Jericho - The Winter Palace of King Herod
by Hillel Geva
The oasis of Jericho,
some 25 km. east of Jerusalem,
lies in the Jordan Valley, about 390 m. below sea level and has warm
and pleasant winters. It was, therefore, chosen as the site for the
winter palaces of the kings of the Hasmonean dynasty, and of King Herod,
in the Second Temple period. In this plain with fertile soil and an
abundance of water from nearby springs, rare plants producing aromatic
essences and spices, were grown. Most famous among these was the opobalsamum
plant, whose oil was among the costliest substances in the ancient world,
and very profitable to the growers.
The palaces were situated below the high cliffs of
the Judean Desert at the entrance to Wadi Qelt - west of the Jericho
oasis - about a day's horseback riding from Jerusalem. They were planned
for rest and recreation, but also as administrative centers; the proximity
to Jerusalem made it possible for the monarch to efficiently deal with
affairs of state during his winter sojourn there. Regular water supply,
via aqueduct from the springs in Wadi Qelt (wadi = dry riverbed), was
ensured. The water filled reservoirs and swimming pools and was used
to irrigate the palace gardens as well as tens of acres of agricultural
land belonging to the crown, where dates and costly aromatic plants
and spices were grown. The palaces and the road from Jericho to Jerusalem
were protected by the fortresses of Doq (Qarantal) and Cypros, built
atop the cliffs at the entrance to Wadi Qelt.
The remains of the palaces, including the two artificial
mounds known to local inhabitants as Tulul Abu al-Alaiq, cover an extensive
area on both sides of Wadi Qelt. Excavations conducted over a period
of 15 years beginning in 1973, revealed a series of royal palaces from
the Second Temple period, built successively one on top of the other,
or adjacent to earlier structures. The excavations uncovered the complex
plans of the palaces, as well as evidence of the opulent life at court.
The Hasmonean Palace
Herod's palace at Jericho was preceded by successive
palaces built by the kings of the Hasmonean dynasty, from the end of
the 2nd to the middle of the 1st century BCE. The Hasmonean palaces,
on the northern bank of Wadi Qelt, consisted of an open courtyard surrounded
by rooms, clearly reflecting Hellenistic architectural influence. Noteworthy
are elegant rooms for entertaining (triclinia) with colonnaded façades
and bathrooms with bathtubs. These were decorated with colored frescos
in imitation of marble and in geometric patterns of Hellenistic style;
they are among the earliest discovered in the Land of Israel. There
were "twin swimming pools", and one of the palaces was built
atop a 15 m.-high artificial mound, surrounded by a wall with a glacis,
towers and a broad, ca. 7 m.-deep moat.
Towards the end of Hasmonean rule, the palace complex
was renovated and a more sophisticated bathhouse was added. It had several
rooms, some decorated with frescos, bathtubs and mikva'ot (pools for
Jewish ritual bathing). The main room in the bathhouse was paved with
mosaic, in red, black and white geometric patterns, one of the earliest
mosaic floors so far uncovered. A building, believed to be a synagogue,
was found several years ago in the northeastern part of the Hasmonean
palace complex, but the connection to the Hasmonean palace remains unclear,
because Herod's palace was built on top of it (see Archeological Sites
in Israel, No. 3, page 4).
A political assassination, recorded by Josephus
Flavius (Antiquities 16:50-51), occurred in Jericho's Hasmonean
palace. Fearful that his kingdom would be taken from him by the Romans
and given to a young priest of the Hasmonean dynasty, Herod ordered
his servants to drown the boy in the swimming pool of the palace in
Well acquainted with the advantages of the Jericho
oasis, Herod also built a palace there. It was much larger and more
magnificent than that of his Hasmonean predecessors. Built in three
stages, it covered extensive areas on both sides of Wadi Qelt, with
a bridge connecting the two parts. During this time, Roman imperial
style in architecture was first applied in the Land of Israel and parts
of the palace complex were obviously built by Roman artisans, working
alongside local architects and builders.
The First Palace
Herod's First Palace was situated on the southern
bank of Wadi Qelt, in the region which Herod leased from Cleopatra,
Queen of Egypt, who had received it as a gift from Marcus Antonius in
36 BCE. The Hasmonean palace north of the wadi remained in use during
this period. This First Palace was rectangular (87 x 46 m.), with distinctly
Roman architectural features. It was fortified and had a single entrance.
At its center was a large peristyle courtyard surrounded by rooms on
three sides; to the west of the courtyard was a large guest hall with
rows of columns along three sides, open to the courtyard on the fourth.
An elaborate bathhouse in Roman style, with six rooms, was one of the
innovations introduced by Herod. At the center was the caldarium (hot
room), heated by a hypocaust (the floor raised on rows of ceramic supports,
creating a space under the floor through which hot air was forced, heating
the floor and thus, the entire room). The floors of the bathing rooms
were paved with mosaics in colored, geometric patterns.
