In the Holy Land's columns, frescoes, and desert palaces, Herod the Great lives on

King Herod is best known to Christians for trying to kill the infant Jesus. But he also left his mark with stunning architectural achievements, as seen in a new exhibit at the Israel Museum.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Archeological excavations at Herodian, West Bank, Thursday, the artificial mountain where Herod the Great built his largest and most lavish palace, yielded much of the material for an immense Herod the Great exhibit at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Herod the Great may be best known among Christians as the cruel ruler who sought to kill Jesus as an infant, and whose son book-ended Jesus’ earthly travails, mocking him en route to his crucifixion.

But this shrewd politician, appointed by Rome, left a far broader imprint on history.

From Corinthian columns to lavish frescoes, Herod etched the latest fashions of the Roman world into the Holy Land in rare and costly colors such as cinnabar. Even rabbinic literature of his day recognized Herod as the greatest builder of the land, though he was controversial among some Jewish subjects who doubted his Judaism and saw him as a puppet of Rome.

Among the monuments to Herod’s terrific construction are the imposing mountain fortress of Masada, perched on a desert plateau with cliffs on all sides; Caesarea, the largest artificial port of its day, complete with an amphitheater for 10,000 spectators of chariot races; and Herodian, an artificial mountain that punctuates the skyline just south of Jerusalem, a palatial complex which he is believed to have built as his final resting place.

After decades of excavation at these sites by the late Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer, The Israel Museum in Jerusalem recently launched a nine-month exhibit, “Herod the Great: The King’s Last Journey.” The exhibit includes more than 30 tons of material, a massive undertaking that required the museum to shore up its foundations and heighten its ceilings.

While packed with eager visitors during the Passover holiday this week, the Herod exhibit has also received a fair amount of negative attention. Much of the material for the exhibit was taken from Herodian, which is located in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, drawing Palestinian accusations that Israel is using archeology to expand its occupation.

And Prof. Netzer's excavations and subsequent conclusions are not universally accepted; Herod's presumed sarcophagus, for example, has no inscription proving it was indeed his. Many details of the exhibit have been pieced together based on the writings of 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus

It is perhaps noteworthy that the exhibit is not controversial among Israelis themselves. But why would the Jewish people seek to honor such a leader, who murdered his own wife and children and was seen by more than a few Jews as a Roman sellout?

“He was the last great Jewish king here,” responds Ilya Burda, an employee at Herodian.

As for his more savage exploits, well, that was par for the course in his day, Mr. Burda suggests.

“He was a great builder, a great administrator, and a great killer, and all these things came together,” he says, taking a break from the busy cash register where crowds of Israelis are waiting for a ticket. “In the ancient world, you could not be the great something without killing someone.”

Striving to be a son of Rome

Herod, who also built a magnificent theater at Herodian before changing his mind and filling it all in, was a key figure in the drama of Roman rule in ancient Israel.

The son of a Nabatean mother and a father from an influential Idumean family who had converted to Judaism, he was born in 73 BC and was appointed by the Roman senate in 40 BC to be “king of the Jews.” His original patron was Marc Antony, who ruled Syria, Egypt, and Judea, with Herod as his man. But after Antony’s demise with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra, Herod deftly switched his alliance to the victorious Octavian.

Octavian, later known as Augustus Caesar, accepted Herod’s continued rule and even expanded the borders of his kingdom, which eventually stretched from Gaza up the coast to Caesarea, which Herod named after his new patron. Herod also showed his strong connection to Rome in other ways, such as sending two sons to be educated in Rome.

Ever conscious of the importance of banquets to forge social and political ties, he sought to reveal to his high-ranking Roman guests “not only his fondness for Roman culture but also that he had good taste and was ‘one of them,’” explains one plaque at The Israel Museum exhibit.

But there were clear tensions between Herod’s loyalty to Rome and his Jewish subjects, perhaps seen most clearly after 10,000 laborers and 1,000 priests completed Herod’s rebuilding of the Second Temple – a huge feat of ancient stonework, with one stone weighing more than 500 tons. 

“Torn between his desire to show respect for Jewish tradition and an equally compelling desire to please his Roman overlords, he dedicated [the temple] to the God of the Jews but later placed a golden eagle, a symbol of the might of Rome, above the temple gate,” according to the exhibit.

A lasting impression

While the temple was considered the pinnacle of Herod’s architectural achievement, Herodian was the largest and most lavish of his palaces. Set atop a cone-like mountain with the top shaved off, it commands a 360-degree view of Jerusalem and the Judean hills. 

Herod is believed to have created the complex, complete with a large pool with boats and a mausoleum for his burial, as a memorial to himself.

Today the small peak is surrounded by Palestinian villages and the Israeli settlements of Tekoa and Nokdim, home to former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Local Palestinians say they used to frequent the site before the second intifada broke out in 2000, but today there is heightened security.

“People from [surrounding] neighborhoods could go and sell ice cream and chocolate,” says Eyad Ali, a local whose father and grandfather worked on the archeological excavations. “It’s become more difficult for them to go there now…. It’s like a military zone, because it protects the settlements.”

The site lies within Area C, which covers 62 percent of the West Bank and has remained under full Israeli control according to the 1993 Oslo Accords. Meant to be merely an interim division of land, the accords are but the latest in a long history of shifting political boundaries in this ancient land.

After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided between four of his children. Herod Antipas, who conferred with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate ahead of Jesus’ crucifixion, reigned the longest, until 39 AD. But by then the Herodian kingdom had been overtaken by direct Roman rulers, who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, though much of Herod's stamp on the land can still be seen today. 

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