Herodion National Park in Gush Etzion can be paired with a culinary tour.

Herodion National Park (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Herodion National Park
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
King Herod knew exactly where he wanted to spend eternity: on a mountain in the wilderness where he had won a battle with the Parthian (Iranian) army in 40 BCE. After his victory, Herod fled to Rome, where an impressed Senate crowned him king of Israel. With the help of the Roman army, he took complete control of the country three years later.
Fortunately for the king, when the end came in 4 BCE after a debilitating illness, his son Archelaus carried out his father’s wishes. At the funeral he “omitted nothing of magnificence...there was a bier all of gold, embroidered with precious stones, and a purple bed of various contexture, with the dead body upon it, covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it... the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried.” (Josephus Flavius, Wars of the Jews, I 673). Today Herod’s Herodium is located inside Herodion National Park, just a seven-minute drive on a new road leading from Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood. An astonishing archeological site complete with a labyrinth of cool underground caves, the park recently opened a small visitors’ center with a new production about King Herod and his funeral procession.
Although visitors to Gush Etzion often focus on the central communities like Kfar Etzion, this week’s tour takes in Herodion as part of a trip to the eastern portion. Try to make it on a Friday, for some of the attractions are closed the rest of the week, and you will be able to enjoy a delicious fresh breakfast, visit (and taste the products) at a liqueur plant, walk through a winery built by the artist/owner’s own hands and explore a stunning gallery.
Begin your day with Herodion, and try to get there before it gets hot.
True, on top of the mountain there is a breeze, but the climb up the steps is in the sun and so is much of the site.
You will spot it well before you arrive, for Herod added an artificial hill to a natural mound after he built a summer palace on the very top.
Besides, its cone-like shape makes it impossible to miss: protruding as it does from the desert landscape, it looks very much like a volcano.
Take an unfortunately outdated brochure at the visitors’ center and climb the steps a few dozen meters to the top of the mountain. Although it is a bit strenuous, the climb is not nearly as difficult as that taken by visitors to Herod’s palace 2,000 years ago: they followed a straight line from bottom to top – with only the last third shaded from the sun.
Near the beginning of your ascent you will pass a 1.2-meter-high model of Herod’s tomb, only one-sixth the height of the original. The tomb itself is closed to the public, and will only reopen in a year or so.
Constructed in 23 BCE to commemorate a battle he would never forget, Herodium was intended to be a summer palace, with a wonderful view of Jerusalem, and the Judean Desert to the northwest. But it also provided him with a sanctuary close to Jerusalem if it became necessary to flee. A double wall 63 meters in diameter and seven stories high surrounded what was an exquisite fortified castle with salons, banquet rooms, courtyards and a luxurious bathhouse.
As you are enjoying the view from the top, look down. At the foot of the mountain, which was 758 meters above sea level when completed, Herod added an elaborate palace complex that served as both country club and administrative center. Look for it down below: the large rectangle you see, surrounded by pillars, was once an impressive pool 70 meters long by 45 meters wide and three meters deep.
The complex included houses for his clerks, storehouses, administrative buildings and magnificent gardens.
Look for a structure with a dome, on the left: this was a bathhouse big enough to hold a small indoor pool. Water for both the lower and upper palaces was brought from Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem to the mountain. Other ruins below belonged to a small fifth-century Byzantine settlement that included a good-sized monastery.
Now follow the path down into the heart of the castle. Pillars and decorative capitals will give you an idea of the villa’s opulence. Note the rounded tower, originally seven stories high, and the largest of four in thick, heavy walls that circled the palace. Unique in Israel, the ceiling of the 2,000-year-old bathhouse is the oldest stone dome in Israel.
In 66 CE the Jews revolted against Roman rule in the Land of Israel.
After conquering Herodium, Jewish fighters transformed the largest of the salons into a synagogue – one of only three of this kind in Israel that predate the destruction of the Second Temple. The Romans attacked in 71 and our side lost.
You don’t have to crawl through the underground tunnels that were prepared for action at the beginning of the ill-fated Bar-Kochba Revolt in 132. Apparently meant as headquarters for Shimon Bar-Kochba, who lived nearby in Betar, they are great fun, cool, and lead you to several of Herod’s enormous reservoirs.
On your way back to the entrance you will see a small family theater (for 400 people) built by Herod. A room discovered a couple of years ago, apparently for box seats and full of fabulous frescos, is currently being restored.
