To tame nature and to elevate his name were two of the most important motives behind Herod’s architectural projects. In Caesarea, Herod built a huge deepwater harbor right into the sea and a city into the dunes, and his palaces at Jericho and Masada demonstrated that the king was able to make the desert bloom and turn barren sands into a green paradise. The climax of these aspirations, however, is Herodium (also spelled “Herodion”). There is hardly any other building project with a more personal touch than Herodium. Here, Herod and his mother, Kypros, almost lost their lives when they hurriedly fled from Jerusalem and rushed east across the flat Judean desert, pursued by the victorious Parthians and their Jewish allies. On the way, Kypros fell from her chariot and almost was killed by the wheels. Seeing his rival Antigonus’s army approach, Herod was so desperate that he nearly committed suicide; but in a last attempt he took all his strength, rallied his troops, turned against his enemies, and defeated them. Afterward he continued his flight with his mother to Masada (Josephus, B.J. 1.265, Ant. 14.352–360). For Herod, this rescue and the victory must have been like a second birth, a clear sign from God that his enemies would not prevail but that it was he who was destined to rule. Such divine intervention shrouded the place in a numinous aura, to which Herod responded by starting the construction of Greater Herodium, a combined complex of fortress and palace, the only building project that carried his own name (B.J. 1.419 might indicate another fortress with the same name in the Arabian mountains).

Situated only 7.5 miles (12 km) from the capital and 3.7 miles (6 km) to the southeast of Bethlehem in the middle of a flat Judean desert plateau, Greater Herodium’s sheer size of ca. 62 acres (25 ha) and multipurpose character show that it was not just another item on the long list of desert fortresses. The efforts were immense. An aqueduct was built to carry water to the site from close to Solomon’s Pools 3 miles (5 km) away, roads had to be laid out, and a permanent population needed to be settled there to maintain the site. Given this huge investment, it is not surprising that Herodium afterward served as the district capital of the toparchy of the central Judean highlands (oreine, Pliny, Nat. 5.14; Josephus, B.J. 3.55). Josephus gives a very detailed description of the fortress and palace complex:

"When the wedding ceremonies were concluded, Herod constructed another fortress in the region where he had defeated the Jews after his expulsion from the realm, when Antigonus was in power. This fortress, which is some sixty stades distant from Jerusalem, 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. (Ant. 15.322–325, cf. B.J. 1.419–421)

As one can see from this description, Greater Herodium falls into two parts: the Mountain Fortress (Ant. 15.323–324) and the “pleasure grounds” in the plain below it (Ant. 15.325).

On a clear day, Gebel Fureidis, as Upper Herodium’s peak is traditionally known, can be spotted from Jerusalem. The spectacular site has long attracted the curiosity of travelers and researchers. Discovered already in the fifteenth century by Felix Fabri and visited by many nineteenth-century scholars, the site was first dated to the Roman period and connected with Josephus’s description by Edward Robinson in 1838. Excavations were first started on the hill, conducted by Italian archaeologists (Virgilio Corbo) in 1962–1967 and by Israelis (Gideon Foerster) in 1969. In numerous seasons between 1972 and 2000 Ehud Netzer carried out extensive archaeological work at Lower Herodium and between 2006 until his tragic death in 2010 along the northwestern slopes, revolutionizing our perception of Herodium.

Up to the early twenty-first century, excavations concentrated on Gebel Fureidis and, to a lesser extent, on the palace; almost nothing, however, is known about the structures that belonged to the capital of oreine. The latest data suggest the following phases of the main Herodian building complex:

  • 1. After perhaps erecting a small fortress early in his reign, Herod started construction of Greater Herodium at the time of his weddings with Mariamne II, Malthace, and Cleopatra of Jerusalem in 28/27 B.C.E., that is, more or less simultaneously with his main palace at Jerusalem, the Second Palace at Jericho, and the Northern Palace at Masada. The main complex consisting of the circular fortress on the hill, the palace at its foot, and a monumental stairway connecting the two must have been finished shortly afterward, in any case before Herod started rebuilding the Temple Mount and the construction of Caesarea Maritima, his largest projects.
  • 2. In 15 B.C.E. Herod added the famous festival theater.
  • 3. After 10 B.C.E., when Caesarea had been inaugurated, he commissioned the mausoleum with the second stairway and ordered the mountain fortress to be changed into the artificial conical hill.

