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By Jacqueline Schaalje
Herodion, to the south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills, is one of the top historical and archeological sites of Israel. Like some famous counterparts, we have one person to thank for this, and that is King Herod (ruling from 37-4 BCE), who might be called "the Great" simply on the basis of his architectural achievements.
But Herodion is even unique among his other creations, like the Temple Mount and Second Temple in Jerusalem, the city and harbor of Caesarea, and the fortress at Masada. What's so special about it? Not that Herod built another splendid building. That he did many times. No, the truly unique thing is that Herodion is not built on earlier occupation layers. Before King Herod arrived at Herodion, nobody had ever seen anything special in that location. Literally.
Herodion was built in three years, from 23-20 BCE. With his usual extraordinary megalomania and energetic will-power Herod completely changed the natural landscape in order to elevate his palace to a lofty place. The hill, remindful of a volcano, is visible from a great distance, because it is isolated, and also because it is much higher than the surrounding hill tops. The upper third of the hill has been artificially superimposed. In order to do this he would have had to lower a nearby hill with a third, too!
Scientists have wondered why Herod built the exclusive palace complex, that is located in the desert, whose upper palace has a unique circular design, and which is heavily fortified with impenetrable double walls. It doesn't seem likely that he needed another spa or place to rest and have fun. Because he had those places already in Masada, and his winter palace was in the mild climate of Jericho. He sometimes had to rule somewhat too, so he spent ample time in Jerusalem and Caesarea, where he had suitable residences.
Upper Castle, East Wall and Courtyard
A possible reason to build a fort was because the place needed to be defended. But there is nothing to defend in the near area. Herodion is too far from Jerusalem to be useful on that point. And even though there was a main road to the south passing through Herodion, the need for another fortress was not urgent because the eastern border of Israel was sufficiently defended by the Hasmonean castles that Herod had revamped. Moreover, if the castle was really of strategic value, Roman army camps would have guarded it; but they haven't been found.
From this follows the natural thesis that Herodion must have been erected for another purpose, and many now believe that he built it to die there. This solution comes not just as a deus ex machina, because there are two accounts in the books by Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian, who tells us about Herod's death in Jericho and how his coffin was brought to Herodian.
Artist's Conception of Herodion Reconstruction
Another story in Josephus provides a clue as to what inspired Herod to build on exactly this spot. Josephus tells how Herod in 40 BCE fled the attacking Parthians who had just conquered Syria, and were on their way to Jerusalem. Rather than committing suicide in captivity, like his brother and co-ruler had done, Herod and his family fled south to Masada, with the Parthians on their heels. On their way, at the location of the later Herodion, they had a clash, and Herod came out as the winner. "And after a long time he built a town on that spot in commemoration of his victory, and enhanced it with wonderful palaces... and he called it Herodion after himself " (The Wars of the Jews I, Chapter 13).
There's only one small problem with this thesis, and that is that Herod's tomb has never been found.
With the death of Herod, a long period of stability ended, and trouble began. His son Archeleus succeeded him as King of Judah. Two years later, the Romans banished him and the country came under direct Roman rule. The Jewish rebels, or Zealots, conquered Herodion in 66 CE, during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans. Herodion was eventually conquered back by the Romans, but not by Titus in 70 CE together with the destruction of Jerusalem, but a year later by the new governor Lucilius Bassus.
Lucilius Bassus did not use it and the site was abandoned until the Second Jewish Revolt, when a group of followers of Bar Kochba chose it as a hideout. Three years later, in the year 135, the Romans won that war, and the site was abandoned once again. The Byzantines occupied the site during the 5th to the 7th centuries, and left four churches there. After the Arab conquest, Herodion became quiet again, until fairly recently, when a Bedouin tribe settled the area.
Access is via Gush Etzion, and from Efrat on route 369 to Tekoa, from where the park is signposted. There is also a new road from Jerusalem, which will open shortly, and of which the locals expect a lot of tourism. As yet, the park is sparsely visited because of security incidents, and of the fear of them. Don't visit the site alone, and when you go, make certain to announce your visit to the area in advance to the army. There is an army outpost on the site.
A dirt road leads to the top of the hill. Halfway up the hill, a plaque on the wall of the old ticket office honors the memory of the ticket seller who was murdered by terrorists in 1982. This current dirt road and entrance to the top are not the way Herod and his important guests arrived. Once you are standing on the top of the hill, you will see remains of the eastern stairs. They are too steep and big to climb, but that is no problem because visitors were hauled up by an elevator.
The view over the rolling hills is simply magnificent. On clear days Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Maale Adumim are visible to the north. The nearby settlements are Jewish and Arab, surrounded with pastoral fields, shepherds tending sheep, and spruces of trees.
At the foot of the hill Lower Herodion can be seen, with its pool which was used for swimming or even for sailing small boats. In contrast to the water supply of upper Herodion, the water for the pool did not come from rainwater, but was brought in from Solomon's Pools in Jerusalem which could supply up to 400,000 cubic meters a year, so this means that the water could be refreshed regularly. A few remains of the water channel have been found on the way from Jerusalem to Herodion. The artificial island at the pool's center is thought to have sported 3 floors: a nice place to enjoy the breeze and eat a bite, or just relax.
Swimming Pool with Island in the Middle
Before going down, one passes the east tower. This was the keep that guarded the fortress. It used to be 3 stories high. Under the tower and encircling the whole structure, runs a double wall. This created a circular hallway on each floor, and also open bulwarks on the top. The upper floors had loop-holes in the outer wall.
Roof of Bathing Room
If you follow the wall to the west, you will reach the west tower. It mirrors the east tower, except that it was smaller and is built outside the wall, whereas the east tower protrudes inside. Modern steps lead down into the building. These were created by the archeologists, because the original entrance was through the building. The area under these steps belongs to the private rooms of Herod, and has not been excavated yet.
The empty rectangular space was the courtyard. This would have had a nice garden. The porticoes to the north and south were roofed (the holes of the beams are visible in the wall), and so created a pleasant shaded terrace.
The first room next to the southern portico was the salon. Here Herod received his guests, and threw intimate dinner parties. Josephus tells us that the Roman emperor's representative Agrippa was Herod's guest in Herodion in 15 BCE. The benches to the sides of the walls are not Herod's, but they belong to the later church that was built on this site. But before that, it had served as a synagogue for the Zealots. Its date, of the first century CE, makes it one of the oldest synagogues in Israel.
Salon Which was Converted to Synagogue
The middle section of the private quarters houses the unexcavated bedrooms. Against the north wall is the bathhouse. The entrance is through the large hot room, and then into a small round relaxing room, whose domed roof is the oldest in Israel. The floor has been heightened by filling it with rubble. This is done because the first meter of the wall is covered with frescoes, and they needed to be protected. Actually, one would wish they could be protected in another way, without hiding them from the public.
The bath also includes a cold room and a dressing room. The size and prominence of the bathhouse, which is in the Roman style, shows how Herod adopted the ways and habits of his protectors. Bathing the whole body is not a Jewish custom originally. It was first introduced by the Greeks, but it was frowned on, for instance by the Hasmoneans. During and right after Herod's time things changed. Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Herod, spoke about keeping the body clean, and also his rival Rabbi Shamai agreed to an occasional wash. Whether the rabbis were in favor of wasting hours sitting in the bathhouse, engaging in business and gossip, playing games, is another matter. According to a modern study, an average Roman, or an adept of Rome like Herod, spent 3 hours a day in the bathhouse.
The Cisterns and Tunnels
The central courtyard has a cistern which collected rain water, and which served daily needs. There is a bigger one underground, reached by descending steps from the courtyard. These are not Herodian, because in his time the cistern was only reached from outside. The tunnel that leads to the cistern was cut out by the Zealots, who wanted to ensure their water supply without being seen by outsiders. The followers of Bar Kochba, during the Second Revolt, cut out the second, wider tunnel. Note the round vertical shaft: a bucket could be lowered through this from the courtyard.
The Lower City
On two and a half sides round the pool, and the large garden next to it, are double retaining walls. These used to be colonnaded and roofed and served as a long hall, from which the pool and garden could be appreciated.
The building with a domed roof in the corner of the pool is another bathhouse. Behind it lies the small city of Herodion which is still being excavated as we write this. The current head of excavations, Ehud Netzer, believes that Herod's grave would have been in this area. He bases his idea on the findings of a 350-meter long path that was formerly believed to have been a stadium. But Netzer thinks it is too small for that, and he poses that it was meant for the funeral procession that Herod had planned for his own burial. Behind this boulevard there is another palace.
There are people who are even more precise in their belief that the grave should be in the Lower City, and they point to the Byzantine church, whose round apse is prominent and well preserved. The argument for this is that the Byzantines, being Christians, hated Herod so much because they believe that he almost killed Jesus. Consequently, when the Byzantines arrived at Herodion, so the theory goes, they would have destroyed Herod's grave, and built a church on the spot. So far, there is no proof for this idea.
And so the archeologists and their bulldozering and a team of assistants are digging and plodding on. They say they are looking for a golden coffin, chockfull of precious jewelry (and some old bones). So who knows, and if they do find something, you will soon hear about this on the news...
from the April Passover 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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