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

The tomb

Slanted wall that was clue to location of Herod's tomb Before 1967, Herodium was under Jordanian rule, and the chief archaeologist was V. Corbo. Clearing the area around the mouth of a cistern, he exposed part of "a grand stone wall leaning on the hillside" (Kreiger). Netzer, who began here in 1972, made note of Corbo's wall but did not pursue it. His interest was not just in the tomb, of course, but in the careful, patient exposure of the whole architectural complex. Nevertheless, the riddle was ever there, prodding. I worked under Netzer in 1982, and the question always hovered above us. Josephus had written that Herod was buried here. Why then had nothing turned up?

Netzer ruled out the upper palace where Corbo had concentrated, because in that small space the tomb would have rendered all residents—including Herod's successor—corpse-impure (hence ineligible for entering the Temple in Jerusalem). The sole alternative, he thought, was the larger space of lower Herodium.

Only after exhausting the possibilities there did Netzer decide to explore the area on the slope around Corbo's wall. It was April 2007. He wasn't at the site when the first hint came. He got a phone call from his assistant, saying that something monumental was turning up. That, Netzer said, was his "Aha!" moment.

First, here is a detail from Ferrell Jenkins' aerial photo:

Aerial photo of tomb and theater

And now this from a surface shot by Dov Lindenbaum:


Below the leaning stone wall, Netzer and his team found the southern part of the podium: 

Herodium: Section of Herod's Tomb

The mausolem was made of the best limestone—called meleke in Arabic, "royal"—imported from the peak of the central mountain range a mile away. (This is the only use of meleke at Herodium.) The two southern corners of the podium enabled Netzer to put its outermost dimensions at 30 feet by 30, enough to support a structure 70 feet high. Judging from the extant pieces, and with the help of his assistant, Rachel Chachy, he was able to give the following description:

"The podium served as the base of a vaulted room about 20 by 20 feet. Its outer walls probably featured pilasters (rectangular column-like protrusions). These bore a Doric frieze with rosettes, topped by a decorated cornice. Above this stood a circular room (about 14 ft in diameter and 17 ft high) surrounded by a portico of 18 monolithic columns. The columns supported a round entablature composed of an architrave, a soffit frieze and a highly decorated cornice …. This room was probably covered by a dome, in contrast to the barrel-vaulted ceilings of the two rooms below." (Source. )

Absalom's Monument The dome, Netzer continues, was curved and conical. Compare the dome of a nearly contemporary tomb monument in Jerusalem, misnamed Absalom's Memorial, which is about half the size. Its meleke has been deeply weathered, in contrast with the stones from Herod's mausoleum, which have no patina.

Netzer thinks that the uppermost, domed room contained the sarcophagus. The outside was adorned with four funerary urns, while a fifth urn probably crowned its top.

After building the mausoleum and putting a garden around it, Herod raised the grand wall above it to hold back the fill that he intended to pour. Only then did he raise the hill, shaping it into the mountain we see today, so that his mausoleum would stand out against it.

There is, as said, no patina on the stones of the tomb. The chisel marks appear so fresh that they could not have been long exposed to the elements. Chachy suggests 50 or 60 years, which would more or less fit the timing of the great revolt. The Jewish rebels, who hated the memory of Herod, did not want him affronting their eyes when they looked toward the desert. It was they, probably, who destroyed the mausoleum. Soon the pieces were covered in debris and dust.         

In the area of the mausoleum the excavators found hundreds of fragments of reddish stone. When Chachy put what she had together, these formed parts of a beautifully carved sarcophagus. Even the rich, said Netzer, did not have one like this. He thinks it was Herod's. Why the tiny fragments strewn about? Perhaps the rebels knew whose remains it contained and smashed it to bits. Pieces of two more sarcophagi, white in color, were also discovered: they had been unceremoniously dumped and their pieces were closer together. They could have belonged to family members of Herod's son Archelaus, his successor in Judea. A few fragments of bone were found as well, but they have so far yielded nothing.

Was this, then, Herod's tomb? Netzer put his certainty at 98 percent. Everything adds up: the statement in Josephus, the imported meleke, the elimination of a cistern and a theater, the sloped stone wall, the grand red sarcophagus chopped to bits, the exhaustion of other alternatives. He would have liked, however, to find an inscription.