Finally, ask to see the lively production about King Herod. At this writing it was only in Hebrew, but the English version should already be in place during your visit.
Park hours: 8-5, last entrance at 4 p.m.. Entrance fee: NIS 27 for adults; NIS 14 for children. Free guided tours in Hebrew every Friday and Saturday at 12 noon; for English tours (at a fee) phone: 057-776-1143.
YOUR NEXT stop of the day can be a light, cheesy meal at the Sde Bar Farm. The farm was founded 16 years ago by Yossi Sade, who at the age of 25 began taking in troubled teens. When his own home got too crowded, he built the farm and, with the help of a professional staff, created a home for these youths at risk. Over the years hundreds of young people at the farm were helped to finish high school, served in the army (many in combat units and even the Air Force) and became productive citizens. So attached are they to the farm, and because they see it as their real home, soldiers inevitably come back to it on weekends. Lately, a few of these former “troubled youths” have begun building houses of their own next to the farm.
Unfortunately, two years ago the Welfare and Social Services Ministry stopped funding the farm, which has had to severely downsize its population and find other means of support.
One of them is a dairy farm on the site that offers visitors scrumptious goat cheese breakfasts.
Situated next to the Big House, the dairy farm is shaded by a pergola and, as it is located high on a hill, enjoys a wonderful cool breeze. The delicious menu is small: choose between a “Canaanite Labane meal,” cheese plate or muesli. All the dairy products – even the muesli – are made from home-produced goat cheese, considered by experts to be far healthier than the kind you get from cows! At the moment, since the dairy is new and not well-known, breakfast is offered on Fridays only (9-4 in the summer) but you can taste and buy products all week long. If you come with a group, even a very small one, ask to speak to Benny Litmann.
Today responsible for everyone at the farm, he was one of the original teens. Before you leave, continue past Sde Bar to the Olive Bar Factory. Turns out that when you produce olive oil the residue is poisonous and cannot be discarded onto any kind of soil. Olive Bar takes this residue and turns it into logs that can be used as firewood .Logs are racked up outside the factory. Be sure and take a whiff!
Dairy Farm phone: 052-525-5710.
NEXT STOP: nearby Tekoa – a mixed secular/religious Zionist community of slightly over 1,000 people. Hundreds of them are former Russian immigrants, many of whom are dancers, sculptors, painters and musicians.
Plans are afoot to turn Tekoa into an artists’ colony, with a center hosting galleries, musical and theatrical performances.
In the meantime, stop in at the next best thing: Vernissage, a stunning gallery created out of the once dirt-filled, grungy basement of her home by one of the original residents: Bella Levin. Designing the gallery around the pillars holding up the house, and other basement-like features, she fashioned an exhibition hall for herself, and Tekoa’s other artists, that is a delight to explore.
Wander around just to see handicrafts that are excitingly different from the usual fare, including painted glass, gorgeous earrings at a reasonable price, sculptures, watercolors and painted boxes – all wonderful gifts.
Open Fridays 10-2, House No. 221, Phone: 050-960-5642 or 050-555-6646.
CONTINUE INTO Tekoa to a winery built by owner Dov Levy-Neumand in the rock next to his home. Once inside, you will be infused with the heady fragrance of organic kosher wine produced from grapes that Levy-Neumand grows himself without pesticides or fertilizer.
Visitors get a tour and an explanation of how the wine is produced.
Unless you are there to buy, there may be a very small fee for tasting the different wines.
You are also invited into Levy- Neumand’s gallery, to view some of his magnificent sculptures.
Phone ahead: (02) 996-4903, 054- 230-7373.
FURTHER WEST, south of Efrat and off Route 3157, two enthusiastic friends run a liqueur factory called Lavie. Produced with two very different markets in mind – ultra- Orthodox Jews and former residents of the Soviet Union – their liqueurs have won international acclaim.
To date, Lavie has come out with nine different labels, among them Caramel, Milk Chocolate, Blackberry, Almond, Honey and the most popular brand: Dark Chocolate Liqueur.
Liqueurs based on figs and coconut are on their way to manufacture as well.
Some day soon owners Asher Ben- Talila and Yoav Gez hope to open a more impressive center for receiving visitors. In the meantime you step almost right into the factory, hear about the liqueurs, get a taste, and then – unique to this enterprise – you can bottle your own liqueur. You don’t even have to buy it to have fun filling the bottle, and watching it get capped, and labeled.
Tour and tasting are free. Open all week, but call ahead: (02) 993-1238.

For any and all information about Gush Etzion, to hire a guide or ask about the Kfar Etzion Field School tours, call Gush Etzion Tourism at (02) 993-3863 Sun.-Thurs.; Friday morning you can contact Nira Yiron at 050-213-7645.

Eat what you pick at the Cherry- Picking Festival, June 15, at Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim in Gush Etzion. Hours: 10-4. Farmers’ Market, special activities for children, and more. Entrance fee NIS 25 (over age 3). Details at (02) 941-0124.

All establishments mentioned are kosher.

A special thank-you to Herodion’s Ilya Burda for a great tour.