The Upper Herodium: A “Mountain Palace-Fortress.”

Peeking out above the desert like a truncated volcano—or a “woman’s breast,” as Josephus says (Ant. 15.324)—excavations have revealed one of the most complex and innovative buildings of Herod’s realm, if not the eastern Mediterranean. For it, Netzer coined the very fitting term “Mountain Palace-Fortress,” indicating that Upper Herodium is a daring combination of different architectural elements to meet various purposes (e.g., Netzer, 1993, p. 621).

Upper Herodium consists of a ca. 98 ft (30 m) high cylinder formed by two concentric walls (11 ft [3.4 m] apart) with an outer diameter of ca. 205 ft (63 m). When Herod started building Herodium, he had probably already experimented with circular structures, as can be seen in the ca. 108 ft (33 m) wide, so-called opus reticulatum (small, square blocks arranged in a diamond pattern) building in Jerusalem (an older mausoleum), though little is known about it and its exact date is uncertain. So far as we can see, Herodium has no real parallel on which it could have been modeled, although the circular structure on Nemrud Dag in Commagene was built at roughly the same time, and Augustus would later choose the same circular form for his own mausoleum.

The drum-like fortress was put onto a natural hill ca. 2,460 ft (750 m) above sea level, first probably accessed only by a simple winding path that may originally have led up to a small fortification built earlier by Herod to lay claim to the hill. This fort was entirely covered by the new circular structure. The cylinder, presently entirely concealed inside the hill, originally stood free for the first 20 years. It comprised seven stories, the lowest two of which had strong barrel vaults serving as storage rooms, while the five above them (three of which were found in situ) had flat ceilings. Included in the original phase were a number of large cisterns and a feature that must have formed the spectacular impression of the hill: a steep glacis made of well-dressed ashlars to hold the immense amount of artificial fill in place. Unfortunately, large parts of this glacis were later robbed.

Not long after construction, a 20 ft (6.1 m) wide, steep flight of steps was built, leaning against the glacis and running straight up the hill from northeast (the direction of Jerusalem). After at least 197 ft (60 m), the stairs ended at an artificial tunnel with vaulted roof through which the access way continued until it reached the interior of the fortress. This structure has aptly been called the “royal ascent” (Netzer et al., 2010, pp. 102–103).

On the north, south, and west sides of the hill top semicircular towers were attached to the outer cylinder wall but probably did not rise above the edge of the ring wall. Each of the towers was hollow and divided into four stories, which housed a number of rooms, probably forming apartments. In the east, however, a massive circular tower of ca. 52.5 ft (16 m) diameter with a solid base interrupted the cylinder and rose high above the fortress ring, providing a spectacular view across the Judean desert. The basement of this tower housed a cistern; another five stories followed above it and held “royal chambers” paralleling Jerusalem’s Phasael, Hippicus, and Mariamne towers next to Herod’s main palace (Josephus, B.J. 5.163–175). Although relatively small, this circular “tower loft” resembles other royal mansions: it is secluded and enjoys a spectacular view and a pleasant breeze just like the Promontory Palace in Caesarea and the Northern Palace in Masada. Moreover, there may even have been space for a lookout with a guard and signal station, adding some military use to all the luxury.

Herodium

Overview of the Herodian fortress. Baker Photo Archive

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The round space inside the circular fortress walls was limited and, it seems, not really suited for much luxury. But Herod’s architects inserted a series of rectangular architectural components into the available space, which together formed a highly innovative and luxurious mansion consisting of domestic, leisure, and representative parts.

The interior complex falls into two almost equal halves, with the eastern segment being narrower than the western. On the eastern side, a large rectangular courtyard of ca. 131 by 57 ft (40 by 17.5 m) spanned almost the entire diameter. It sported colonnades on three sides, and two opposing exedrae on the short ends served as a garden. It seems Herod could never do without a mini-paradise. Whoever accessed the fortress via the monumental staircase would enter it at the northeastern corner of this garden and be welcomed by the shade of trees and columns.

