Driving south from Jerusalem, the landscape is dominated by an artificial cone-shaped mountain on which Herod the Great built the fortress-palace he dedicated to himself. Herodium rises 758 metres above sea level with breathtaking views overlooking the Judean Desert as far as the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab. It is one of the most important and unique building complexes built by Herod and is considered among the most impressive structures of the ancient world.
The construction of Herodium began around 25 BC on the location of his victory over his Hasmonean and Parthian enemies in 40 BC. To commemorate the event, the king built one of the largest monarchical complexes of the Roman Empire which served as a residential palace, an administrative centre and a mausoleum. Herod built many magnificent palaces throughout the Land. These palaces included guest rooms, bathhouses, swimming pools, and luxurious gardens, all decorated in the style of the lavish palaces of Rome. It was at Herodium that Herod entertained Agrippa, the son-in-law of the emperor Augustus, in 15 BC.
Herod planned the site as a complex of palaces consisting of three parts:
1. The fortified mountain palace; The combination of fortress and palace is a uniquely Herodian innovation, which he repeated on several other sites, including Masada.
2. Lower Herodium, combining a magnificent recreation area, a bathhouse, an administrative centre, and a system of structures to serve during the king’s funeral (including the procession way).
3. The slope on the northern part of the hill where Herod built a huge three stories high mausoleum that could be seen from afar.
The search for Herod’s tomb was one of the greatest archaeological quests in Israel. The historian Josephus wrote that Herod was buried in Herodium but archaeologists had been unable to locate the tomb until 2007. Finally, after thirty years of searching at the site, the late Prof. Ehud Netzer of the university’s Institute of Archaeology announced that he had found the tomb of Herod. What he discovered were the remains of a large tomb and opulent coffins on the northern slope of the mountain facing Jerusalem.
Following Herod’s death, his son and heir Archilaus continued to reside at Herodium. After Judea became a Roman province, the site served as a centre for Roman prefects. During the Great revolt, the Zealots captured the fortress in 66 AD but then handed it over without resistance to the Romans following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Fifty years later, Herodium was captured again by the rebels during the Bar Kokhva revolt. As part of their defense measures, they dug tunnels around the cisterns and hid there. During the Byzantine period, Lower Herodium was rebuilt on top of the ruins and constituted of a large village with three churches. The settlement appears to have continued until the 9th century AD after which the site was abandoned.
Today Herodium is a national park under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. An astonishing archaeological site complete with a labyrinth of cool underground caves and tunnels, the Park recently opened a small Visitors’ Center with a lovely film production about King Herod and his funeral procession.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Ehud Netzer who died in October 2010 following a fall while preparing an exhibition of the findings for the Israel Museum. The exhibition “The King’s final journey” finally opened in 2013, showing Herod’s impact on the architectural landscape of the Land of Israel. More than 200 objects found at Herodian sites, including Jerusalem, Jericho, Cypros and Herodium were exhibited for the first time as well as the King’s reconstructed burial chamber.