Herod (Wikimedia Commons)

Herod (Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Professor Ehud Netzer sketching a freehand reconstruction of Herod's Mausoleum, taken on the day he fell to his death (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

Professor Ehud Netzer sketching a freehand reconstruction of Herod’s Mausoleum, taken on the day he fell to his death (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

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.

The concept of the exhibit is to portray several stages of Herod's life, based on what is known from his architectural projects, and what has been found in his various palaces. Here, Professor Ehud Netzer and Roi Porat in the many-frescoed VIP room of the theater at Herodium, at the end of the excavation, which has been partially recreated in the Israel Museum exhibit (Courtesy Israel Museum)

The concept of the exhibit is to portray several stages of Herod’s life, based on what is known from his architectural projects, and what has been found in his various palaces. Here, Professor Ehud Netzer and Roi Porat in the many-frescoed VIP room of the theater at Herodium, at the end of the excavation, which has been partially recreated in the Israel Museum exhibit (Courtesy Israel Museum)

“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 execution of the exhibit has required massive planning and logistics, including the transfer of the architectural elements from Herod's mausoleum at Herodium to the Israel Museum (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

The execution of the exhibit has required tremendous planning and logistics, including the transfer of the architectural elements from Herod’s mausoleum at Herodium to the Israel Museum (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

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.

A corner of Herod's mausoleum, showing the electronic chips attached to each stone that helped facilitate the placement of each stone in the column (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A corner of Herod’s mausoleum, showing the electronic chips attached to each stone that helped facilitate the placement of each stone in the column (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“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.”

A look at the reconstructed columns that were moved from Herodium to the museum, and the outer wall of the circular mausoleum (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A look at the reconstructed columns that were moved from Herodium to the museum, and the outer wall of the circular mausoleum (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

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.

David Bigelajzen, head of the Israel Museum's conservation laboratories, restoring a painting of a tromp l'oeil window from Herodium (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

David Bigelajzen, head of the Israel Museum’s conservation laboratories, restoring a painting of a tromp l’oeil window from Herodium (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

“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 hands of Connie Kestenbaum Green, piecing together the stucco trim from Herod's VIP room (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The hands of Connie Kestenbaum Green, piecing together handpainted fragments from Herod’s VIP room (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

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.

The exhibit includes vessels and vases, all used in Herod's palaces, gathered from other museums as well (photo credit: Elie Posner)

The exhibit includes vessels and vases, all used in Herod’s palaces, and borrowed from other museums as well (photo credit: Elie Posner)

Victor Uziel, a restorer at the Israel Museum laboratories, working on a footed marble basin decorated with a winged female figure. The basin was probably given to Herod as a gift from Emperor Augustus or his second in command, Marcus Agrippa (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

Victor Uziel, a restorer at the Israel Museum laboratories, working on a footed marble basin decorated with a winged female figure. The basin was probably given to Herod as a gift from Emperor Augustus or his second in command, Marcus Agrippa (photo credit: Andrei Vainer)

The quality and shades of the paints used in Herod's palaces attest to his stature in the international arena; here, putting some finishing touches on several wall panels (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The quality and shades of the paints used in Herod’s palaces attest to his stature in the international arena; here, Annemarie Bartfeld puts some finishing touches on several wall panels (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Restoration work on the upper story of Herod's mausoleum (photo credit: Meidad Suchowolski)

Restoration work on the upper story of Herod’s mausoleum (photo credit: Meidad Suchowolski)

Paolo Recanati and fellow staff getting ready to lift reconstructed pillars from the VIP room and mausoleum to the exhibition room with the help of a crane (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Paolo Recanati and fellow staff getting ready to lift reconstructed pillars from the roof of the mausoleum to the exhibition room with the help of a crane (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

When the upper roof of Herod's mausoleum proved to be too tall for the ceiling of the museum's exhibition room, museum staff was forced to place it in another corner of the space (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

When the upper roof of Herod’s mausoleum proved to be too tall for the ceiling of the museum’s exhibition room, museum staff was forced to place it in another corner of the space (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

An overall look at the nearly completed VIP room (photo credit: Elie Posner)

An overall look at the nearly completed VIP room (photo credit: Elie Posner)