To the west of the architectural axis bisecting the fortress Herod’s architects inserted the three essential standard elements of Herodian palatial architecture: clustered into the northwestern corner was a small, Roman-style bath complex with dressing rooms (apodyteria), cold bath (frigidarium), hot bath (caldarium), and warm bath (tepidarium) covered by an intact domed roof of ca. 14 ft (4.2 m) diameter. Decorated with mosaic floors, painted walls, and stucco, the bath offered a comfortable dip for the exquisite group of Herod’s very best friends. Water was supplied by three huge cisterns with a total capacity of ca. 88,286 ft3 (2,500 m³) located below the mound’s slope.

In the opposite, southwestern corner of the interior archaeologists found a plain, rectangular hall with four columns of ca. 49.2 by 32.8 ft (15 by 10 m) that very likely served as dining room (triclinium) and was later turned into a community hall (synagoge) by the zealots. The remaining space between bath and triclinium was spanned by a cruciform central hall (possibly a reception hall) surrounded on all four corners by living rooms.

Excavations from 2006 dramatically changed the old picture of a fortress on a barren hill. It became apparent that the northern slope housed two highly interesting and unexpected structures, both of which contribute significantly to our understanding of Herodium’s character and purposes.

The Royal Theater with Loggia on the Slope.

Various alterations occurred after completion of the first palace and fortress. Halfway up the hill, just above the Large Palace at its foot and to the west of the monumental stairway, a small theater was found in 2008. The orchestra and the semicircular cavea were built into the slope of the artificial cone of the fortress, as were the lower parts of the rooms behind the cavea. The cavea measured 98.4 ft (30 m) in diameter and was divided into two sets of six rows of seats, each with a passage in between. Another semicircular passageway was built above the uppermost row and seems to have been lined with a colonnade. Opposite the orchestra stood the stage building (75.5 by 36 ft [23 by 11 m]), which unfortunately has been badly robbed. Architectural fragments like “column drums of various widths, Attic bases, Doric and Corinthian capitals and pedestals…some of which are still covered with painted plaster and even gold” (Netzer et al., 2010, p. 96) testify to the luxurious appearance of this small building that served only about 450 spectators.

The very “Roman” character of the theater immediately became clear upon examination of a group of rooms attached to the upper part of the theater’s cavea. The most spectacular of them was a central rectangular room, a loggia called the “royal box.” The “box” offered a full view of the stage. The room measured 26 by 23 ft (8 by 7 m) and was found almost complete; the walls were preserved up to the ceiling 19.7 ft (6 m) above the floor and were fully decorated in secco (painting on dry plaster) technique in the latest, most delicate Roman style. The walls were divided into three panels by stuccoed pilasters and pedestals. Each section was decorated with a window-like panel in the style of a picture hanging from the frieze, showing naturalistic scenes with deer and goats, country scenes with buildings and animals, the Nile River, and a nautical image featuring a large boat with sails. One can identify trees, animals, and human beings. Some of these windows have survived intact on the walls, while others were found in fragments scattered on the floor. Never before have such “pictures” (pinakes) been found in Judea; the closest contemporaneous parallels are known from Rome or Campania, for example, the Villa Imperiale at Pompeii, dated to the early Third Style between 15 and 10 B.C.E. This date clearly indicates that the loggia and, consequently, the entire theater were a later addition to the original architectural arrangement of Greater Herodium, planned and commissioned perhaps when Herod met Agrippa in Mytilene in the winter of 16–15 B.C.E. to prepare for Agrippa’s visit to Judea in the coming year (Ant. 15.350). Josephus clearly says that Herodium became part of the tour:

"Agrippa yielded to his earnest insistence, and came to Judaea. And Herod, omitting nothing that might please him, received him in his newly founded cities and, while showing him his buildings, diverted him and his friends with enjoyable food and luxury; this he did both in Sebaste and Caesarea, at the harbor which had been constructed by him, and in the fortresses which he had built at great expense, Alexandreion, Herodeion and Hyrcania. (Ant. 16.13)"

Next to the “Roman baths” in Herod’s Third Palace in Jericho and the techniques and materials used during the construction of the Sebastos harbor in Caesarea, the “royal box” at Herodium provides additional evidence for the intensity with which Herod opened his kingdom to Roman influences. It may well be the case that Herod had taken a group of Italian artisans with him back to Judea for a one-time job and that the “royal box” is a product of the excellent personal relation between Herod the king and Agrippa the viceroy, but at the same time its architecture and decoration are evidence of a much more profound process of integrating first the Judean elites but eventually more and more of the population into the cultural framework of the eastern Roman Empire.

