Wednesday, December 1, 2010


 Last Friday we went to visit the Herodion. The traveler in the area south of Jerusalem and the outskirts of the Judean desert will be intrigued by the sight of this truncated cone shaped hill that  stands out in the surrounding landscape and can be seen from all directions.
This is the mount of Herod the Great, who was born around 74 BCE. He was a converted Edomite, and was sent as a child by his father, a high ranked official, cooperating with the Romans, to get his education in Rome, he was accepted into the court there and had very good relations with the Roman emperors. 
In the year 37 BCE the Roman Senate appointed him as King of the Jews, of the provinces Judea, Galilee and Samaria. He was  never really accepted by the Jewish leaders and the people of Judea. To win the people's recognition he married Mariamme, a princess of the Hasmonean dynasty. He was King of the Jews from the year 37 BCE till 4 BCE.

Herod was a very brutal and tyrannical man, mad in many ways and megalomaniac. Conducting a decadent life style of luxury he started his reign with bloodshed. He had no respect for human life and destroyed remorselessly everyone who disturbed him on his way to power. He murdered his first wife and several relatives of her. He executed at least three of his sons. He had  more wives, about ten, whom he all married for political reasons, and he had sons and daughters with most of them.

His great achievements, and maybe only because of them he should be called Herod the Great, were his architectural building projects. His Jewishness was very questionable and he had angered the Jewish people and their leaders badly by murdering many of their sages and rabbis and because he reduced their influence in the Sanhedrin. The orthodox Jews simply hated him! To appease them and to have his regiment stabilized, he decided about his most important and grandiose task, to rebuild the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He turned it into an absolute glorious feature. The Talmud states, “If you have not seen the Temple that Herod built, you have not seen the most beautiful structure in the world.” The Wailing Wall, the Kotel, die Klagemauer, is one remaining outer wall from Herod's temple. He founded the marvelous city Caesarea with its great harbor, which  later became a capital of the Romans, and he built the majestic fortress Masada, high up on a cliff, hewn straight into the rocks, overlooking the Dead Sea.

In the year 23 BCE Herod the Great, had established himself as a strong and cruel ruler of the Judean kingdom, when he started the construction of another fortified mountain palace, the Herodion, which is the only complex bearing his name. It was completed three years later.
Located about fifteen kilometers south of Jerusalem and very near to Bethlehem and the ancient roads to the Dead Sea, it was built on a hill. Why was it built at all? It certainly did not have any strategic value. Another spa, one more summer palace, another place of relaxation for a spoiled ruler? Could be - but most probably it was built to serve as his burial place, a theory which was strongly supported by the historian Josephus Flavius, who described the Herodion in great detail. He clearly stated that Herod indeed was brought to the Herodion after his death in Jericho and  buried there, "in a bier of solid gold studded with precious stones". And he says: "The naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast.  At its intervals it has round towers....Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and ornament at the same time".
As already said, Herodion stands out and is visible from a great distance. The hill  chosen by Herod, was not high enough for his purpose, so he had it filled to his desired height, one third of the hill is not natural but artificially built. The fortress standing about 90 m above its surroundings, is divided into two sections. 
The upper palace is built in a circular design with double walls and surrounded by four round massive towers, with the eastern tower being the largest, standing above all and providing a panoramic view of the landscape all around. The palace included a colonnaded court, elaborate rooms, a bathroom with a domed roof, and cisterns in a very impressive water system which was chiseled out of the mountain underground, delivering the fortress with a constant water supply through collected rainwater. Herod had also built an aqueduct from springs near Bethlehem, which brought water to the palace.
The lower part at the foot of the mountain consisted of numerous buildings to use by the kings family and his friends and included offices for his staff. A very large pool, used for swimming, boating and as a reservoir, was surrounded by beautiful gardens enclosed by columns with decorated capitals. They have been restored lately for the visitors imagination. 
There is a path which was probably built for Herod's funeral procession, described by Josephus, leading to his grave. The exact location of the grave was a mystery to the archaeologists, searching for it over a period of many years, but then finally in 2007 the remains of his grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum was  found by Prof. Ehud Netzer on the north eastern slope of the hill, after a thirty years long search for it. Sadly last October Prof. Netzer fell while digging on the site and died later due to injuries detained at this accident.
At the time of the Jewish rebellions against the Roman empire, the great revolt of the year 66 CE and the Bar Kochba revolt of the year 132 CE the Herodion was used as a strategic fortress by the rebels who also dug an underground assault system at the upper Herodion and a synagogue and a mikve, a ritual bath, was added as well. Remains of much later built Byzantine churches can also be observed.
It is easy and comfortable to climb up to the fortress. The remaining ruins are very impressive and one can walk down through the water system and the hide and assault tunnels of the rebels.  Ah, and the view from above over Jewish settlements, Arab villages, olive groves and  the perimeter of the Judean desert is wonderful!
The archaeological work on the site is ongoing and for sure there is still much to be discovered. We were happy to see a large group of tourists visiting there and they all seemed to be very excited by experiencing this truly unique place full of history and ancient ruins.

