There’s no missing the volcano-like blip of the Herodium among the rolling Judean desert hills on the horizon southeast of Jerusalem, which is precisely what its builder had in mind.
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Herod the Great, historians say, was the most greatly reviled and yet most highly praised monarch Judea ever had. At Herodium , which King Herod built shortly after he began ruling Judea in 37 CE and where he was famously buried in 4 BCE, you’ll find yourself literally inside some of the most amazing architecture in the ancient world.
You can reach Herodium National Park, via Route 356 from the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, a distance of about seven kilometers.
The view from the main path to the top of the mountain is fabulous, the first of many jaw-droppers of your visit. As you drive up to the parking area you’ll spot some remains on your left, but it is from the path that you first see how vast the area known as Lower Herodium was.
It consisted of about 150 dunams (37.5 acres) of facilities for fun and games for Herod’s VIP visitors, including a magnificent palace, a pool with a shaded pavilion in the middle, a bathhouse and apartments. (In the later Byzantine period, a village was built here with three churches.) And then there’s Herod’s own private “funeral home” with a grand hall and ritual bath, approached by a 30 meter-wide concourse 350 meters long, apparently built for Herod’s funeral cortege, which was described in elaborate detail by the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
It was there that the site’s indefatigable excavator for nearly four decades, the late Prof. Ehud Netzer, long believed he would find Herod’s very tomb. He finally did unearth it in 2007 – but on the slope high above, en route to the mountain-fortress itself.
On the path you’ll see a recently installed 4-meter high model of that three-story grandiose mausoleum, based on remnants found at the site and similar structures elsewhere in the ancient world. A full-size reconstruction of the tomb in light-weight materials is being planned for the site. However, experts are far from agreeing that such a massive structure is appropriate for the site, and the project has not yet been given final go-ahead by the authorities.
After a roughly 15-minute climb to the mountaintop, you canglimpse the podium on which the mausoleum stood and the monumental staircase that led from it up to the fortress. Nearby are the remains of a small theater (that is, small in Herodian terms – about 400 seats) with a royal chamber at the top row of bleachers.
When you emerge from the tunnels hewn in the belly of the mountain by Jewish rebels decades after Herod’s time, you have a bird's-eye view of the theater (whose intricate wall paintings are at the Israel Museum). In a horrific turn of events, the theater was where Netzer was fatally injured when he accidently fell from above in October 2010.
Sarcophagus marked by hatred
The remains of three sarcophagi were discovered in and around the mausoleum, one of which was so elaborate that Netzer determined it could only have been Herod’s. That sarcophagus was found smashed into hundreds of pieces, apparently by Jewish rebels who took over the fortress and vented their rage against the vile and vicious ruler they saw as Rome’s lackey.
Next, you’ll want to walk around the summit atop the remains of its double, cylindrical walls that originally rose five stories, with a massive tower in each direction. The panorama from here reveals the Judean wilderness to the east, and beyond it, on a clear day, the Dead Sea and the Mountains of Moab. Ruth the Moabite traversed this very landscape on her way to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi.
To the south is ancient Tekoa, hometown of the prophet Amos. The nearby Palestinian village of Tequa and the settlement of Tekoa, which you can also see from here, took the original ancient name. To the north is the road to Hebron.
Now it’s time to walk down into the “crater” of the Herodium mountain-fortress, to see the ruins of the palace, with its colonnaded, landscaped courtyard, reception hall (which the rebels turned into a synagogue) and bathhouse.
Incredibly, archaeologists tell us that the palace was purposely completely covered and the theater dismantled, with hundreds of tons of soil, so that when the tomb was built it would stand out on a gigantic cone that to this day is its landmark.
You’ll end your visit by climbing down into the cisterns Herod dug within the mountain, which were expanded into a network of tunnels by Jewish rebels in the Great Revolt (66–73 CE) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 CE). And finally, you’ll emerge into the sunlight and take the main path down to the exit.
On Fridays and holiday eves, the site closes one hour earlier.