Israeli Plan to Rebuild Herod’s Tomb Scrapped Due to Experts' Criticism

The reconstruction of the West Bank monument, which would have set a precedent as the world's first archaeological structure to be fully restored, was championed by a local politician but slammed by archaeologists and academics as ostentatious and populist.

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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A plan to restore the original structure that held King Herod’s tomb at Herodion in the Judean Desert has been scrapped after it came under fire from archaeologists, tour guides and other experts.

The tomb of King Herod was located in 2007 by archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who found its remains on the slopes of the mountain fortress south of Jerusalem.

Netzer died three years later after being injured in a fall at the site. But before his death Netzer used the archaeological findings to create a model of how the magnificent three-story structure may have looked. He also suggested trying to rebuild the mausoleum at the site.

After Shaul Goldstein, the former head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, was named director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the plan was expedited and preparations to restore the tomb began.

The new structure was to be 25 meters high ‏(as high as an eight-story building‏) and made from lightweight materials. The project would have set an international precedent; while partial restorations are common, it is not customary to restore entire structures at archaeological sites.

Goldstein was a big fan of the plan.

“My attitude is that if you can, then you should restore, although you have to leave an opening for the imagination,” Goldstein told Haaretz. “That’s the only way you can begin to understand Herod’s wealth and the intensity of that era. When you show a pile of stones the visitor doesn’t understand what you’re talking about.”

But once word of the plan got out and started to draw criticism, the Parks Authority and the Prime Minister’s Office, which had initiated the project, called a public hearing on the issue. It was held about a month ago, at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, where the plan was subjected to a barrage of criticism. Prof. Amos Kloner, a former Jerusalem district archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the planned “lacked modesty.”

He noted that excavations at the site were still continuing and that assumptions about the structure, very little of which has been found, change constantly in accordance with new findings. It would thus be a mistake to rebuild a structure when experts have no firm idea of its appearance, Kloner said.

Prof. Joseph Patrich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said there was still disagreement about whether what Netzer discovered was actually Herod’s tomb. Tour guides, meanwhile, said they feared that such a huge restoration would dwarf the other archaeological findings at the site and would harm the landscape.

An aerial view of Herodion
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An aerial view of HerodionCredit: Asaf T. / Wikipedia
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Herodion.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Herodion.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

Other experts attending the hearing argued that Christian tourists might be deterred by the “hero worship” of a historical figure such as Herod, who Christians believe tried to kill the baby Jesus.

Prof. David Ohana, a historian from Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, said he opposed any further development of the site, which is in the West Bank.

Following the hearing it was decided to cancel the restoration plan and set up a committee to decide on further development plans for Herodion, also known as Herodium. These will have to wait until the Israel Museum exhibition on Herod closes - and due to its overwhelming popularity, the museum has just extended it to January 2014. The exhibit includes a reconstruction of the first floor of Herod’s tomb, which will likely be part of some future, scaled-down development plan.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said in a statement, “Following the public hearing organized by the authority, new insights were received that will enrich and improve the proposal [to restore the tomb]. The Israel Museum exhibition will close in eight months, and after that the findings will be returned to Herodion and be integrated into the restoration.”

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