The Roman-appointed king, who ruled Judaea from 37 to 4 BC, is known as much for his brutal tyranny as for his magnificent building projects. Herod, who was born into a family from local regional tribes had converted to Judaism.
According to the Christian belief, Herod slaughtered infants in Bethlehem on hearing of the birth of Jesus. He was also believed to have killed three of his own sons and one of his wives, as well as many political foes. 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.
An new exhibition at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum sheds new light on the life and death of “Herod the Great”, the ancient king by focusing on his stunning archaeological legacy and whose empire sought to straddle imperial Rome and a flourishing Jewish culture. 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.
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, one 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.
Herod’s greatness came from him retaining the delicate balance between the western and eastern cultures he represented, Snyder stated. “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.” “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, stated 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 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.” Everything about Herod was extreme, he stated: his diplomatic skills, his financial abilities and his ambitious construction projects, which included six desert palaces, the Temple and the port of Caesarea.
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. However, 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.