King Herod Reigns at Israel Museum

An exhibition about the 1st century B.C.E master builder, his life, times and funeral procession, is about to open in Jerusalem.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

A large stone bathtub stands at one end of the hall. It’s easy to imagine princes and maybe even Herod himself bathing in it 2,000 years ago. Beneath the tub are tiles of black and white, laid out symmetrically, their yellowish hues testifying to their age.

The bathtub is part of an exhibit at the Israel Museum entitled “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey.” Museum officials say that the exhibit follows in the footsteps of Herod’s funeral procession: from the winter palace in Jericho, where he died, to the Herodium, where he was buried. This long journey was made 2,017 years ago in the year 4 B.C.E., after a 33-year reign. Two millennia have passed since then, but the stations along Herod’s funeral procession are close, present and fascinating.

James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, describes the exhibit as “the largest archaeological project in the museum’s history.” He says that the museum has never before mounted an exhibit devoted to Herod. While everyone has heard of him, no exhibit of his life and times of this scope and dedication has ever been created, Snyder noted.

The exhibit, which will last for nine months and is spread out over 900 square meters, involved the transport of stones weighing 30 tons to the Israel Museum. The stones were brought from Herod’s palaces in Judea, from the Herodium and from other locations. The building’s foundations had to be strengthened before the exhibit was mounted for fear that it might be too heavy.

The exhibit’s curator, Dudi Mevorach, who provided a comprehensive survey of the exhibit’s mounting several weeks ago, smiled and said, “We admit we made a mistake in taking on a task like this, but we’re enjoying every moment.” His fellow curator, Sylvia Rosenberg, nods in agreement. Both curators are dedicated to this project, which has lasted three years, because of its complexity and also because of the two giants involved. The first is King Herod himself, who ruled Judea during the first century B.C.E. The second is the late archaeologist Professor Ehud Netzer, who not only devoted his life to Herod’s era and to discovering his burial site, but also died at Herodium due to a fall in October 2010.

“Professor Netzer came to us in 2007, right after the big discovery of Herod’s tomb at the Herodium,” Mevorach says, recalling how the project began. “Even then, at that early stage, he said it was important that the museum be involved in the reconstruction and the exhibit. Netzer was involved in the practical preparations for the exhibit. He sketched suggestions, proposed a concept and even wrote the introduction for the catalogue. After he fell near Herod’s tomb he died of his injuries three days later the museum staff continued the preparations for the exhibit, which is now dedicated to Netzer the one who knew Herod best of all.

“We were with him at the site when he fell,” Mevorach recalls. “He prepared sketches and plans, and we took photographs that we still use today. Everything changed after he died, but we kept on without him, in his memory.”

The winter palace in Jericho

Mevorach describes Herod as an enigma. No portrait of him exists, we do not know what he looked like and everyone agrees that he had awful PR. Josephus, the major indeed, almost the only source of information about Herod, emphasized the cruel, megalomaniac side of the monarch, who did not even spare members of his own family, including his sons. A few days before his death, he had his eldest son, Antipater, killed on a whim.

All these things, combined with the fact that he ruled Judea but was of Idumean extraction and his mother was evidently Nabatean, gave Herod a terrible image. But Mevorach says that everyone who has done research on Herod the builder has fallen in love with him. “We fell in love with him, too,” he says. “We all admire his great abilities. His reign consisted of 33 years of peace, development and prosperity.

Our great task is to show visitors the many sides of Herod and to give him back some respect.”

Archaeologist Roi Porat of Hebrew University, a member of the excavation team at the Herodium, worked beside Netzer for six years. No one, he says, can be apathetic about Herod. “He’s such a prominent figure in history that everybody is attracted to him. We, the archaeologists, like it that he was the king who left the most significant traces behind, with no comparison to other kings.”

Mixed feelings on Herod

When I ask Porat whether he, too, is a lover or admirer of Herod, he is silent for a moment. Then he says, “I have a lot of admiration for his abilities in building, organizing and finance. But personally, I don’t connect with prime ministers or leaders, and I don’t think we have to love him or not love him. It’s important to put his insane acts of murder into the context of the Roman rulers, but still understand that for Herod, everything was big and extreme.”

When we stand in the northern palace, one of three enormous palaces on the outskirts of Jericho, we cannot help but be awed by Herod’s abilities. It is a huge compound, and Netzer devoted 20 years of his life to the ongoing excavations there. Today, the site, which is one of the Israeli salients next to Palestinian Authority territory, is badly neglected, though it is under Israel’s responsibility. During the whole morning that we were in the palace, we saw no one else. Several Palestinian children from the nearby houses asked for alms and disappeared among the palace’s desolate rooms. Sections of mosaics, some of them covered in dirt, a labyrinth of walls and torn-up flooring are scattered around us. Rain fell steadily most of the morning, and torrents of water swelled the tributaries that ran into nearby Wadi Kelt (also known as Nahal Prat).

