Herodium PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The site
The tomb
Later history

The site

Today's Herodium is at its most impressive from a distance. Close up we see bases, foundations, and the general forms of structures. The stone-weary tourist must exert an enormous act of imagination to picture the site as Herod would have known it, reconstructing the colonnades, repainting the frescoes, and putting gardens in place of the desert beige. (After the identity was forgotten, and long after beige had returned, the mountain was called in Arabic Furedis, meaning garden—we get the word "paradise" from it—although "Furedis" may also derive from the old "Herodium.")

To help imagine the life that was lived here, we also have a few dozen graffiti which, on paleographic grounds, date back to Herodium's earliest period. E. Testa, who published them, writes as follows (Source):

The palace-fortress was inhabited by an upper-class group. The writer of Ostracon 54 prides himself on his descent from noble ancestors; teachers are present here (No. 55), and court poets (No. 6), people who compose sarcastic poems (No. 49), people who live a luxurious, sensual life (Nos. 3, 9, 37, 45), easy women (No. 2) and gallant youth (Nos. 1, 36); individuals who are indeed far from Pharisaic casuistry, but who nonetheless observe the national rites (No. 62).

They bought wine from Rhodes, glass from Sidon, and high-grade poison, a must for quick transitions in the royal courts of that age. Masturbation is praised (No. 3), as well as a visit to the "women's house" (No. 2). A certain Eutychios (No. 37) testifies to a "heart stirred up with excitement like a sand dune."

Yet all we see before us is dull stone.     

The upper portion, a palace-fortress

Originally, atop the natural hill, Herod erected two concentric circular walls 12 feet apart—we shall call this the encasement. It was 207 feet in diameter. The picture below has us standing on what remains of this encasement and looking down into the palace-villa, built on bedrock. You can see the inner encasement wall on the other side; increase its height to at least 60 feet, plaster it, and you have the original.

Herodium: The Upper Palace

Between the concentric walls were seven stories of rooms. Only the upper stories had windows, so the lower would have served for storage. At the northern, western and southern compass points were semicircular towers, bulging from the encasement and perhaps rising slightly above it. Each was 45 feet across and likewise divided into stories with rooms.

On the east Herod built a completely round tower 55 feet in diameter, whose remains today reach 50 feet above the inner floor. At their top, writes Netzer, is a barrel-vaulted cistern and two small rooms. He estimates that the original tower was 30 feet higher, 80 above the palace floor. This breezy perch would have dominated the desert, offering an unimpeded view toward the Dead Sea, Perea and Nabataea.

As it looked from afar, therefore, Herodium did not resemble a volcano as it does today. This effect is the result of two further processes: (1) At some stage, perhaps not long before Herod's death in 4 BC, the top of the neighboring hill was lopped off and its dirt used to cover two-thirds of the encasement, giving Josephus the impression of a breast; (2) the remaining third collapsed, no doubt because of erosion and earthquake. It is remarkable that these factors did not destroy the artificial slope itself.

 Herodium: The original hill and the addition

The inner, crater-like part of this upper palace-fortress was divided into two main sections (as can be seen in the second photo above). The eastern half was dominated by a rectangular courtyard, 130 feet long and 57 wide. It had colonnades on the north, west and south. On the east, however, a solid wall was used, with half-columns projecting out of it. The midpoint of this wall touched the circular tower. (If Herod had put a colonnade here, people would have seen how cramped the space was between the columns and the curved encasement.) V. Corbo, who excavated upper Herodium in the 1960's, found garden soil in this courtyard.
The western half consisted of rooms. On the south was a dining room (45 feet by 30) in the form of a triclinium. On the north was a bathhouse. The dome of its tepidarium, 14 feet across, is among the earliest extant domes of hewn stone. A window at the top, called an oculus, allowed light in. At the base we can still see traces of frescoes.  

Between the dining room and the bathhouse were the bedrooms and living quarters, some of which had two stories.

Lower Herodium

From the northern rim of the mountain we can look down at the lower portion, which Josephus hyped into a "city." It was in fact a grand affair, covering about 37 acres, but designed for the pleasures of one man and his entourage. Here Herod had his main palace, which he set precisely on an east-west axis. Built on fill that leveled the slope at this point, it was 427 feet long by 180 wide. If we extend the north-south axis of the upper palace, it precisely bisects the lower. (See the satellite photo below.) The same line goes on to bisect a narrow course, 1150 feet long, which ended at a monumental building on the west. Too narrow (82 feet) for a hippodrome, the course fits the description of Herod's funeral procession in Josephus (War I.33.9):

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, and a scepter in his right hand; and near to the bier were Herod's sons, and a multitude of his kindred; next to which came his guards, and the regiment of Thracians, the Germans. also and Gauls, all accounted as if they were going to war; but the rest of the army went foremost, armed, and following their captains and officers in a regular manner; after whom five hundred of his domestic servants and freed-men followed, with sweet spices in their hands: and the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried.

Herodium: Overview

Netzer's inclination was to seek the tomb in or near the monumental building at the end of the course. It turned out to be a grand triclinium. Such are often found in connection with tombs (at Petra, for instance). They served for the funeral feast. Eagerly the archaeologists turned to neighboring structures. They found a ritual bath, which would also make sense if the tomb was here. And yet they found no tomb. Perhaps Herod originally planned to place it here but changed his mind.

