Aug 3, 2015 Helen Brown

Amateur Archaeology: Herod's Palaces

Riches to Rags — Herod’s Palaces

The name of Herod the Great must have inspired terror in his day, and he is still widely known as a violent despot and a great builder. In addition to the massive platform and renovation of the Second Temple, he specialized in the construction of a number of palaces in unlikely places.

Herod's Palace in Jerusalem

Little remains to be seen of the enormous palace complex he had built in Jerusalem. Except for the three towers, it has been all but obliterated by successive layers of destruction and construction. A few weeks ago we joined a new tour at Herod’s citadel (AKA the Tower of David) that took us through the moat to see the remains of just one of several pools and the foundations of the palace complex. With the help of the plans and diagrams, and the knowledgable guide, we could imagine the extent of this palace, which Josephus eloquently described. Herod must truly have impressed the foreign dignitaries he received there with his wealth and Roman culture.

Pool Steps of Herod's Palace

Original steps and part of a pool in the palace complex
Click for full-sized image

Palace Excavations in the Kishle

Excavations in the Kishle (Turkish prison building) showing on the right
the massive foundation walls of the palace

The Herodion

Earlier this year we drove out south of Bethlehem to the Herodion. Here Herod had identified a large hill that stood apart from others. At the base he laid out a large pool with gardens and walks. He built up the sides of the hill to form a smooth cone, fortified the top, and created a palace down inside those walls as if inside the top of a volcano. Complete with a secure water supply, bathhouse, and reception hall, he had a safe retreat from the pressures of Jerusalem.

Herodion Hill

First view of the Herodion

Herodion Palace

Inside the upper palace

Herodion Cistern

Just one of several enormous cisterns

All of this was excavated many years ago. Our goal was to see the recent discovery, after many years of searching, of the tomb of Herod. Half way up the hill is a theatre with a royal box for the elite to watch the shows, and a little further round are the remains of the huge mausoleum Herod had apparently ordered for himself. Enough parts were found on the site to be able to reconstruct a model of the structure.

Herod's Tomb

The tomb site: the actual mausoleum was 7 times larger than the model

Model of Herodion Structures

Model of the palace, theater, and tomb

Ironically, for all his efforts to create an impregnable tomb that would stand in his honor, Herod was so hated by the Jewish people that they lost no time in destroying the entire edifice (the sarcophagus was already looted). During the revolts against the Romans, the fortress buildings were reworked to meet the needs of the rebels, and the underground water system became a hideout from which the rebels could attack the army. The pile of rubble that marked his gravesite was covered with more dirt and lay undiscovered for 2000 years. So ended his reign of terror in ignominy, a fitting warning to the tyrants of today.

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