An ambitious new exhibition at Jerusalem's Israel Museum sheds new light on the life and death of Herod the Great, the ancient king whose empire sought to straddle imperial Rome and a flourishing Jewish culture.
The Roman-appointed king, who was halakhically not Jewish and who ruled Judaea from 37BCE to 4CE, is known as much for his brutal tyranny as for his magnificent building projects, with the new exhibition focusing on his stunning archaeological legacy.
According to the Christian belief, Herod slaughtered infants in Bethlehem on hearing of the birth of Jesus.
He actually did kill three of his own sons and even his beloved wife Mariamne, a Hasmonean descendant, as well as Torah sages and many political foes, never feeling that he was accepted by the Jews he ruled. They saw him as an Edomite interloper who represented Rome.
He was, in the words of first century historian Flavius Josephus, "equally cruel to everyone, a slave to his temper who distorted justice."
This ego, however, combined with rare organizational and political talents, was what pushed him to demonstrate his grandeur to both his Jewish subjects in Jerusalem and fellow rulers across the Roman empire, by building monumental palaces and renovating the Jewish Second Temple.
The exhibition is described by Israel Museum's director James Snyder as the museum's "most ambitious" archaeological undertaking and the first ever to focus on Herod, AFP reported. It takes visitors on a journey that starts at the winter palace in Jericho and ends at Herodium, a hollowed-out hill near Bethlehem where he built a palace and fortress.
The meticulous reconstruction showcases the height of Roman fashion and craft work -- from a stone bath and patterned floors to a set of jugs for holding the finest delicacies imported from Europe.
Among the 250 artifacts on display is a decorated cornice from Herod's most grandiose undertaking: the expansion of the Second Temple.
Three-dimensional video exhibits use aerial photography to show how Herod's massive structures would have appeared today.
In the Herodium, away from the religious centre of Jerusalem, Herod -- who was born into a family from local tribes who had converted to Judaism -- could feel free to enjoy exquisite wall paintings and frescos at his palace. These were replete with images of animals and people, which Judaism views as idolatrous.
Behind a row of giant columns stands the centerpiece of the exhibition: a reconstruction of the king's burial chamber at Herodium.
Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer spent four decades searching for Herod's burial site on the mount, announcing he found the first evidence of its location in 2007.
But three years later, he fell to his death during an initial tour of the site. The museum has dedicated the exhibition -- entitled "Herod the Great -- The King's Final Journey" -- to Netzer's memory.
Herod's greatness came from him retaining the delicate balance between the western and eastern cultures he represented, Snyder said.
"At the same time that Herod managed to have strong diplomatic ties to the home base (Rome), he enabled the flourishing here of a local culture which was Second Temple period Judaism," he said, according to AFP.
"That delicate balance is really a remarkable thing to see in history, and Herod accomplished that."
Roi Porat, a Hebrew University archaeologist who worked on the excavation of Herodium, said Herod had tried to resolve the internal conflict of belonging to two opposing camps.
"On the one hand, he wanted to be a Jewish king, and on the other, he wanted to be the King of Judaea for the Romans," he told AFP.
"He tried to win the sympathy of both sides by building a holy site of worship for the Jews and by building the largest temple for the Romans," he explained.
Everything about Herod was extreme, he said: his diplomatic skills, his financial abilities and his ambitious construction projects, which included six desert palaces, the Temple and the port of Caesaria.
The exhibit has stirred controversy and come under fire from local Arabs who denounce the exhibit utilizing artifacts from Jericho and Herodium, which they consider to be in the “Israeli-occupied West Bank.”
Hamdan Taha, director of antiquities and cultural heritage at the Palestinian Authority tourism ministry, accused Israel of displaying the antiquities "without the approval" of the Palestinian Authority in what he claimed was a "violation of international law," AFP reported.
"Showing those relics at an Israeli museum aims to create historical facts to serve the goals of settlement activities in the state of Palestine," he alleged, adding that the PA would raise the issue with the UN cultural body, UNESCO, where they recently gained full membership.