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Archaeology in Israel: 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 Jericho.

Herod's Palaces

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 fired bricks.

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.

Sources: Ministry 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.