Eight miles south of Jerusalem, where the last stunted olive trees and stony cornfields fade into the naked badlands of the Judaean desert, a hill rises abruptly, a steep cone sliced off at the top like a small volcano. This is Herodium, one of the grand architectural creations of Herod the Great, King of Judaea, who raised a low knoll into a towering memorial of snowy stonework and surrounded it with pleasure palaces, splashing pools, and terraced gardens. An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew’s Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became an image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew’s account. But children he certainly slew, including three of his own sons, along with his wife, his mother-in-law, and numerous other members of his court. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination.
That’s right, Herod is a misunderstood monarch, a kindly ole soul really, much like Santa Claus. Every holiday season – whether you believe that this is an actual holiday or not – National Geographic and other institutes of higher learner, such as the Discovery Channel, barrage us with anti-biblical accounts and understanding. I am waiting the big one – detailing that there never was a certain Jesus. This one portrays Herod as somewhat misunderstood and wrongfully attacked by the Jews and Christians.
Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer has spent the past half century searching for the real Herod, as he is portrayed not in words but in stone. He has excavated many of Herod’s major building sites throughout the Holy Land, exploring the palaces where the king lived, the fortresses where he fought, the landscapes where he felt most at home. Of Herod’s many imaginative building projects, Herodium was the only one that bore his name, and was perhaps the closest to his heart. It was here, at the end of his daring and bloodstained career, that he was laid to rest in a noble mausoleum.
The precise location of Herod’s tomb remained a mystery for nearly two millennia, until April 2007, when Netzer and his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem unearthed it on the upper slopes of Herodium. The discovery provided new insights into one of the most enigmatic minds of the ancient world—and fresh evidence of the hatred that Herod excited among his contemporaries. It also became a political incident, with Palestinians arguing that the artifacts at the site belonged to them, and Jewish settlers saying that the tomb’s presence strengthened their claim to the West Bank. To Netzer, whose work at various Herodian sites has for decades been interrupted by war, invasion, and uprisings, the controversy was hardly surprising. In the Holy Land, archaeology can be as political as kingship.
Herod was born in 73 B.C. and grew up in Judaea, a kingdom in the heart of ancient Palestine that was torn by civil war and caught between powerful enemies. The Hasmonaean monarchy that had ruled Judaea for 70 years was split by a vicious fight for the throne between two princely brothers, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The kingdom was in turn caught in a larger geopolitical struggle between the Roman legions to the north and west, and the Parthians, historic enemies of Rome, to the east. Herod’s father, the chief adviser to Hyrcanus and a gifted general, threw in his lot with the Romans, who banished Aristobulus and made Hyrcanus king of Judaea.
From boyhood, Herod saw the benefits of entente with the Roman overlords—a stance that has long been judged a betrayal of the Jewish people—and it was the Romans who would eventually make Herod king. Throughout his career he strove to reconcile their demands with those of his Jewish subjects, who jealously guarded their political and religious independence. Maintaining this delicate balance was all the more difficult because of Herod’s background; his mother was an ethnic Arab, and his father was an Edomite, and though Herod was raised as a Jew, he lacked the social status of the powerful old families in Jerusalem who were eligible to serve as high priest, as the Hasmonaean kings had traditionally done. Many of his subjects considered Herod an outsider—a “half Jew,” as his early biographer, the Jewish soldier and aristocrat Flavius Josephus later wrote—and continued to fight for a Hasmonaean theocracy. In 43 B.C., Herod’s father was poisoned by a Hasmonaean agent. Three years later, when the Parthians suddenly invaded Judaea, a rival Hasmonaean faction allied themselves with the invaders, deposed and mutilated Hyrcanus, and turned on Herod.
In this moment of crisis, Herod looked to the Romans for help. He fled Jerusalem with his family under cover of darkness, and after defeating the Parthians and their Jewish allies in a desperate battle at the site where he would later build Herodium, he traveled on to Rome, where the senate, remembering his unswerving loyalty, named him King of Judaea. He walked out of the senate building arm in arm with the two most powerful men in the Roman world: Mark Antony, the soldier and orator who ruled the Roman east, and Octavian, the young patrician who ruled the west, and who, nine years later, would defeat Antony and assume command of the entire empire, subsequently taking the title “Augustus.” Then, in an act that symbolized the many accommodations he would have to make to keep his slippery grip on power, Herod led the procession up the Capitoline Hill to the Temple of Jove, Rome’s most sacred shrine, and there the King of Judaea offered sacrifice to the gods of pagan Rome.
