King Herod knew exactly where he wanted to spend eternity: at Herodium, a mountain in the wilderness where he won a battle with the Parthian (Iranian) army in 40 B.C.E. After his victory, Herod fled to Rome where an impressed Senate crowned him King of Israel. With the help of the Roman army, he took complete control of the country three years later.
Fortunately for the king, when the end came in 4 B.C.E. after a debilitating illness, his son Archelaus carried out his father’s wishes. At the funeral he “omitted nothing of magnificence. . . there was a bier all of gold, embroidered with precious stones, and a purple bed of various contexture, with the dead body upon it, covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it . . the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried,” as Josephus Flavius — Jewish warrior turned Roman historian during the Great Revolt of 66-73 C.E. — wrote in Wars of the Jews.
Today, Herod’s Herodium is located inside Herodian National Park, just a seven minute drive on a brand new road leading from Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood. An astonishing archaeological site complete with a labyrinth of cool underground caves, the Park recently opened a small Visitors’ Center with a sparkling production about King Herod and his funeral procession.
Visitors spot the Herodian well before they arrive, for Herod added an artificial hill to an already existing, natural mound after he built a summer palace on the very top. Besides, its cone-like shape makes it impossible to miss: protruding as it does from the desert landscape, it looks very much like a volcano.
After taking a brochure at the Center, you climb the steps a few dozen meters to the top of the mountain. Although it is a bit strenuous, the climb is not nearly as difficult as that taken by visitors to Herod’s palace 2,000 years ago: they followed a straight line from bottom to top — with only the last third shaded from the sun.
An impressive model of Herod’s burial structure is found near the beginning of the ascent. Although it is four meters high, and you are dwarfed in its shadow, the model is only one-sixth the height of the original mausoleum. The structure itself is closed to the public, following a tragic accident (see note at end of this article).
Constructed in 23 B.C.E. to commemorate a battle he would never forget, Herodium was meant as a summer palace with a wonderful view of Jerusalem and the Judean Desert. But it also provided him with a sanctuary close to the Holy City if it became necessary to flee. A double-wall, 63 meters in diameter and seven stories high, surrounded what was an exquisite fortified castle with salons, banquet rooms, courtyards, and a luxurious bathhouse.
From the top of the mountain there is an exciting view of the structures down below. At the foot of the mountain, which was 758 meters above sea level when completed, Herod added an elaborate palace complex which served as both country club and administrative center. A large rectangle surrounded by pillars was once an impressive pool 70 meters long by 45 meters and three meters deep. (Herod built swimming pools at all of his 15 palaces.)
The complex included houses for his clerks, storehouses, administrative buildings, and magnificent gardens. On the left, there is a structure with a dome: this was a bathhouse big enough to hold a small indoor pool. Water for both the lower and upper palaces was brought from Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem to the mountain. Other ruins below belonged to a small 5th-century Byzantine settlement that held a good-sized monastery.
A path runs right down into the heart of the castle, where pillars and decorative capitals give an idea of the villa’s opulence. The rounded tower was originally seven stories high, and the largest of four in thick, heavy walls that circled the palace. The ceiling of the castle’s 2,000-year-old bathhouse is the oldest stone dome in Israel.
In 66 C.E. the Jews revolted against Roman rule in the Land of Israel. After conquering the Herodium, Jewish fighters transformed the largest of the salons into a synagogue – one of only a very few in Israel that predate the destruction of the Second Temple. The Romans attacked in ’71 and our side lost.
Next on any tour of the Herodian are the underground tunnels that were prepared for action at the beginning of the ill-fated Bar-Kochba Revolt in 132. Apparently meant as headquarters for leader Shimon Bar-Kochba, who lived nearby in the town of Betar, they are great fun, cool, and also lead to several of Herod’s enormous reservoirs.
The path leading back to the entrance features a fairly small family theater (for 400 people) built by Herod. A magnificent room discovered a couple of years ago, apparently for box seats and full of fabulous frescoes, is currently being restored (and is on view at the Israel Museum’s Herod Exhibit – see note below).
A lively production in Hebrew about King Herod was recently prepared for English-speaking visitors. Not to be missed.
Note: If you live in Israel or are planning a trip, be sure to explore the Herod Exhibit at the Israel Museum. Some of Herod’s massive, magnificent tomb has been reconstructed and this is the only place where it can be seen: you can even walk inside. The exhibit offers a chance to begin to comprehend the incredible engineering genius and aesthetic sensibilities of this justifiably paranoid king, and provides a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into Herod’s wildly complex personality.
A seven-minute film near the end of the exhibit relates the story of the archaeological digs carried out at the Herodian by the late Ehud Netzer. Netzer spent decades looking for Herod’s tomb at the Herodian. In 2010, only three years after finally unearthing the tomb, Netzer was critically injured when a safety rail collapsed at the site. He passed away several days later.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, private tour guide in Israel.