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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Israel Museum
Shrine of the Book
Model: Jerusalem, 66 AD
Herod the Great: A special exhibit
Logistics for Herodium

Herod the Great: A special exhibit

Logistics: This extraordinary exhibit will continue until Oct. 5, 2013. There is no extra cost beyond the regular Museum admission fee (which includes the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Model). Groups should arrange their visits in advance. Those with fixed itineraries may take advantage of the museum's special Tuesday hours: 16:00 – 21:00. Figure an hour for the exhibit, but it is good to leave another hour at least for the main archaeological section, which is awe-inspiring. Audioguides are available, free of charge—with excellent coverage by the exhibit's curators, Silvia Rozenberg and David Mevorah. There are explanations in Hebrew and English, but, oddly, not in Arabic. 

Herod (posthumously called the Great because of his construction projects) was surely one of the most splendid, wicked, and miserable creatures ever to walk the earth. The new exhibit at the Israel Museum conveys the splendor (we visitors may add in the wickedness and misery). It took three years to put together, and the stones of the reconstructed tomb are so heavy (for they are the actual stones, transported from Herodium) that the museum had to strengthen the building's foundations before receiving them. All this for a show lasting just eight months! It almost "out-Herods Herod."

Below I review the exhibit. You can take a virtual tour of it with the curators, and see images of many of the items I mention, here.

The exhibit takes as its theme "The King's Last Journey" qua corpse from Jericho to Herodium. There is a series of halls, large and small. First comes the putative throne room from his final palace at Jericho. This is a good example of the difference it makes to have a reading of Josephus under one's belt. Standing here, we can recall the room at the Jericho palace, perhaps this one, where the 69-year-old Herod attempted suicide in order to escape the carnal torments described by Josephus, who took obvious delight in listing them (a full-body itch, genital-devouring worms—the symptoms go on for a drooling paragraph). A loyal servant cried out and grabbed Herod's arm, stopping him in the act. His oldest son Antipater, imprisoned nearby for plotting to poison him, interpreted the servant's screech to mean that his father was dead. He shouted with joy, "Let me out! I'm king now!" (or something to that effect). Hearing this, Herod had the young man executed. It was the third son he had treated in such a fashion. The first two were his by the beautiful Mariamne, the woman who gave his life meaning—and whom he'd also had executed. The present room, with frescoes of red pigment (cinnabar) quarried in Spain, takes on added value when we recall the family gore.

The next hall contains what for me is the exhibit's pièce de résistance: the royal bathtub from Kypros (a fortress overlooking Jericho). It is much bigger than the bathtubs we know from Masada. The stone has remarkable patterns. Weighing more than a ton, it was quarried as a single block from a stalactite cave (!). But the reason it impresses me so is that with a little imagination, you can see the king sitting in it, taking his bath. It is about as close to the man as you may wish to get.

He named Kypros after his mother, a Nabataean. His father was an Idumaean (Edomite), whose own father had been pressured into conversion by the Hasmoneans. Because of his parentage, Herod's subjects barely thought of him as Jewish, if at all, and in this fact we may locate the ultimate cause of his misery. This story began when he yielded to the pressures of Mariamne and appoint her brother as High Priest. She and her brother were Hasmoneans—that is, they were part of the extended royal-priestly family from which Herod had wrested power. His subjects adored this new, fully Jewish High Priest, and the king felt threatened. He had the young man drowned, therefore, in the pool at Jericho. This murder engendered a series of events which included the execution of Mariamne and, decades later, that of her two sons. The exhibit shows us the notorious pool (see the image below) in the complex of the Jericho palaces, using an animated video which starts from a photo of the excavations and reconstructs the original in stages. There are similar animated videos for Herod's structures in Jerusalem, Masada, Caesarea, and Herodium. They are breathtaking.

Jericho's royal quarter in the time of the 2nd testament

Except for some exquisite carvings in limestone, I did not find much in the exhibit's coverage of the Temple—but for this we have plenty at the Ophel excavations. There is a long case displaying vessels in which Herod's wine was imported from the best Italian vineyards—the name of the vineyard and the year are inscribed, as well as Herod as purchaser. There are also vessels for apples from Cumae and Spanish garum (a sauce made by fermenting fish and herbs in vinegar or salt). Curator David Mevorah points out that these imports had political importance: in order to negotiate on an equal footing with foreign emissaries, Herod had to be able to wine and dine them at the level they knew in Rome or wherever they hailed from.

