Not far from Jerusalem lies Herodium, a palace/fortress on the top of a man-made mountain with a view all the way to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. It is one of my favorite places and I guide there often.
Herodium is unique among sites like Masada, Jericho and desert fortresses that Herod inherited from the Hasmonean rulers – it was an entire palace complex originally built by Herod in the desert. It is the only site to bear his name and where, according to Josephus, Herod decided he would be buried.
So they went eight furlongs to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried. And thus did Herod end his life.
– Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
Many tours of Herodium take you straight to the archaeological park skipping the area of Lower Herodium that was excavated by Prof. Ehud Netzer ז”ל in the 1970s. For 35 years Netzer searched for Herod’s tomb at Herodium and found a Roman bath house, ritual baths, a large swimming pool and reservoir, aqueduct and even two churches from the Byzantine period. Netzer uncovered the ruins of what he called the Monumental building which he thought might be Herod’s burial place, but he found no evidence of a grave.
But it was only in May 2007 that Netzer announced at a press conference that he had uncovered the base of Herod’s mausoleum halfway up the man-made mountain, on the northeast side facing Jerusalem. The architectural detail and stone work are of very high quality – I found a piece when I worked as a volunteer on the dig. The limestone is a type of limestone called meleke (same root as king) that would have been quarried and brought from some distance away (for example, Zedekiah’s cave, the quarry under the northern wall of the Old City near Damascus gate has meleke limestone).
Netzer, both an architect and archaeologist, and an expert in the Herodian period, has drawn up his reconstruction of the nefesh, a monument 25 meters high, with a cube-shaped first floor, a cylindrical second floor and a soaring, peaked roof and there is a smaller than life-size model at the site.
In the tomb area, pieces of an ornate, pink limestone sarcophagus that had been smashed in antiquity were found – Netzer claims the sarcophagus was King Herod’s. Two intact sarcophagi were also discovered that could belong to members of Herod’s family.
Excavations are continuing and they’ve uncovered a much larger area now. On the other side of the staircase, they found a small Roman theater with a loggia where the King and his guests would have sat and watched performances. The walls of this theater are decorated with paintings. All this will be displayed for the first time to the public beginning this February 12, 2013 at the Israel museum in a special exhibit, Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey. The opportunity to see these artifacts in conjunction with visiting some of the archaeological sites in Israel that showcase Herod the Great’s building projects will give us a key to understanding Herod and life during the Second Temple period and time of Jesus.
About the author
Shmuel Browns is a photographer, writer and licensed tour guide who specializes in tours to archaeological and nature sites in Israel. His knowledge and insights will enable you to uniquely experience this amazing country. Shmuel blogs at http://israeltours.wordpress.com/.