Binyamin Tropper, the guiding coordinator at the Kfar Etzion Field School, who guided me through the entire journey, explained that on a day like this, when the streams are flooding their banks, we can see the real value of the winter palaces. “Herod actually built large palaces on the riverbank here. The water enabled the cultivation of trees and the existence of this beautiful landscape,” said Tropper. The palaces are built on both banks of the stream.

In order to cross the stream, we step cautiously over a suspended stone bridge that is weak and unstable, and threatens to collapse beneath us. Tropper explains where the baths and the pools were; there were many of them in the Jericho palaces. Afterward, during a lull in the rain, he reads us Josephus’s description. “So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years since he had caused Antigonus to be slain, and obtained his kingdom; but thirty-seven years since he had been made king by the Romans. Now as for his fortune, it was prosperous in all other respects, if ever any other man could be so, since, from a private man, he obtained the kingdom, and kept it so long, and left it to his own sons; but still in his domestic affairs he was a most unfortunate man.” (“War of the Jews,” translated by William Whiston).

As I waded unhappily through the deep mud between the palaces on the outskirts of Jericho, I realized that it was impossible to get any farther away from the professional, carefully-mounted exhibition at the Israel Museum. There is a magic about these abandoned palaces and ruins. Unlike Masada, Caesarea or other sites built by Herod that were restored and made into tourist attractions, the state of abandon and neglect of the Jericho palaces tugs at the heart. Sic transit gloria mundi. Here is all that remains of that powerful reign, backed by the great empire.

Here is all that remains of an enormous construction project, most of whose components were brought in glory and splendor from Rome. As the rain fell, everything looked like brown instant coffee powder that in a moment would leave no residue. The fact that even now, 2,000 years after Herod, this part of the country cries out for clear owners who will help it develop, protect it and defend it, makes the impression all the greater. The palaces in Jericho are still a border settlement, distant and cut off from Jerusalem.

In our conversation after visiting Jericho, Porat told me that Netzer had put a great deal of effort into presenting the site to the general public. Porat says the location’s geopolitical context, the fact that it is a salient, makes it more difficult to develop. “I have no doubt that this place has a promising future as a tourist site. It is bound up in the development of tourism in Jericho as a whole. To me, there needs to be Israeli-Palestinian cooperation that will bring visitors and tourists to the site.”

Josephus also described the magnificent funeral procession led by Archelaus, Herod’s successor. “For Archelaus, money was no object. He spent all the kingdom’s wealth on a magnificent burial.” Relatives, armor-bearers and several battalions of well-armed soldiers marched, surrounding the coffin. Hundreds of servants and slaves marched behind them.

There were eight people in our group, which was made up mostly of young, 18-year-old enthusiastic tour guides doing a year of service at the Kfar Etzion Field School. We rode comfortably in cars where hundreds of people had marched on foot about 40 kilometers uphill. A winding road rises along Wadi Kelt toward Jerusalem.

This is a road rich with splendor that passes near the wadi and has dramatic views. The road was in poor condition, but all the signs indicated that it was here that the Roman road had run. All that remained of it now were a few ruins and an aqueduct from a later period. The St. George Monastery, which is high up along the wadi, right next to the mountain, was built only about 400 years after Herod’s funeral procession. Several women covered in colorful scarves, with children scampering beside them, stood at the side of the road, watching the flood of water coming down off the mountain.

Porat explained that the conventional assumption is that the funeral procession passed through Jerusalem, though it may have passed along other routes east of the city. He added that it is reasonable to assume that Herod, who planned the procession’s route before he died, wanted to impress the people of Jerusalem who were not particularly grieved at his death. In light of that, it’s hard to believe that the king relinquished the idea of his procession passing through the city.

On the day we tried to follow the procession route, we skipped the Herodian Quarter and went straight to the Herodium. According to Porat, Herod’s funeral procession went through Bethlehem, which was then a small village. Today we traveled on a different road, and after passing through two army checkpoints (one at the entrance to the city where we enter Route 1 and the other at the city’s exit heading south), we arrived at the Herodium in the pouring rain.

This appears to be the only place to which Herod gave his name. From the years 23 to 15 B.C.E., more than a decade before his death, a combined palace and fortress was constructed here. It contains halls, courtyards and luxurious baths. Several pools were built at the foot of the artificial mountain. The entire compound, on the edge of the desert, was surrounded by splendid gardens.

Herod exhibitCredit: Moshe Gilad
A model of Herod’s mausoleum at the Herodium.Credit: Moshe Gilad