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New parts of Herod’s palace unveiled, including 300-seat personal theater

Judean king’s arched stairway, foyer exposed at Herodium, along with majestic room in which he hosted Marcus Agrippa, the second-in-command to Caesar Augustus, in 15 BCE

  • Aerial view of the Herodium fortress,  on November 25, 2020, with the King Herod's tomb site and the theater built by Herod the Great in 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem  (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    Aerial view of the Herodium fortress, on November 25, 2020, with the King Herod's tomb site and the theater built by Herod the Great in 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • A couple climbs the steps leading to the ancient Herodium palace built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem on November 24, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    A couple climbs the steps leading to the ancient Herodium palace built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem on November 24, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • This picture taken on November 24, 2020 shows an aerial view of the Herodium fortress, with the King Herod's tomb site and the theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
    This picture taken on November 24, 2020 shows an aerial view of the Herodium fortress, with the King Herod's tomb site and the theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
  • A conservator of the Israel Antiquities Authority restores ancient frescoes at the arches corridor leading to the Herodium palace built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    A conservator of the Israel Antiquities Authority restores ancient frescoes at the arches corridor leading to the Herodium palace built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • Workers keep flat the restored floor of the ancient theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 7, 2020.  (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    Workers keep flat the restored floor of the ancient theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • Conservators of the Israel Antiquities Authority restore ancient frescoes at the arches corridor leading to the Herodium palace built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem on November 23, 2020.  (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    Conservators of the Israel Antiquities Authority restore ancient frescoes at the arches corridor leading to the Herodium palace built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem on November 23, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • This picture taken on November 25, 2020 shows an aerial view of the Herodium fortress, with the King Herod's tomb site and the theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    This picture taken on November 25, 2020 shows an aerial view of the Herodium fortress, with the King Herod's tomb site and the theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

AFP — Israeli authorities are set to unveil previously off-limits structures within King Herod’s palace-fortress Herodium, which the tyrannical Roman-era leader interred as his enormous burial plot.

Herodium, a hugely popular tourism destination, is near Bethlehem in the West Bank but falls in an area where Israel exercises full military and civilian control.

Archaeologists say Herod decided toward the end of his life to bury his palace, using ground from below the hill it was perched upon, until the outline of the structure was no longer visible.

Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority plans to open the revamped site on Sunday, allowing visitors to see for the first time Herodium’s arched stairway, foyer and private theater.

The Judean Desert complex was built by the Roman-appointed king known both for his brutality and the magnificent structures built during his reign over Judea from 37 to 4 BCE.

An aerial view of the Herodium fortress, November 24, 2020m with the King Herod’s tomb site and the theatrerbuilt by Herod the Great in 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The hilltop palace, its main entrance facing Jerusalem, was Herod’s favorite.

It was the only one he named after himself and where he chose to be buried, said Roi Porat, the Hebrew University archaeologist in charge of the excavations.

Herod (Wikimedia Commons)
Herod (Wikimedia Commons)

A mere burial plot, however, would not have satisfied Herod, who wanted his final place of rest to overshadow his palace.

“That’s why he covered the mountain, including the palace, to emphasize it,” said Eran Kruzel of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

And while burying the palace during his lifetime provided Herod with the satisfaction of knowing his grave would stand out, it also helped preserve and protect the site for 2,000 years.

“This is an unparalleled archaeological laboratory,” Porat said, comparing it to Pompeii’s preservation in lava.

Roi Porat, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and head of the Herodium excavation, at the arches corridor at the Herodium palace built by Herod the Great in 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on December 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

A broad staircase leads up the graveside to the palace’s main foyer.

There are three tiers of support arches above the foyer, from when Herod decided to bury his palace but still needed access while he was still alive.

The foyer itself contains striped frescos in their original auburn, green and black, creating patterns mimicking marble panels, in line with the Judean royal style.

A bust of Marcus Agrippa (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0/Pushkin Museum)

At the bottom of the stairs on the other side of the grave is the theater with around 300 seats, and the private booth and royal visiting room overlooking it.

Herod hosted Marcus Agrippa, the second-in-command to Caesar Augustus, in that room in 15 BCE, according to Porat.

“This was an extremely important visit for Herod,” Porat noted, with the Judean ruler redecorating the visiting room to include a series of drawings mimicking open windows and depicting Agrippa’s conquest of Egypt, with bold and lavish stucco reliefs above.

“Prior to this, Herod followed Jewish tradition that avoided images of animals and people, but here, anything was possible,” Porat said. “It’s truly a Roman capsule in Judea.”

Mark Avrahami (L), a conservator of the Israel Antiquities Authority, restores ancient frescoes at the arches corridor leading to the Herodium palace built by Herod the Great in 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank, on November 22, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The excavation and preservation of the latest parts of the palace began some 13 years ago with the discovery of Herod’s grave.

To Porat, the site illustrates Herod’s mindset, “when all he’s concerned with is how to preserve his memory to eternity.”

“His name has been preserved here,” Porat said. “For the better or for the worse, the landscape here in this region south of Jerusalem has been changed.”

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