Herodion – The mountain built around a tomb

Herodion – The mountain built around a tomb

After a thirty five 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 ( or Harasha – the evil one, 73 BCE – 4 CE).
He spent the last thirty years unearthing the areas at the base of the partially man made volcano like mountain just between Jerusalem and Bethlehem skirting the Judean Desert.

He unearthed magnificent swimming pools , bath houses palaces parade grounds – but no tomb.
It was not on top of the fortress palace . That area was extensively excavated and though it did indeed reveal very impressive remains – no tomb. So, it was not on the top and it was not on the bottom. But Josephus Flavius, the prominent historian of Herod, clearly states that he was buried in Herodion . He just did not bother to say where.
In steps Prof. Netzer. Where else is 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 Herodion in desperation he began to poke at the most unlikely spots – the hidden sides of the mountain. BINGO!.

The only similar monumental marble casks set in an ornate mausoleum 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 helped convince him that he had indeed finally found Herod’s tomb. Beside the main reddish marble tomb he found two smaller white marble sarcophagi which probably belongs to family members. Near by, an entire mini Roman theater was also unearthed with a raised private viewing porch decorated in multi colored frescoes of the finest art. And all this cut into the side of the mountain!

Apparently at one point Herod gave the order to cover up all the magnificent designs with dirt to recreate the perfect volcano form. Did we mention that he was mad?

Herod ion 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 and at the same time opulent palaces. Both symbolized Herod’s reputation as the greatest builder of the ancient world. The Talmud says , “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 Cochba and Rabbi Akive . 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 Herodion there was no dramatic last stand – just careful preparations for one. When visiting Herodion one can see and feel the stage being set for the battle which apparantly never did take place In the nineteen sixties professor Yigal Yadin discovered in the caves of the Judean desert, letters sent to the Jewish fighters on Herod ion by their commander, Simon Bar Cochran. The letter instructed that the fighters to be supplied with lulavs and etros for the Sukkot holiday. Now thats a Jewish army! Imagine standing in the synagogue where these men prayed!

Amongst the very impressive phenomenon on Herodion is the vast water system Herod carved into the belly of the mountain. He built an aqueduct to bring water to the desert fortress form ten miles away!.

Herod was indeed 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 id not neglct to build 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 Hurceanus
To make a very long story of intrigue and violence short, his father and he managed to have Rome appoint them as rulers of Judea

The Talmud tels us that when he became king he was very unhappy with the peculiar Jewish laws that did not recognize kings as gods and that a Jewish king had limited powers granted in the Torah etc..

He summoned the rabbis to him to be sure that indeed they were teaching the people that he . did not have absolute power. When this was confirmed, he ordered all the rabbis killed. He decided to leave one alive, Rabba Bar Buta, and had him blinded

The Talmud tells us that he later approached the blind rabbi and tried to learn of 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 toin some way rekindle the lights by tending to the Temple.”
Herod then decided to embark upon the greatest construction of the ancient world The Western Wall is a tiny bit of only the outer support walls of that wonder.

Lest you think that Herod was a changed man, listen to what he planned for the day he would die. Herod was on his death bed in his winter palace in Jericho, deteriorating from a social disease . He knew that he was hated for the tyrant he was and so his last order on earth was ; “Gather all the rabbis to the room next to me. Announce, that the moment I die so do the rabbis. Thus, the day I die will not be a happy one. I n fact all will pray for my health” This last order was not executed but such was the man.to the very end

Herod was a very evil king but the greatest of builders . Herodion will no doubt be one of the top tourist destinations in the coming years. A new road has just opened from Jerusalem cutting down travel to less than twenty five minutes. With the completed excavations of the tomb and theater areas along with the the base of the mountain with its swimming pools, palaces and largest bath house yet found in the country. it will be a must see. Add to that, the dramatic spirit of the Jewish rebels that hovers in every part of the mountain and Herodion is where you will be on your next visit. Oh ,and did I mention the view from the top?