A corridor is dedicated to Herod's Roman connections. Here too one can plug in Josephus: how before the sea battle of Actium in 31 BC, Herod had backed Marc Antony, and how after Antony's defeat he was able to switch sides, persuading Octavian (the future Augustus) to accept him as ally and friend. Herod and Octavian made a trio with Marcus Agrippa, whose magnificent bronze portrait is shown. (It was Agrippa who conducted the battle for Octavian at Actium—more about which later.) The hall contains a reconstructed basin of marble, a rare import at the time; it has carvings of Sileni just below the rim and legs whose feet are lions' heads—for Herod an unusual violation of the ban on images.

The next hall offers a short film on Ehud Netzer's career-long search for Herod's tomb, which Josephus had described as being at Herodium. The whole exhibit is dedicated to Netzer's memory: in the midst of helping to plan it, he fell to his death at the site. I dug under his direction there in 1981. Netzer thought he would find the tomb in the lower city. I remember him pointing from above to a long causeway that ended in an ornate building; the complex seemed created for a funeral procession —yet no burial chamber turned up. The discovery waited until 2007, when he found it instead on the hill's northern slope - not the rock-cut tomb he'd expected, rather the remains of a built structure. (It seems to have been similar in design to the misnomered Absalom's Monument, which is about two-thirds of the size.) According to the film's account, the causeway was indeed meant for the funeral, but the king changed his mind. He had the tomb built where the Jerusalemites would see it from the heights around their city eight miles away. (Why not put it on top of Herodium? Because then it would have been in the living quarters, making them ritually impure.) The film does not explore why Herod chose this area in the first place, but we may surmise the reason from the fact that many years earlier, at the start of his struggle for power, he had narrowly escaped death here, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. 

View from Jerusalem to Herodium

I have already used the term "breathtaking," but it applies to the next hall too. Perhaps a decade before building the tomb, Herod had set a small theater into the slope. It seated 300 people. Above the audience section he placed a hall - a huge theater box, if you will - for entertaining his guests. From here too one could watch the show. On erecting his tomb, however, he wanted it to stand out against the background, and so he had thousands of tons of earth and gravel poured over everything nearby, including the entertainment hall, the theater, storerooms, and villas. According to Mevorah, it was this act that gave Herodium its conical shape. Because part of the theater box would have jutted above the desired slope, Herod had it trimmed to fit. The untrimmed remainder was preserved by the earthen covering to a height of fifteen feet.

Herodium with sites of theater and tomb

For an internal view of the actual theater "box," see here. The museum personnel have been able to reconstruct the three walls of this stunning chamber on a somewhat smaller scale. At the base all around are frescoes alternating crimson with coral pink. There are delicate stucco pilasters of pink and cerulean, with a white acanthus pattern running up to the upper frieze, also patterned and colored. On opposing walls are paintings in the secco technique resembling windows, complete with shutters - but each is "hung" by a "string" from a "nail." Looking "through" one of these, we see a sacred landscape, through the other a sea battle (perhaps). A fragment of another wall painting shows a billowing sail, the lines of its rigging, and the spears and shields of soldiers on board, painted with such a light touch that it seems they might vanish in a moment. Surely these paintings and those that are lost were conversation pieces. If the topic was the sea battle at Actium, that would accord with the visit of Marcus Agrippa in 15 BC, for he, as said, had been the victorious general there. Perhaps the small theater and its hall were built especially for his visit. Note finally how, when the theater and hall were slated for destruction, the opposing walls were cut to fit the slope of the future hill.

At last we come to the tomb itself—reconstructed from 13 tons of its actual stones, whose positions were estimated and marked by Netzer. What we see, however, is just the upper story: reconstructing to the full height of 82 feet was out of the question. The placement of the upper tier on the exhibit's floor is unfortunate, for we do not get the right "feel." True, there are pictures of the whole monument on a side wall, but these don't do the job.

In the area of the tomb were found bits of well-polished limestone, reddish in color, enough to enable a reconstruction of the sarcophagus that now occupies the chamber. Into the short ends was carved a design of rosettes and palmettes, while the long sides went undecorated. The reddish pieces are so tiny that the experts think someone must have smashed the sarcophagus to bits. Likely candidates are the Jewish rebels who held Herodium during the First Great Revolt against Rome (66 CE – 70 CE). They would have been venting their rage on the collaborator who had rested on the slope for seventy years, a taunt in the eyes of Jerusalem.