The Second Palace
Herod's Second Palace was built north of Wadi Qelt,
east of the Hasmonean Palace and on parts of it, after the destruction
of the first palace by earthquake in 31 BCE. The twin swimming pools
of the Hasmonean palace were joined into a single large one (32 x 18
m.) and surrounded by gardens. Trees and shrubs were planted in clay
pots set into the ground; many of them were found in their original
position. The palace had an unobstructed view of the surrounding scenery;
it was divided into two wings, the northern built on a terrace 5 m.
higher than the southern, connected by a broad staircase.
At the center of the northern wing was a courtyard
(34 x 28 m.), surrounded by a row of columns on all four sides. Atypically,
the center of the courtyard was raised above the level of the surrounding
porticos; the purpose of this architectural innovation eludes us. Located
at the center of a row of rooms south of the courtyard was a grand triclinium,
decorated with frescos. East and north of the courtyard were rows of
rooms, probably guest rooms.
The southern wing of the palace included installations
for the use and pleasure of the court and its guests: a pool surrounded
by a row of columns and a courtyard; a large hall opening towards the
pool via a row of column on its façade; and a splendid bathhouse,
its rooms paved with mosaics, its walls decorated with frescos. The
hypocaust in the caldarium was built in an unusual way - its upper floor
was supported by rows of small stone columns - instead of the usual
The Third Palace
Herod's Third Palace, the largest, was constructed
on both sides of Wadi Qelt and covered an area of over seven acres,
with a bridge over the wadi, connecting its two wings. Some of the walls
of this palace were made of a core of concrete, with stone facings termed
opus reticulatum (small rectangular or square stones set into the concrete).
Since this construction technique, though widely used in Rome, was extremely
rare elsewhere, it is the opinion of the excavator, that King Herod
had hired a team of Roman artisans.
The Northern Wing of the palace included halls, rooms,
peristyle courtyards and a large bathhouse. The main entrance was in
the south, opposite the bridge; its walls were decorated with frescos
and its ceiling with stucco. At the center of the building was a courtyard
surrounded by columns on three sides. The wider columns of the eastern
colonnade were constructed of small stones and mortar and bore Corinthian
capitals; the lower parts of the columns were plastered and painted
red and black, while the upper portions were faced with grooved plaster.
North of the courtyard was the main bathhouse of the
Third Palace. Entirely constructed of Roman concrete with stone facings
in the opus reticulatum technique, it consisted of five rooms arranged
in a row, with vaulted roofs. The main room served as an entrance hall
where bathers undressed and relaxed. To the right one could walk to
the caldarium (hot room), which was heated by hypocaust. This room was
rectangular, its walls thicker than usual and in each of them was a
niche. On the left side of the caldarium was a circular, domed room
(8 m. in diameter), probably a sudatorium (sweat room), heated by charcoal
braziers. From the main room of the bathhouse, one could walk to a stepped
pool, the frigidarium (cold room).
West of the bathhouse was a courtyard surrounded on
three sides by columns with ionic capitals. The walls of the courtyard
were decorated with frescos, among the most lavish found in Herod's
palaces. At the center of the courtyard was a garden, in which seven
rows of 12 clay flowerpots were found. At the northern side of the courtyard,
which had no columns, was a semi-circular plaza with walls built of
Roman concrete. An entrance in the center of the rounded wall led to
a rectangular, splendidly decorated room. Its walls were covered with
frescos, its ceiling with stucco and the floor was of plaster, grooved
to simulate tiles. This was probably the throne room, where the king
received his visitors.
The largest of the halls of the palace was located
on its western side. It measured 29 x 19 m., and was undoubtedly used
for large receptions; rows of columns surrounded it on three sides,
the columns in the northern corner in the shape of a heart. The floor
paving was of local and imported stone tiles, laid in opus sectile fashion
(alternating colors and shapes placed so as to create geometric designs).
The walls of the hall were covered with frescos and stucco.
The southern wing of the palace included the "sunken
garden," a large pool and the southern artificial mound. The "sunken
garden" was a garden located within a rectangular structure measuring
145 x 40 m. The back wall of the structure, with a series of niches,
was built into the hillside. At the center of the wall was a large,
circular, stepped niche; it is assumed that a variety of plants were
grown in the many flowerpots found there.
An artificial mound with a staircase ascending to
its top was found south of the sunken garden. The mound was created
by building a large 20.5 x 19.5 m. frame of high walls in a grid, creating
nine hollow spaces, which were then filled with earth and stones. Earth
was heaped outside the frame, to create an artificial hill with a steep
slope. This formed a stable platform for the superstructure, which consisted
of a single, circular reception hall, 15 m. in diameter. The walls,
with semi-circular niches, were decorated with colored frescos. This
hall, which was raised above its surroundings, afforded a wonderful
view of the Jericho oasis.
In the 1st century CE, until its destruction during
the Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66 -70), the palace remained in use
by members of King Herod's family.
of Foreign Affairs
Hillel Geva studied
archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, participated in excavations
in the Jewish Quarter and the Citadel in Jerusalem, and is author of
the entry "Jerusalem" in the New Encyclopedia of Archeological
Excavations in the Holy Land and editor of Ancient Jerusalem Revealed.