Hebrew University archaeologists excavating a 2,000-year-old fortress of King Herod said Thursday they have uncovered a massive entryway that afforded the Roman-appointed ruler access to the strategic hilltop site in the Judean Desert.
The discovery was recently uncovered at the Herodium National Park during a year-long excavation aimed at developing the historic site for tourism, the university said in a statement.
The newly discovered entryway features a complex system of arches that span its width on three separate levels, allowing King Herod — who ruled Israel on behalf of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century BCE — and his entourage direct access into the palace’s courtyard.
The 20 meter long and six meter wide arches also served as a buttress for the structure’s large corridor walls.
The site, located about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, is dominated by a large conical man-made hill ordered built by Herod. The partially-excavated fortress was one of several of Herod’s hideouts in the Judean Desert and also served as his final resting place.
Hebrew University archaeologists Roi Porat, Yaakov Kalman and Rachel Chachy believe the grand entryway was built as a part of King Herod’s intention to turn the hilltop fortress into a monument to himself.
However, during the excavations, it became increasingly evident that the corridor and expansive arched entryway was never used. The corridor was back-filled and the entryway was built over.
The archaeologists suspect that midway through its construction, Herod — known for the large construction projects undertaken during his reign — decided to build a royal burial monument for himself before his death instead.
Herod is famous for renovating the Temple Mount and building Masada.
The arched corridor also revealed hidden tunnels dug on the site by the Jewish fighters during the Bar Kochba Revolt period, about 120 years after Herod’s death.
The hidden tunnels, supported by wooden beams, exit the fortress through secret openings in the corridor, and were likely used by Jewish rebels who waged an unsuccessful fight against the Roman occupation of Judea in 132-136 CE.
One tunnel revealed a well-preserved construction of approximately 20 Cyprus tree branches arranged in a cross-weave pattern that supported the tunnel’s roof.
According to the Director of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority Director, Shaul Goldstein, the newly excavated corridor and arched entryway will be opened to the public, allowing visitors to enter the site the same way King Herod did some 2,000 years ago.