Herod was never the most popular guy on the planet. The Roman proxy monarch who was a practicing Jew and ruled the Holy Land for 33 years was a voracious builder, known for massive palaces in the desert, the port at Caesarea and the expansion of the Second Temple complex (the Western Wall is one of the remaining retaining walls of the Temple). He was also accused in the New Testament of murdering his wife and two of his sons, as well as the newborn sons of Bethlehem, in an effort to prevent the much-prophesied birth of Jesus. And while he was a wildly egotistical ruler, seeking ever greater signs of his power and kingship, there are no portraits of him, no stamps or coins bearing his image, no etchings of his face in any of his edifices. Nada.
“He’s notoriously known as the bad guy, but this man was a riddle,” said Dudi Mevorach, the curator of the Herod exhibit opening February 12 at the Israel Museum. “He had terrible press, yet he was a major ruler, a megalomaniac who was very directed in what he wanted to accomplish in life.”
He was also a subject of much fascination for archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who spent much of his professional life searching for Herod’s tomb at Herodium, the ruler’s winter palace in the Judean Desert near Bethlehem. He finally found the grave in 2007, and the discovery was “sensational,” said Mevorach. As the dig continued, they also found a VIP theater room — an ancient sky box, so to speak — and Netzer asked the museum restoration staff to help him out, given the sensitivity of the delicate materials being discovered.
“It was a crazy amount of work,” said Mevorach, and Netzer and the museum began conceiving of an exhibition on Herod’s life, something that had never been done before, anywhere. Then, in 2010, Netzer died of injuries sustained from a tragic fall at Herodium, and the museum decided to push forward with the exhibit.
The scale of the exhibit eclipses the usual painstaking work necessary to produce the average museum show. With some 30 tons of columns, stones and frieze fragments incoming from Herodium, floors needed to be reinforced and ceilings raised at the 900-square-meter exhibition space. The museum attached electronic chips to each hefty stone in order to more easily reconstruct the columns back at the museum.
“This is the most complex archaeological exhibition that we’ve ever done,” said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. “There’s 30 tons of material, and there’s a physical scale of restoration that’s been involved, with the greatest monetary investment we’ve ever made in an exhibition of this kind.”
With a plan to guide visitors through a series of rooms representing Herod’s life, including his mausoleum, bathroom and the VIP theater sky room discovered at Herodium, the museum conservation staff worked for more than two years on reconstructing the frescoes and wall panels, painstakingly piecing together thousands of fragments and chips in a kind of ancient puzzle. It was a tricky process, reconstructing Herod’s work to show it as a whole — requiring tinkering, gluing fragments, guessing paint colors, and imagining the look of rooms that the ruler once lounged in.
“It’s colossal,” added Mevorach, “on the scale of Herod himself. There’s no dishes or jewelry or etchings; it’s all about his architecture and that’s not so simple. We had to create it all, taking thousands of fragments and making them into something. This was a jump from dig to gallery in zero time. It’s on a huge scale, logistically.”
The exhibit, “The Final Journey of King Herod the Great,” opens February 12 and will run through next fall, a longer-than-usual span for an exhibit. The Times of Israel was given the opportunity to follow the final weeks of the exhibit’s curation as restorers put the last touches on the colorful friezes, wall trim, tiled floors, painted wall panels and prodigious columns that made up the rooms of Herod’s life.