Now Herod had his kingdom, but he still had to conquer it, which took three years of hard fighting. Finally, in 37 B.C., he captured Jerusalem, and Judaea was his—at least politically. To bolster his social and religious authority, he divorced his first wife, Doris, and married Mariamne, a Hasmonaean princess. But the Hasmonaean threat remained. Two years later, at Passover, Mariamne’s teenage brother, the high priest in the Second Temple, received a warm ovation from the crowds of worshippers; Herod, fearing that the young man might one day usurp his throne, had him drowned in a swimming pool in his palace in Jericho.
The Hasmonaeans were not his only concern. From 42 to 31 B.C., while Mark Antony ruled the Roman east, Herod remained his staunch friend and ally, despite the ambitions of Antony’s beautiful Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, who persuaded her love-struck husband to carve out choice portions of Herod’s kingdom for her, and even tried to seduce Herod. (He declined her advances.) In 31 B.C., the political landscape was transformed by the Battle of Actium, during which Octavian crushed the combined armies of Antony and Cleopatra and became the first emperor of Rome. Herod, knowing that Octavian would take a dim view of his long-standing friendship with Antony, rushed to the island of Rhodes to meet the emperor and presented himself without his crown, but with all of his kingly dignity. Instead of downplaying his devotion to Antony, he underscored it and promised to serve his new master, Octavian, with the same loyalty in the future. Octavian was so impressed by Herod’s frankness and poise that he confirmed him as King of Judaea, and later added other territories to his realm, saying that Herod’s megalopsychia—his greatness of spirit—was too large to fit a small kingdom like Judaea.
In the two decades of economic prosperity and relative peace that followed, Herod made his court a hotbed of Hellenistic and Roman culture, gathering around him some of the leading scholars, poets, sculptors, painters, and architects of the east and west. He gave with kingly generosity, to his own subjects in times of famine and natural disaster, and far beyond the boundaries of his kingdom, in Greece and Asia Minor. (The citizens of Olympia were so grateful for his lavish donations that they elected him agonothete, or president, of the Olympic Games.) And he undertook building projects of remarkable scope, ambition, and creativity. Since the north coast of Judaea lacked a natural deepwater harbor, he built one from scratch at Caesarea, using an innovative building technique to make an enormous breakwater from massive blocks of hydraulic concrete. Herod’s Northern Palace at Masada cascades breathtakingly down a cliff face on three narrow terraces, creating an airy and luminous residence that was also a virtually impregnable fortress. In rebuilding the Second Temple, Herod used gargantuan foundation stones, some over 40 feet long and weighing 600 tons. What remains of this stonework, the Western Wall, is Judaism’s most sacred place. Upon it rests Islam’s third holiest site, the Dome of the Rock.
The outward grandeur and prosperity of Herod’s reign concealed the increasing turbulence of his private life. Like many Hellenistic rulers of his time, he had a large and fractious family—ten wives and more than a dozen children—whose frequent conspiracies brought out Herod’s cruelty and paranoia. In 29 B.C., in a blaze of jealousy deftly stoked by his sister Salome, he executed his wife Mariamne, though he still loved her deeply, and lived for months afterward in blackest depression, calling her name as if to summon her back from the dead. In his later years he dispatched three of his sons for alleged conspiracies to overthrow him, and redrew his will six times. During his last illness he devised a scheme to plunge the entire kingdom into mourning when he died, ordering his army to imprison a crowd of leading Judaean citizens in the hippodrome in Jericho, and to massacre them when his death was announced. (Fortunately for these well-heeled Judaeans, his command was not carried out.)
Herod’s final illness, like the rest of his career, was larger than life—at least according to Josephus, who lists its symptoms with ill-concealed glee: internal pains and burning sensations, swelling of the feet, convulsions, a ravenous appetite, an ulcerated colon, putrefied and worm-eaten genitals, and very, very bad breath. Generations of scholars have exercised their imaginations trying to identify Herod’s condition, producing diagnoses that include syphilis, diabetes leading to cirrhosis of the liver, and chronic kidney disease complicated by Fournier’s gangrene. Yet in the final analysis, Herod’s most serious disorder may have been a hostile biographer. In fact, the symptoms Josephus mentions were part of a stock repertoire of rank and randy ailments, widely considered signs of God’s wrath, that had already been used for centuries by Greek and Roman historians to drop the curtain on evil rulers.
Yet Josephus’s account of Herod’s funeral procession suggests the respect, even the reverence, that his subjects still felt for him. In Jericho, where Herod died in 4 B.C., his body was placed on a golden bier studded with gemstones and draped in royal purple, with a scepter in his right hand and a gold crown on his head. His numerous family ranged themselves around the bier, together with his army dressed in full battle array and 500 servants and freed slaves carrying spices. Together they escorted Herod 25 long, hot miles southwest, to a cone-shaped hill at the edge of the desert that gleamed with white stonework. Here they laid him to rest.
Two thousand years later, I visited Herodium with Ehud Netzer on a cold, blustery February morning. Netzer is a compact man of 74, with steel gray hair, a slight paunch, a prominent jaw, and thin lips set in a straight line in what could be shyness, taciturnity, or even truculence, though now and then his sternness melts away in a broad smile.
We parked near the foot of the hill, at the edge of a village of cinder block houses belonging to Bedouin of the Taamra people, where a six-foot sign declared that Israeli citizens were forbidden by law to enter. “I used to have dinner and take tea here, in people’s homes,” Netzer said. “Village children would come and play in the excavations. The first intifada in 1987 cooled all that.”
Netzer’s work at Herodium, like his career and his life, has been cadenced by politics, violence, and war. He grew up in Jerusalem, where his house was shelled by Arab forces when they took the eastern part of the city in 1948, shortly before the founding of Israel. Originally trained as an architect, Netzer started taking part in archaeological investigations in the summers while still a student in the 1950s. He continued to practice the two activities side by side, keeping his excavations running by using the business skills developed as an independent architect, raising much of the money for the digs himself, employing students when he couldn’t afford to hire outside help, and ferrying equipment to and from sites in his station wagon, loading four mud-caked wheelbarrows into the back and strapping five more to the roof.
His first encounter with Herod came in 1963, when he began a three-year stint as team architect of the landmark excavations of Masada, the fortified compound built by Herod on a mesa top overlooking the Dead Sea. In 1967, when the Six Day War and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank made a number of Herodian sites accessible to Israeli archaeologists, Netzer began excavating two of the richest of them, at Jericho and Herodium, and later several others. “I encountered so many unique architectural designs and solutions that I gradually came to the conclusion that there was one mind behind them all—that Herod had a profound understanding of architecture and urban planning, and took an active role in the erection of many of his buildings.”
Pulling his hat down low over his eyes against the slicing wind, Netzer led the way off the gravel road into the excavations. For the next several hours we wound our way up the hillside, where goats grazed among clumps of thistle and low green sida plants, and massive ruins recalled the paradise Herod had built on the edge of the desert, like a mirage come true.
Herodium consists of two main sectors: the garden city of Lower Herodium, at the foot of the hill and on its lower slopes—when it was built, it was probably the largest villa complex in the Roman world—and the imposing palace fortress of Upper Herodium on the hilltop, whose massive, five-story East Tower, long in ruins, once dominated the skyline.
“Herodium is a complicated site because it’s set on steep terrain, articulated on many levels, and has a wealth of remains,” Netzer told me as we started up the slope toward the Lower Palace. “It’s a vast puzzle in four dimensions, since time is a dimension too.”
Not far from where we had parked, Netzer showed me the Great Pool, where he began excavating in 1972: a rectangular brickwork basin surrounded by a graceful white colonnade that once contained a swimming pool almost as big as a soccer field. Over the years, he gradually assembled other pieces of the Herodium puzzle, trying and discarding theories about the identity of individual structures until they fit snugly into the overall meaning of the site. On the lower slopes, we walked out on a flat terrace about 100 feet wide and nearly 1,200 feet long that had been cut into the hillside. “At first we thought it was a hippodrome,” he said as we reached the feature. “But eventually we concluded that it was too narrow for the turning radius of racing chariots. So we agreed that it was probably a parade ground, where Herod’s army assembled during his funeral.”