The excavation data indicate that the theater’s lifetime was relatively short, less than 10 years. Just before Herod’s death, the theater was deliberately destroyed to prepare the site for Herod’s mausoleum. The scaenae frons (decorated back wall of the stage) and other parts of the theater were systematically dismantled, and the building material was used to construct the second monumental stairway. The “royal box” was temporarily used by the builders as workshop or dwelling, leaving their footsteps in the form of subdivision walls, cooking installations, and graffiti, until all traces of the theater became obliterated by massive backfilling.

Herod’s Mausoleum.

With the demolition and backfilling of the theater Herodium’s old function as luxurious showcase of Herod’s divinely legitimized kingdom had come to an and. At some stage in his life, Herod must have decided to be buried not in Jerusalem, like famous kings and prophets before him, but far away from the Temple and priests at a place whose fame revolved exclusively around his person. Thus, next to being a palace, fortress, and capital of a district, Herodium eventually became the place of Herod’s burial. Josephus writes as follows:

"The king’s funeral next occupied his attention. Archelaus, omitting nothing that could contribute to its magnificence, brought forth all the royal ornaments to accompany the procession in honour of the deceased. The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colours; on this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the sceptre beside his right hand."

Around the bier were Herod’s sons and a large group of his relations; these were followed by the guards, the Thracian contingent, Germans and Gauls, all equipped as for war. The reminder of the troops marched in front, armed and in orderly array, led by their commanders and subordinate officers; behind these came five hundred of Herod’s servants and freedmen, carrying spices. The body was thus conveyed for a distance of two hundred furlongs to Herodium, where, in accordance with the directions of the deceased, it was interred. So ended Herod’s reign. (B.J. 1.671–673)

The funeral must have been a spectacular sight. But where was Herod’s tomb? For more than 30 years, Netzer suspected that the tomb was somewhere in the Lower Herodium. He checked various locations, such as the Monumental Building at the western end of the Colonnaded Course as well as cavities and tunnels near the top of Upper Herodium, all without conclusive results. Finally, Netzer’s lifelong search came to a spectacular end in April 2007 when his team during trial excavations along the

Herodium

Mausoleum of Herod. Baker Photo Archive

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northern side of the fortress, somewhat halfway down the slope and east of the monumental stairway, came across a well-built podium of nicely cut ashlars measuring 32.8 by 32.8 ft (10 by 10 m), many fragments of architectural decoration in fine white stone and not known from Herodium before. The remains of Herod’s mausoleum had been found. The podium was erected on a broad terrace cut into the slope and surrounded by an artificial garden, indicated by thick layers of brown soil surrounding the monumental pillar. Apparently, no special access was built to the tomb, but pools and channels helped to irrigate the garden. It might be interesting to note that the location of the pillar halfway down the slope of the artificial cone roughly resembles the place where statues and inscriptions were erected on Nemrud Dag, although the cone on Nemrud Dag, of course, does not house a palace and Herodium has no statues.

On the basis of the size and architectural fragments an 82 ft (25 m) high, monumental pillar with four segments was reconstructed: a podium with a square, 9.8 ft (3 m) vaulted room inside with a small opening from the east (the “hidden room”), then a 28 ft (8.5 m) square middle story of 19.7 ft (6 m) height and another square vault inside (“vaulted room”) of 14.8 ft (4.5 m), and finally a tholos (beehive-shaped structure) of 24.3 ft (7.4 m) diameter and 23.6 ft (7.2 m) height decorated with 18 columns sporting Ionic capitals and Attic bases and surrounding a third domed “upper room.” Netzer and co-workers assume that this upper room “held at least Herod’s sarcophagus, if not two others” (2010, p. 90). The pillar “was crowned with a concave, conical-shaped roof that was adorned with 5 urns” (Netzer et al., 2010, p. 90), four of which rose from the roof’s base, while the fifth one topped a Corinthian capital on the peak of the cone. The pillared monument is a sign of splendor and luxury and had only recently been adopted from the Hellenistic and Roman worlds by members of the Judean elite. The Herodium monument resembles Abshalom’s Pillar in the Kidron Valley but is much larger and was built with more delicate material (see also the urns on the Khazne and ed-Deir at Petra; McKenzie 1990, pl. 79 and 138f).

