One of Randy’s favorite sites in Israel is the Herodium or Herodion, a magnificent archeological treasure located about 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem. From a distance it looks like a simple dormant volcano; but it is actually the ruins of a lavish combination fortress-palace built by King Herod the Great. One of his most awe-inspiring building projects, Herod named the stronghold after himself and chose it as his final resting place.
In its heyday, it must have been a sight to behold―and to terrify. Towering above the surrounding countryside, it could be seen from as far away as Jerusalem. It was a man-made marvel and a symbol of the supreme power and control that Herod wielded, even over the natural environment.
The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, describes its construction and appearance in this way:
this fortress … 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. (Wars of the Jews, 1, 21, 10 and Antiquities of the Jews XIV, 13, 9.)
From the excavations of the artificial mountain, archeologists have been able to determine that Herod’s private residence was splendidly appointed. The floors were enhanced with colored tiles and mosaics and the walls with frescoed paintings. Colonnaded porticoes enclosed a private pleasure garden. And a Roman-style bathhouse was roofed with a dome, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Everything was built or manufactured to perfection, the picture above of a clay chandelier being only one small example.
The ruins at the base are no less impressive. Amidst the administrative buildings, Herod built a race track and a pool large enough to accommodate small boats. Almost twice as large as modern Olympic size pools, Herod had the water piped in via aqueduct from reservoirs near Bethlehem. In a country which is assured of rain only a few months of the year, this would have been extravagant excess. Not to mention the cost to the local residents―again according to Josephus:
So they threw down all the hedges and walls which the inhabitants had made about their gardens and groves of trees, and cut down all the fruit trees that lay between them and the wall of the city, and filled up all the hollow places and the chasms, and demolished the rocky precipices with iron instruments; and thereby made all the place level … (Wars, 5.3.2)
One of the most recent archeological discoveries is Herod’s tomb, which was found in 2007 about half way up the hillside. (On our last trip to Israel in 2009, we were able to see only a small portion of the tomb excavations.) Since that time a team led by the discoverer, Ehud Netzer, has been able to guess at a better reconstruction of the tomb and sarcophagus — a stone container for the decomposed bones of the dead. You can appreciate the granduer of Herod’s personal monument by watching this video from an exhibition at the Israel Museum.
Walking around the top of the Herodium makes it a bit easier to “get inside” King Herod’s head. The view is not only militarily strategic; it’s breath-taking. One could easily succumb to the exalted feeling and imagine he (or she) really was “on top of the world” in regard to wealth, power and influence. And it makes it a bit easier to “get inside” Jesus’ head, too. His teaching about “faith moving mountains” is easier to understand when you know that he may have had this very practical example in mind.
There are many great links out there about this particular pilgrimage site. Here are some that I highly recommend:
- a quick time-lapse video of how it was constructed
- a longer video about the marvels of its engineering
- a web page with thorough information about the site
- an article about the Israel Museum exhibition about the Herod dynasty