Travel Feature: Herodium

The location of Herod’s tomb remained a mystery until an archaeologist set his sites on an overlooked side of the fortress palace of Herodium.

Shalom Pollack, | updated: 21:08

Herodium from the top
Herodium from the top
Israel news photo: (file)

The location of Herod’s tomb remained a mystery until an innovative archaeologist set his sites on an overlooked side of the Judean fortress palace of Herodium. After a 35 year search, Professor Ehud Netzer felt he was able to announce to the world that he finally found what he was looking for – the royal tomb of King Herod the Great (73 BCE – 4 CE). The tyrannical leader who murdered Jewish sages and even his own family members was secretly referred by them as Herod the Wicked.

Prof. Netzer spent over three decades excavating the areas at the base of the partially manmade volcano-like mountain, located nine miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Desert. There he unearthed magnificent swimming pools, bath houses, palaces, and parade grounds - but no tomb.

Herodion in eastern Gush Etzion

(Israel news photo: Ministry of Tourism)

Although that area was extensively excavated and revealed very impressive remains, he didn’t find the tomb on top of the fortress palace. Nor did archeologists locate any tomb on the bottom of the mountain. But Josephus Flavius, the prominent historian of Herod, clearly states that he was buried in Herodium. He simply didn’t bother to say where.
The location of Herod’s tomb remained a mystery until Prof. Netzer came aboard. Against all odds, Prof. Netzer remained determined to unravel the mystery. Where else was there left to look? He did not suspect that Josephus was having a laugh with archaeologists of the future so he did not give up on Herodium. Out of desperation, Prof. Netzer began excavating the most unlikely spots – the hidden sides of the mountain, and found Herod’s tomb

He discovered monumental marble casks, similar to those set in an ornate mausoleum that belonged to Queen Helena (from what is south Russia today) who converted to Judaism in the time of the Maccabees and moved to Jerusalem, where she is buried. Her ornate royal tomb was discovered about a century ago in Jerusalem.

The similarity in architectural motifs helped convince Professor Netzer that he had finally discovered Herod's tomb. In addition to the main reddish marble tomb, he found two smaller white marble sarcophagi which probably belong to family members. Nearby, an entire miniature Roman theater was also unearthed. The theater contains a raised private viewing porch decorated in multi colored frescoes of the finest art. All of these artifacts were cut into the side of the mountain!
Apparently at one point Herod ordered covering up all the magnificent designs with dirt to recreate the perfect volcano form. Did we mention that he was mad?
Herodium is similar to another even more famous structure designed by Herod, Masada along the Dead Sea. Both were built on isolated flat mountains and converted into very powerful fortresses, which were at the same time opulent palaces. Both symbolized Herod's reputation as the greatest builder of the ancient world. The Talmud states, “If you have not seen the Temple that Herod built, you have not seen the most beautiful structure in the world.”
Both wonders were eventually used by Jewish rebels against Rome, in the Great Rebellion which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, and sixty years later by the followers of Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva. The synagogues and ritual baths built by the temporary but desperate and determined Jewish occupants attest to the very different agendas of Herod and of these practicing Jews.
Unlike Masada, on Herodium there was no dramatic last stand – just careful preparations for one. When visiting Herodium one can see and feel the stage being set for the battle which apparently never did take place. Professor Yigal Yadin discovered in Judean desert caves during the 1960s letters sent to the Jewish fighters on Herodium by their commander, Simon Bar Cochba. The letter ordered that the fighters be supplied with lulavim and etrogim (palm branches and citrons) for the holiday of Sukkot (Booths). Now that’s a Jewish army! Imagine standing in the synagogue where these men prayed!
Amongst the very impressive phenomenon on Herodium is the vast water system that Herod carved into the belly of the mountain to supply Herod with a constant water supply in the arid desert. He built an aqueduct to bring water to the desert fortress located ten miles away.
Herod was indeed known as the greatest of builders and knew how to live a life of luxury and to be buried in an unmatched way - but he had a difficult personality.. In fact the Roman Emperor said it was safer to be his pig than his friend. Indeed he did kill many of his children, his brother,close friends, and drove one of his wives to suicide. But he didn’t neglect building great edifices named in honor of some of his victims.
He was not accepted by the rabbis as an authentic Jew because his father, Antipater the Edomite, converted under the duress of the Maccabbean king Yochanan Horkonos. Rome appointed both Herod and his father as rulers of Judea.
The Talmud states that when Herod became king, he was very unhappy with what he felt were peculiar Jewish laws that did not recognize kings as gods and that a Jewish king had limited powers granted in the Torah.
Herod summoned the rabbis to him to confirm whether they were teaching the masses that he didn’t have absolute authority. After receiving confirmation, Herod ordered all the rabbis killed. He decided to leave one Sage alive, Rabba Bar Buta, and “merely” blinded him.
The Talmud relates that the paranoid king later approached the blind rabbi to learn if there were plans to topple the king. At first he did not reveal who he was. But when the rabbi convinced him that he was not a potential rebel leader and simply accepted the fate as it is, Herod revealed himself and begged the rabbi to tell him how he might repent for being so rash.

The blind rabbi told him, “You have put out the lights of the world by murdering the rabbis. Try to rekindle the lights by tending to the Temple.”
Herod subsequently embarked upon building the Temple, the greatest construction in the ancient world. Jerusalem’s Western Wall is a tiny bit of only the outer support walls of that wonder.
However, Herod didn’t change his ways. Herod was on his death bed in his winter palace in Jericho, deteriorating from a social disease . Although he knew that he was hated for his tyranny, Herod nonetheless made his wish on his deathbed: “Gather all the rabbis to the adjacent room. Announce that when I die, the rabbis will also be killed. Thus, the day that I die will not be a happy one. In fact, all will pray for my health” This last order was not executed, but such was the man’s evil intentions to the very end.
Herod was a very evil king but the greatest of builders . Herodiom will no doubt be one of the top tourist destinations in the coming years. A new road recently opened from Jerusalem cuts down traveltime to less than twenty-five minutes. With the completed excavations of the tomb and theater areas, along with its swimming pools, palaces and largest bathhouse yet found in the country, Herodium is a “must see.” The breathtaking view from the top of the surrounding Judean desert enhances one’s recalling of the dramatic spirit of the Jewish rebels that hovers in every part of the mountain.

Shalom Pollack is a veteran Israel tour guide. He guides and plans tours for families and groups. He also writes and lectures on Israel and will be on a lecture tour in the US between October and November. Pollack recently produced a DVD, "Israel - Ancient Roots, Modern Miracle." Clips can be seen on his website,