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Archaeology in Israel: Herodian

Some 12 km. south of Jerusalem, on a hill shaped like a truncated cone that rises 758 m. above sea level, stood Herodium, the palace-fortress built by King Herod. It had a breathtaking view, overlooking the Judean Desert and the mountains of Moab to the east, and the Judean Hills to the west.

Herodium is described in great detail by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius:

This fortress, which is some sixty stadia distant from Jerusalem, is naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, for reasonably nearby is a hill, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast. At intervals it has round towers, and it has a steep ascent formed of two hundred steps of hewn stone. Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament at the same time. At the base of the hill there are pleasure grounds built in such a way as to be worth seeing, among other things because of the way in which water, which is lacking in that place, is brought in from a distance and at great expense. The surrounding plain was built up as a city second to none, with the hill serving as an acropolis for the other dwellings.
(War I, 31, 10; Antiquities XIV, 323-325)

According to Josephus, Herodium was built on the spot where Herod won a victory over his Hasmonean and Parthian enemies in 40 BCE. (Antiquities XIV, 352-360) To commemorate the event, the king built a fortress and a palace there, which he named after himself. He also built, in the plain below the hill, an administrative center for the region, which had not been previously settled. Here, at Herodium, he also had a royal tomb built for himself; Josephus describes (War I, 33, 8; Antiquities XVII, 196-199) the king's funeral procession and burial at Herodium.

Herodium, together with Machaerus (in today's Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) and Masada near the Dead Sea, were the last three fortresses held by Jewish fighters after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Herodium was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE. (War VII, 6, 1)

The site was identified in the 19th century; its name in Arabic, Jabal Fureidis, is probably a corruption of the ancient name, Herodis (mentioned in the Bar Kochba letters). Remains of the palace-fortress on the hilltop have been excavated by several expeditions since the early 1960s. Excavation of the buildings at the foot of the hill has been conducted intermittently since 1972 to the present time.

Herodium was built in two separate areas, each with a distinct function: a circular fortress, including an elaborate palace, surrounded by a wall with towers on top of the hill; and Lower Herodium, in the plain to the north, with a group of royal buildings around a large pool.

The Palace-Fortress

The combination of fortress and palace is a uniquely Herodian innovation, which he repeated on several other sites, including Masada. At Herodium, a circular palace-fortress was constructed on top of a hill, which rises 60 m. above its surroundings. The fortifications consist of two concentric walls with a 2.5 m. space between them. the outer walls measure 62 m. in diameter. The fortification was originally about 30 m. high, with seven stories. Two of these stories were underground foundations, strengthened with barrel-vaulted ceilings, and the superstructure of five stories was considerably higher than the palace courtyard. Wooden ceilings separated the stories, which were used for storage and as quarters for soldiers and servants. Huge towers projected from the walls on all four sides. The eastern tower - the largest - was a massive, round tower on a solid stone base and measured 18 m. in diameter. It had several upper stories with elaborate rooms, probably for the use of the royal entourage. This eastern tower rose above the entire fortress, its roof commanding a panoramic view; it also served as a hiding place in times of danger.

The other three towers were semi-circular, 16 m. in diameter, and their upper stories served as storage spaces and living areas. After construction of the fortification around the hill, an earth rampart of considerable height was laid against the outer foundations of the fortification, artificially raising the hill and giving it a conical shape. The entry-gate to the fortress, in the northeast, was reached via a straight, steep staircase within a corridor built into the earthen rampart.

Cisterns beneath the fortress, filled with rainwater which was channeled from above, assured its water supply. In addition, three very large cisterns were cut into the slope outside the fortress (near the entrance to the staircase) and rainwater was channeled into them from the hillside. Water was drawn from these cisterns by servants, who carried it to the cistern on the top of the hill, which was probably always kept full.

Herod's private palace, of modest dimensions, stood within the fortification. It was splendidly appointed, with floors of colored tiles, mosaics and wall paintings and included every imaginable feature for comfort. The eastern part of the palace was a garden, in a 41 x 18 m. atrium surrounded on three sides by porticos, its columns adorned with Corinthian capitals. The western portion of the palace had two stories. Its ground floor included:

  • a hall (triclinium), with a roof supported by four columns (stone benches were added on three of its sides by Jewish fighters during the Jewish Revolt against Rome [66-70 CE], who converted it into a synagogue);

  • a cruciform courtyard with rooms at its corners;

  • a small bathhouse (the preserved domed roof in one of its rooms is the earliest example of a dome found to date in Israel).

Lower Herodium

On the plain below the fortress to the north, Lower Herodium covered an area of some 38 acres. It was well planned, the buildings and gardens placed on a north-south axis. The buildings were constructed around a large pool (70 x 46 m., and 3 m. deep), which was filled by water from the aqueduct especially built to carry water from the springs at Artas near Solomon's pools to the west. The pool was plastered to prevent seepage and used as the main reservoir of Herodium, as well as for swimming. The foundations of a round building (15 m. in diameter) were found in the center of the pool. It once had a roof supported by a row of columns and was probably a pavilion for relaxation and entertaining. The pool was surrounded by extensive, well-tended gardens. Six metre-wide porticos, consisting of columns adorned with Ionic capitals surrounded the gardens on three sides, to a length of about 250 m. Halls, each measuring 110 x 10 m., were built along the eastern and the western sides of the pool. The eastern hall was built on a 13 m.-wide and extremely high terrace wall. The octagonal room at the center of the western hall had walls decorated with pilasters and frescos. It is assumed that this room served as a reception hall, or perhaps even as the king's throne room when he resided at Herodium.

The pool complex was surrounded by buildings of various functions. In the north was a large structure that included storage areas and servants quarters. In the northwest a warehouse was uncovered and fragments of dozens of ceramic storage jars were found among the debris. In the southwest a large bathhouse was excavated, which probably served the royal entourage and the king's guests. It comprised a number of rooms and pools, a caldarium (hot room) heated by the hypocaust system (the floor was raised on supports, allowing hot air to circulate below the floor, thus heating the room). The bathhouse walls were decorated in painted square patterns and in imitation marble. The floors were paved with colored mosaics in geometric and floral patterns, as well as with pomegranates, grapevines and grape clusters.

The Monumental Building

The building dubbed "the monumental building" by the excavators, stood south of the pool, at the western edge of a level, man-made area measuring 350 x 30 m. In this building there is an elaborate square hall, open on the side facing the level area; it measures 12 x 9 m. and is preserved to a height of 7 m. The particularly thick walls of the hall are built of well-cut ashlars, with niches between pilasters. Architectural elements, with decorations characteristic of elaborate burial monuments in Jerusalem, and the ritual bath found here, have prompted the suggestion that the building was part of King Herod's mausoleum. The room described could have served as a triclinium for ceremonies in memory of the king. The man-made level area in front of the building perhaps served as as a plaza for the royal funeral procession described by Josephus. (War I, 33, 9) To the disappointment of the excavators the tomb itself has not yet been found. It may well be hidden nearby, deep in the slopes of the fortress of Herodium.

As the excavation progressed, extensive restoration was carried out on the structures of Herodium. It is possible today to walk on a comfortable path to the top of the fortress, to climb its walls and to enjoy, as in the past, the view of the surrounding region. One may also descend to the 300 m.-long tunnels, cisterns and rock-cut spaces under the hill. These underground passages were cut as hiding places by Jewish fighters of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132-135) when Herodium was once more besieged by the Roman army. And the large pool at Lower Herodium is, as in times of old, once more surrounded by (restored) porticos.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs