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Herod built an elaborate palace fortress on the 300-foot mountain, Herodium, to commemorate his victory in a crucial battle. (Duby Tal / Albatross / IsraelImages)

Finding King Herod's Tomb

After a 35-year search, an Israeli archaeologist is certain he has solved the mystery of the biblical figure’s final resting place

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Shielding my eyes from the glare of the morning sun, I look toward the horizon and the small mountain that is my destination: Herodium, site of the fortified palace of King Herod the Great. I'm about seven miles south of Jerusalem, not far from the birthplace of the biblical prophet Amos, who declared: "Let justice stream forth like water." Herod's reign over Judea from 37 to 4 B.C. is not remembered for justice but for its indiscriminate cruelty. His most notorious act was the murder of all male infants in Bethlehem to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy heralding the birth of the Messiah. There is no record of the decree other than the Gospel of Matthew, and biblical scholars debate whether it actually took place, but the story is in keeping with a man who arranged the murders of, among others, three of his own sons and a beloved wife.

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Long an object of scholarly as well as popular fascination, Herodium, also called Herodion, was first positively identified in 1838 by the American scholar Edward Robinson, who had a knack for locating biblical landmarks. After scaling the mountain and comparing his observations with those of the first century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Robinson concluded that "all these particulars...leave scarcely a doubt, that this was Herodium, where the [Judean] tyrant sought his last repose." Robinson's observation was confirmed later that century by Conrad Schick, the famous German architect and archaeologist who conducted extensive surveys of Jerusalem and its nearby sites.

But where precisely was the king entombed? At the summit of Herodium? At the base? Inside the mountain itself? Josephus didn't say. By the late 1800s, Herod's tomb had become one of biblical archaeology's most sought-after prizes. And for more than a century archaeologists scoured the site. Finally, in 2007, Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University announced that after 35 years of archaeological work he had found Herod's resting place. The news made headlines worldwide—"A New Discovery May Solve the Mystery of the Bible's Bloodiest Tyrant," trumpeted the London Daily Mail.

"In terms of size, quality of decoration and prominence of its position, it's hard to reach any other conclusion," says Jodi Magness, an archaeologist in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has excavated at other sites where Herod oversaw construction projects. Ken Holum, a University of Maryland archaeologist and historian who served as a curator for the traveling Smithsonian exhibition "King Herod's Dream," cautions that "it is always wise to be less than certain when there is no identifying inscription or other explicit identification." But he says he personally believes Netzer has indeed discovered Herod's tomb.

Netzer, 75, is one of Israel's best-known archaeologists and a renowned authority on Herod. Trained as an architect, he worked as an assistant to the archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who from 1963 to 1965 led an exhaustive dig at Masada, the fortified plateau near the Dead Sea where Herod built two palaces. In 1976, Netzer led a team that discovered the site of one of Herod's infamous misdeeds: the murder of his young brother-in-law, Aristobulus, whom Herod ordered to be drowned in a pool at his winter palace complex near Jericho. Yet the discovery of Herod's tomb would be Netzer's most celebrated find. And as is often the case with such discoveries, Netzer found it where, for years, he least expected it.

Arriving at Herodium, which is not only an active archaeological site but also, since the late 1960s, a national park, I drive partway up the mountain to the parking lot where I will meet Netzer. In the early 1980s, before the first intifada turned the West Bank into a conflict zone, Herodium drew some 250,000 people per year. For the moment I'm the sole visitor. At a kiosk I buy a ticket that lets me ascend on foot to the summit. At the base of the mountain the remains of a royal complex, known as Lower Herodium, sprawl across nearly 40 acres. Gone are the homes, gardens and stables; the most recognizable structure is an immense pool, 220 by 150 feet, which is graced with a center island.

A narrow trail hugging the hillside leads me to an opening in the slope, where I enter an enormous cistern now part of a route to the summit, more than 300 feet above the surrounding countryside. The air inside is pleasantly cool, and the walls are smooth and dry, with patches of original plaster. I follow a network of tunnels dug during the second Jewish revolt against the Romans in A.D. 135 and enter another, smaller cistern. Daylight pours in. I climb a steep staircase and emerge at the summit, in the middle of the palace courtyard.

The palace fortress once reached close to 100 feet high and was surrounded by double concentric walls accented by four cardinal point towers. Besides living quarters, the upper palace had a triclinium (a Greco-Roman-style formal dining room lined on three sides by a couch) and a bathhouse that features a domed, hewn-stone ceiling with an oculus (round opening). It's strange to find such a perfectly preserved structure amid the ancient ruins, and it leaves me with an eerie sense of standing both in the past and the present.

Gazing out from the perimeter wall, I see Arab villages and Israeli settlements in three directions. But to the east cultivation abruptly stops as the desert exerts its authority, plummeting out of sight to the Dead Sea, then rising again as the mountains of Jordan. Why would Herod build such a prominent fortress—the largest palace complex in the Roman world—on the edge of a desert?

Though the site had little apparent strategic value, it held profound meaning for Herod. Born around 73 B.C., he was the governor of Galilee when, in 40 B.C., the Parthian Empire conquered Judea (then under Roman control) and named a new king, Mattathias Antigonus. Herod, probably more shrewd than loyal, declared allegiance to Rome and fled Jerusalem with as many as 5,000 people—his family and a contingent of fighting men—under cover of night.

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