Herod's Ancient Theater Found

The findings at Herodion include a theater with a VIP room, coffins of Herod’s family wife and the wife of Archelaus, Herod’s son.

Tags: Travel
Avraham Zuroff ,

Ministry of Tourism

Hebrew University’s Archaeological Institute announced on Wednesday additional discoveries in Herod’s grave, located 9 miles south of Jerusalem.

The findings include coffins of Herod’s family, a theater with a VIP room, and two coffins containing the remains of most likely Herod’s wife and the wife of Archelaus, Herod’s son. The new findings further support the idea that the grave discovered last year belongs to Herod the Great.

Herodion, the site of Herod's grave
Photo: Ministry of Tourism

Herod the Great ruled as the Roman king of Judea between 37-4 BCE. The king, who was famous for his architectural ingenuity throughout Israel, left his mark on numerous structures in Israel, which include the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the construction of massive retaining walls that surround the Temple Mount, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron, and Herodion, his residence and burial place built on an artificial mountain.

Herod’s Mausoleum
The mausoleum, where Herod’s tomb was discovered last year, is almost completely restored. The two-story, 82 foot-high mausoleum is built on a podium with a concave roof. Dr. Ehud Netzer, professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, claims that Jewish fighters destroyed the mausoleum when they conquered the site during their revolt against the Romans in 66 CE. “Herod decided to create the castle and to establish a burial plot at the Herodion Mountain since this place overlooks Jerusalem and its surroundings,” Professor Netzer stated.

A theater that could hold an audience of 750 was discovered not far from the mausoleum. In front of the seating area is a large room for VIPs, from which the king and his close friends would watch the shows. Paintings dated between 15-10 BCE adorn the rooms’ walls. The paintings were rendered using the dry wall (seco) technique, which Herod preferred to the fresco, or wet plaster technique.

To date, the archaeological expedition has only found a few fragments of the wall paintings that survived on the walls. “The dating of the wall paintings attest that the building of the theater was done around the time of the visit in Herodion of the Roman commander and deputy to the Caesar Marcus Agrippa in the year 15 BCE,” Prof. Netzer explained. The theater, its two side rooms and VIP section, were intentionally destroyed when Herod constructed the cone-shaped artificial mountain, which enclosed the round structure that stood at the top of the hill.

Burial Tombs for Herod’s Family
In the excavation that took place this year in the area of the mausoleum, the remains of two white-colored tombs were found, most likely belonging to Herod’s family. The bright red and elegant coffin of Herod, which was displayed last year, is now completely restored, along with a large tomb. Prof. Netzer ascertains that the red coffin is the burial coffin of Herod. In contrast to the white coffins, the red coffin was shattered into hundreds of pieces, and spread throughout the mausoleum area. Prof. Netzer estimates that Malthace the Samaritan was buried in the larger of the two white burial coffins.

Malthace was King Herod’s fifth wife and the mother of his son, Archelaus. Malthace died in Rome several months after her husband’s passing. Her body was probably transported to Judea and reinterred next to Herod’s grave. It is possible that Archelaus’ second wife, who died in 5 CE, was buried in the second coffin, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Palatial Country Club
Professor Netzer estimated that an excavation of the entire area would take many years to complete. In addition to the mausoleum, the ornate palace was like a country club, containing a massive swimming pool, gardens, a bathhouse, and theater. The palace was the largest of its kind in the Roman world during Herod’s lifetime and one could estimate that every year hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors would come.

Professor Netzer hopes that the new discovery will become in the future a national park for many visitors to explore its treasures. The Israel Museum plans to exhibit the archaeological findings in 2010.
Chezki Ezra and Avraham Zuroff contributed to this report.