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

Herod built an elaborate palace fortress on the 300-foot mountain, Herodium, to commemorate his victory in a crucial battle. (Duby Tal / Albatross / IsraelImages)
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Surging over rocky terrain, the wagon in which Herod's mother was riding overturned. Herod drew his sword and was on the verge of suicide when he saw she had survived. He returned to the battle and fought "not like one that was in distress...but like one that was excellently prepared for war," Josephus wrote. In tribute to his victory and his mother's survival, he vowed to be buried there.

Herod sought refuge in Petra (in today's Jordan)—capital of the Nabateans, his mother's people—before heading to Rome. Three years later, with Rome's backing, Herod conquered Jerusalem and became king of Judea. A decade would pass before he would begin work on the remote fortified palace that would fulfill his pledge.

Herod must have given a lot of thought to how Herodium would function, given the lack of a reliable water source and the mountain's distance from Jerusalem (in those days, a three- to four-hour trip by horseback). He arranged for spring water to be brought three and a half miles via an aqueduct, relocated the district capital to Herodium (with all the staff that such a move implied) and surrounded himself with 10 to 20 trustworthy families.

"Herodium was built to solve the problem he himself created by making a commitment to be buried in the desert," says Netzer. "The solution was to build a large palace, a country club—a place of enjoyment and pleasure." The summit palace could be seen by Herod's subjects in Jerusalem, while the tallest of the four towers offered the king pleasant breezes and a gripping view of his domain.

Ongoing excavations by Netzer reveal the impressive variety of facilities that Herod built at his desert retreat, including a royal theater that accommodated some 450 spectators. Netzer believes it was constructed to entertain Marcus Agrippa, Rome's second in command and a close friend of the Judean king, who visited Herodium in 15 B.C. Netzer unlocks a plywood door that has been installed on the site and invites me into the royal box, where Herod and his honored guests would have been seated. The walls were decorated with vivid secco landscape paintings (colors applied to dry, not wet, plaster). The colors, though subdued now, still feel vibrant, and we gaze at the image of an animal, maybe a gazelle, loping along.

Around 10 B.C., according to Netzer, Herod oversaw the construction of his mausoleum. Upon its completion, he undertook the final stage of his self-commemoration by literally increasing the mountain's height: Herod's crew carted gravelly soil and rocks from the surrounding area to Herodium, pouring it all around the summit. Even with unlimited manpower, it must have been a Sisyphean enterprise to pile all that earth some 65 feet high and comb it over the original slopes like a child's carefully smoothed sand hill. "Like a pyramid," Netzer says, "the entire mountain was turned into a monument."

The borders of Judea were quiet during Herod's reign, enabling him to undertake an ambitious building program that brought employment and prosperity to the region. The major projects he completed include the incomparable Temple in Jerusalem, a stunning winter palace in Jericho, two palaces atop Masada and the harbor at Caesarea. A palace garden in Jericho was elevated so that people strolling along the colonnades would see the foliage and flowers at eye level.

Still, Herod's reign is remembered more for its ruthlessness and paranoia than its architectural feats. He tortured and killed family members, servants and bodyguards, to say nothing of his real enemies. In an Othello-like rage, Herod even ordered the execution of the woman he loved most—his second wife, Mariamne—believing that she had committed adultery. Herod's eldest son and heir apparent, Antipater, convinced the king that two of his other sons were plotting against him—so Herod had them executed. And when Herod learned that Antipater was planning to poison him, he rose from his bed just five days before he died to order the murder of Antipater. (As the Roman Emperor Augustus supposedly quipped: "It's better to be Herod's pig than his son.") In a final act of depravity, Herod imprisoned all the notables of Judea, ordering that they be executed on the day of his death so the country would be plunged into mourning. But when Herod died, in Jericho at about age 69—probably of kidney failure exacerbated by a genital infection, according to Aryeh Kasher's recent biography King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor—the prisoners were released. Instead of mourning, rejoicing filled the land.

Josephus wrote that Herod's body was conveyed to Herodium, "where, in accordance with the directions of the deceased, it was interred." The late king was "covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it, and a scepter in his right hand."

And so began a mystery that tantalized scholars for centuries.


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