An areal view taken from the flier distributed at the site.
The photographer, my husband Uri Eshkar. The photos are from two visits to the site, from last week and one we paid two years ago at the same time in November.


Pesky Cat Designs said...

I don't know anyone who travels as much as you and your husband! And you live among so much history. Thanks for sharing these photos. I really enjoy exploring and learning through your posts!

Eva said...

I so much enjoy these walks with you and Uri! Excellent photographs, short and concise chapters of knowledge which I very much appreciate. Wouldn't your collected essays with Uri's photos make a wonderful (school)book?

Hilde said...

There is so much to learn from your posts, Yael!
Thank you for the tour around Herodeon, I enjoyed the story and the photos. The hill/fortress is certainly spectacular.

Jouir la vie said...

Es ist für mich immer wieder faszinierend und fast unglaublich zugleich, was die Menschen vor so langer Zeit mit damaligen Mitteln geschaffen haben. Ein ganz toller Bericht darüber...

Sei lieb gegrüßt

Smithy said...

So much to learn from you two! LOL I think you are secretly archaeologists! You certainly are in a superb place to go on "digs" :) Fascinating post Yael

2 B's World said...

Liebe Yael,
nun habe ich es endlich geschafft, mir deine Worte zu übersetzen...ja ja, mein Englisch läßt ab und an zu wünschen übrig. ;-)
Aber es hat sich gelohnt.
Dein Bericht, deine Erklärungen und die Bilder sind eine Bereicherung. Es ist sehr beeindruckend, welche Bauwerke die Menschen damals geschaffen haben. Es muß ein ganz besonderes Gefühl sein, an einem solchen Ort zu stehen und diese Funde aus längst vergangenen Zeiten zu sehen.

Liebe Grüße von 2 B's

Bernadette said...

Du hast einen sehr interessanten Blog! Ganz herzliche Grüße aus Österreich von

Dawn of LaTouchables said...

It still looks fairly warm, there. Beautiful pics and explanations, as always!

Bernstein said...

Hallo Yael,
wieder ein sehr interessanter und lehrreicher Bericht. Die Bilder ergänzen Deine Worte ganz hervorragend und es ist unglaublich, was Menschen vor so langer Zeit erschaffen haben und was für ein Gespür für Architektur sie hatten.
GlG Inbar

wanda miller said...

EXTRAORDINARY post. BEAUTIFUL! i am so amazed at these wonderful pictures.
i wish i could send our rain too, for the fires. they are so destructive and a horrible reminder as to our frailities!
please do not stop with your very special posts! and thank you for your wonderful words on mine.
you might get inundated with even more peeps and i will be mentioning you on my blog soon. you and your words and photos are outstanding (for lack of a better word used here) i thank you!

Irmi said...

Liebe Yael,
gern kommentiere ich noch einmal:
Ich bin beeindruckt von den Fotos und den tollen Texten. Ausgrabungen faszinieren mich seit frühester Jugend. Dieses alles möchte ich mal in Natura sehen.
Liebe Grüße vom Neckarstrand sendet Dir

Anonymous said...

Hi Yael & Uri,
seems we have to add the HERODION to our list of things to see for our next visit to Israel! Interesting place - and as usual, fascinating pictures!
Best regards Jörg & Grazia