Netzer’s architectural training allowed him to recognize in aerial photographs precise axes of symmetry that linked buildings in Upper and Lower Herodium. One axis ran due north and south through the center of the hilltop fortress and of the Lower Palace on the hillside below; another, at about 30 degrees to the first, bisected both the Eastern Tower and the Great Pool. This meant that Herodium was built according to a comprehensive master plan, which, Netzer believes, Herod himself probably conceived. “Herodium may well have represented the ideal city in Herod’s mind,” he told me, “whose orderliness, palatial buildings, colonnades, and splashing water created an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity that he probably yearned for elsewhere.” All this beauty from a man who killed his wife and sons, tortured courtiers, and spent long months in stammering madness.
When he began to excavate Herodium in 1972, Netzer wasn’t particularly interested in finding Herod’s actual tomb. Yet over the years it became something of an obsession. “We broke our heads on the question of the tomb,” Netzer laughed, using a Hebrew expression. In early 2006, shortly after they had returned to Herodium following the second intifada, he tried a new approach. “I said to myself, We’ve been digging for years in Lower Herodium, and the tomb just isn’t there. Let’s try the hill.” He chose a point high on the slope not far from the East Tower, where his intuition told him that an irregularity in a Herodian wall might signal the presence of an underlying structure.
Netzer and I reached the spot just as a muezzin’s voice rang out from the minaret in the village below, calling the faithful to prayer. A shelf had been cut into the hillside, exposing a 30-foot wall of limestone blocks so clean-edged and luminous that it seemed to have risen, fresh laid, from the rough hillside. Yaakov Kalman and Roi Porath, senior members of the excavation team, had just sat down with some other diggers for a lunch of olives, cashews, small white onions, hummus, and dense, caramelly dates. In the spring of 2007, a few months after starting the dig at the new location, his team began to find beautifully carved fragments of a finely sculpted object in hard pink limestone, one of which bore an ornamental rosette common in funerary art. Porath emailed photos of the fragments to Netzer, who was away from the site at the time, with a tantalizing question: “Maybe a sarcophagus?”
On April 27 the blade of Porath’s pick rang out, hinting at something massive and hard buried below. He gradually laid bare three massive blocks of white limestone called meleke, the Arabic word for “regal.” “From the superior quality of the stone, the fine masonry, the amount of decoration, I immediately saw that it was a major find, part of a large and majestic structure,” Porath said. He telephoned Netzer, who was in the car with his wife, Dvorah. “Ehud was very matter-of-fact during the phone call,” she remembered. “He asked Roi about the stonework, agreed that it was different from anything else they’d found in Herodium. He concluded, ‘OK, I think that’s it.’ But after they hung up, he punched both hands in the air and shouted, ‘Yesh!‘ which means ‘It is!’ That’s a word youngsters use—Ehud never talks like that! I’ve never seen him quite so happy.”
Netzer and his team believe that the monument they gradually unearthed once stood 80 feet high, with a cube-shaped first floor, a cylindrical second floor, and a soaring, high-peaked roof as sharp as a church steeple. Fragments of two other sarcophagi, elegantly carved but of a lesser quality stone, were soon found nearby, as well as a few human bones. By now there was little doubt that Herod’s tomb had at last been discovered.
The condition of the sarcophagi fragments confirm that Herod remained vilified even in death: Hammer marks reveal that the sarcophagi were intentionally destroyed. The one made of pink limestone received particularly savage treatment, and was broken into hundreds of pieces. This damage apparently occurred about 70 years after Herod’s death, when Jewish fighters occupied Herodium during two brief, ill-fated rebellions, called the First and Second Jewish Revolts, against the besieging Romans. “They viewed Herod as a Roman collaborator, a traitor to the faith and political independence of the Jews,” Netzer told me. “They weren’t just looting. This was revenge.”
For three weeks Netzer and his team kept their discovery a secret. “I wanted to have all the facts clear before making the announcement, because I expected the tomb to receive a lot of attention.” He was right. Netzer’s press conference on May 8 triggered a political incident. Shaul Goldstein, a leader of the Gush Etzion settlement south of Jerusalem, told the Israeli army radio that the tomb constituted “new proof of a connection between Gush Etzion and the Jewish people and Jerusalem,” and called for it to be designated a national and religious site.
Conversely, the Palestinian Authority, clearly worried that the presence of the tomb would strengthen Jewish claims to the area, openly questioned whether the tomb belonged to Herod and protested Netzer’s removal of archaeological remains from the site—in the West Bank, and under putative Palestinian control—to Israeli territory. “This is robbery of Palestinian artifacts,” Nabil Khatib, the Palestinian Authority’s director of the Bethlehem district, told the Washington Post.
As if things weren’t complicated enough, the site was soon visited by an ultraorthodox group called Atra Kadisha, which defends Jewish graves against archaeologists and roadbuilders alike. They insisted that Netzer’s team rebury the bones they had found and seal them in place in concrete. Someone familiar with the Herodium excavations, who asked not to be named, told me that while relations with Atra Kadisha had been cordial throughout, the implicit threat remained that they might forcibly halt work at Herodium, as a continuing offense to a Jewish grave: “They could just board some buses, head out there, and shut the site down.” Two thousand years after his death, Herod was still proving a potent political force.
In late afternoon, Netzer and I reached the fortress on the summit of Herodium, its ring of ruined walls forming a crater that accentuated the hill’s volcano-like appearance. The sky had cleared, and the world was sharp-edged under a chill desert sun. Just below us, a hunting peregrine falcon arrowed across the sere fields, while in the distance, three F-16s flew low and loud over the smoky blue haze of the Dead Sea. In the Bedouin village where we had parked, children were playing around a water tank, and two white pickups trawled through the streets, loudspeakers blaring in Arabic, their drivers selling bananas and buying scrap metal. On hilltops to the south and west were the Israeli settlements of Tekoa, Kfar Eldar, and Nokdim, their red-tile roofs and garden plots gathered in neat, defensive ovals, in sharp contrast to the welcoming, sandy sprawl and corrugated metal of the Bedouin towns, whose minarets spiked the hills all around. To the east and the south lay desert: the inhospitable Judaean hills and the bare, blood-red mountains of Moab, just across the border into Jordan. Here, in the midst of nature’s fierce chaos, Herod chose to build the city that would bear his name, and harbor his tomb.
“I’m sure there were times when Herod put his head in his hands and said, ‘What an idiot I was, to say I’d be buried here!’ ” Netzer said. “But he was a hardheaded organizer, with his feet firmly planted on the ground. He made Herodium a beautiful place, but also an immaculately organized community—a city that worked.”
Herod’s vision didn’t long survive him. After his death, Judaea’s prosperity declined. His descendants frittered away the enormous fortune he had left them and squandered the religious and political harmony that he had so carefully fostered. After ten years of ineffectual rule by Herod’s son, the impatient Romans assigned a procurator to govern Judaea directly (in the early 30s A.D., the office was held by Pontius Pilate). To many Jews, the Romans now seemed oppressors and infidels. In the First Jewish Revolt, in the late 60s A.D., the rebels held out tenaciously against the Roman legions at both of Herod’s hilltop fortresses, Herodium and Masada. At Herodium they vandalized Herod’s tomb and reshaped the hilltop: changing his triclinium, a lavish dining room, into a synagogue, and digging two Jewish ritual baths, or mikvahs, into the courtyard. The fighters there eventually surrendered. But at Masada they fought to the end; when defeat seemed inevitable, they reportedly committed suicide rather than become Roman prisoners and slaves. During the Second Jewish Revolt, in the 130s, the two fortresses again became rebel strongholds. At Herodium, they dug a system of tunnels into the hill, which they used to launch surprise attacks on the Romans, and which can still be visited today.
Like Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, Herodium and Masada remain prominent landmarks for modern-day Israelis. Their defiant warriors symbolize a religious idealism and high-minded courage in the face of foreign invaders that, to many Israelis, resonates strongly with their country’s current position in the Middle East. During the holiday of Tishah b’Ab, when Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, some have begun to worship on the Herodium hilltop instead of in Jerusalem. On Masada they hold candlelight vigils and celebrate bar mitzvahs, and officers are inducted into the Israeli army, repeating the fateful phrase, “Masada shall never fall again!”
Yet today, Netzer told me, a growing number of Israelis view the suicidal courage of Masada’s defenders as senseless fanaticism. “Many people say that they should have negotiated with the Romans, not fought blindly to the death.” Perhaps Herod’s entente with the Romans, long considered betrayal, is beginning to seem more like statecraft. The questions raised by his life, concerning independence and collaboration, religious purity and cultural eclecticism, creativity and power, remain vexed and vital to this day.