Lower Herodium: Pool and tricilinium

When we look from the northern rim of the upper palace, the most striking element is the swimming pool, pictured above. It is huge: 130 feet by 230 and 13 deep. In its center was a pillared pavilion where the swimmers could rest. (A French explorer sought the tomb on the pavilion in the 1860's.) The pool was fed by the aqueduct from the Artas spring. (Sections of this duct are still to be seen.) A garden surrounded the pool, as well as pillared promenades (some of the pillars have been restored).

Columns also surrounded a large bathhouse SW of the pool. "The bathhouse was richly decorated. Its walls were adorned with frescoes which have been preserved in some of the rooms, and most of the rooms were originally paved with mosaics" (Netzer, op. cit., p. 192). In a later phase - but still during Herod's lifetime - the bathhouse was altered to accommodate a heated indoor pool. A round open-air pool was built nearby, and bathers could switch between the two.

In the vicinity Netzer found "fragments  of an exquisite water basin (labrum) made of imported marble, a characteristic example from the Augustan period, with the heads of the Greek demigod Selinus carved on its handles. Herod might have imported it; however, the high standard of this basin suggests that it was a royal gift, perhaps a personal one from Marcus Agrippa following his visit to Herod's kingdom in 15 B.C.E., which, according to Josephus, included a stay at Herodium" (Netzer, op. cit., p. 194). Yet the ban on graven images was interpreted very strictly in Herod's time. Perhaps he couldn't turn down a gift from his powerful friend, the heir-apparent to Augustus.

Netzer thinks that the visit of Marcus Agrippa was also the occasion for building a theater, the most recent major discovery at Herodium. It was found in the slope just below the openings of two large cisterns. It seated 300 people, giving us an idea how many guests this desert retreat was intended for. Netzer discovered the royal "box" (loggia), really a large room for the king and his guests, from which they could watch the performance (it was 26 feet long by 23 wide and 20 high). On its walls are remains of paintings representing windows. As if through one window appears a landscape with animals and humans. As if through another is what seems to be a sea battle. Another painting, deft and delicate, shows the billowing sail and rigging of a ship, on which soldiers are massed with spears and shields. This may have served as a conversation piece during the visit of Agrippa, whose greatest victory was the sea battle at Actium in 31 BC, which secured the throne for his friend Octavian (later called Augustus). Here too, then, the ban on images was violated. The style, quite foreign, is known from Rome and Pompeii, so it is thought to be the work of Italian artists sent by Agrippa.

After deciding to build his tomb not far from the theater, Herod had this big "box" destroyed (slicing it on the diagonal to suit the shape he wanted), as well as everything else in the vicinity: theater, villas, and storehouses. He then brought in dirt from the neighboring hill, which he flattened, and poured it over the levelled structures, creating the slope that gives Herodium its present conical shape. He built the tomb on the side facing Jerusalem so that it would stand out in relief against the smooth slope. His revels now were ended.

Herodium: The Theater

The cisterns

In addition to covering the theater, Herod also eliminated a cistern in order to build his mausoleum. In 1975 Netzer descended through tunnels from the upper palace to reach this cistern, which he proceeded to explore. At one point he was 10 feet from the tomb that it would take him another 32 years to find.

Two more large cisterns are located a few yards to the west and a bit lower (contrary to a sign at the site, they are midway up the mountain, not at its foot). The total capacity is 2500 cubic meters (1 cubic meter = 1000 liters). Netzer thought that their main source was runoff from the slope above, but then as now Herodium was on the edge of the desert, and it seems unlikely that local rainfall would have sufficed. An alternative view would be that the water was hauled from lower Herodium, which received it via the duct from Artas. Herod would have needed a place to store this water, and the three cisterns appear to be the only such facility. Given Roman technology, it would not have been a problem to haul water this high mechanically. According to need, slaves could have then borne it from the cisterns to a spot just below the upper encasement. Here a pipe (extant) led to an intermediate cistern, from which the water could then be lifted by rope and bucket into the palace. In this way the sweating slaves wouldn't stink up the royal quarter.

The location of the cisterns, determined by the quality of the rock, probably decided the placement of the external staircase. Josephus saw 200 white "marble" steps (but he often called limestone "marble"); today we see just the foundation. The staircase is puzzling, however, because the upper part is clearly late: it is built right over a terraced garden, which it nullified. Perhaps the staircase was preceded by a less majestic access, before the hill became a mountain.

Today we can descend from the upper palace to the cisterns using tunnels hewn by Jewish rebels during the Bar Kokhba revolt (ca. 130-135 AD). The rebels dumped the debris from their chiseling into the cisterns, putting them out of use. (If the cisterns had gathered most of their water from the slopes, the rebels would certainly have maintained them.) The purpose of these tunnels is not clear, but we know that the Bar Kokhba rebels dug thousands in the Shephelah, and some around Hebron. The general idea, it is thought, was to emerge in surprise attacks on the Romans and disappear again into the earth. At Herodium, the tunnels may also have provided secret escape routes.

Herodium cistern