During excavations pieces of three delicately decorated sarcophagi also were found. The largest was made of pinkish limestone and must have been a very luxurious exemplar measuring ca. 8.2 ft (2.5 m) in length with a roofed top and decorated with rosettes. The shape and decoration of the sarcophagus resemble, for example, the one found in the nineteenth century in Jerusalem’s so-called Tomb of Helena of Adiabene. Unfortunately, no inscription was found mentioning the names of those buried in the sarcophagi, but the location and workmanship alone make it indeed very unlikely that anybody but members of the Herodian dynasty could have found their final rest in them. Despite there being no inscriptions on the sarcophagi, there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to accept the assumption that Herod himself was buried in the largest and most luxurious one (Jacobson, 2007, e.g., disagrees). Despite the luxury and adaptation of Hellenistic cultural language, all three sarcophagi were decorated with the typical geometric patterns and rosettes and, quite different from the murals in the royal box, avoid any figurative imagery.

Together with the mausoleum, a new stairway was built using material from the dismantled theater and the stripped glacis, aimed at the northern edge of the eastern round tower. Its exact course has not been fully explored. In addition to the new ascent, a thick “crust” of fill was added around the artificial cylinder to cover the upper part of the hill’s natural slopes and most of the fortress levels on the outside up to a height of ca. 65.6 ft (20 m). What had looked like a huge beer can standing upright in the first phase now received its characteristic volcano-like peak. At the same time, parts of Lower Herodium were also rearranged to serve as the location for Herod’s coming funeral. With these alterations Herodium’s character dramatically changed: what used to be a luxury residence became the stage of a magnificent royal funeral and a place of mourning and commemoration for the generations after him.

Lower Herodium: “A Palace–Pool Complex for Family and Friends.”

Together with the Mountain Palace-Fortress, a second complex was built in the plain at the foot of Gebel Fureidis, usually called Lower Herodium. Lower Herodium is the second large palace built by Herod. With an area of ca. 37 acres (15 ha), it boasts all necessary elements of Herodian palatial architecture: gardens, water installations, leisure facilities, and sumptuous living quarters with baths and dining halls—everything built with the latest techniques and decorated in the most fanciful style.

Lower Herodium falls into two parts, the first called the “Large Palace” directly on the northern foot of the fortress cone, built on a huge artificial slope supported by substructures slightly above the pool complex farther down in the valley. The building measures 426.5 by 180.5 ft (130 by 55 m); only the foundations of it have survived, and because of erosion and its exposed location, very little can be said about details.

Lower Herodium’s second, better-known but far from completely excavated part is called the “Pool Complex,” located on a 1,148 ft (350 m) wide terrace created by massive leveling. The Pool Complex consists of rectangular building blocks surrounding three sides of a large pool. Not much of the blocks have been excavated, and they might have served to house and receive guests of honor. The best-known elements of the surrounding buildings are a large, Roman-style bath on its southwestern corner and a monumental building attached to the western end of an elongated, flat terrace called “The Course” (1,148 by 98.4 ft [350 by 30 m]) that ran along the entire northern foot of the fortress mound.

The bathhouse had two phases and displayed the usual Herodian luxury: floors laid out with polychrome tiles in geometric patterns (opus sectile), painted walls, molded stucco, and mosaics. This bath was clearly designed for a much greater number of people than the one on top of the mountain. The immediate surroundings of the bathhouse produced a very remarkable find: fragments of an exquisite water basin (labrum) “made of imported marble, a characteristic example of the Augustan period, with the heads of the Greek demigod Selinus carved on its handles” (Netzer, 2006, p. 194). Did Herod have this precious object imported, or was it perhaps a royal gift from Agrippa when he visited Herodium?

The pool itself measured 226.4 by 147.6 ft (69 by 45 m), was 9.8 ft (3 m) deep, and resembled the large pools in Jericho and Masada. On its eastern and western sides, large halls were built of 344.5 by 32.8 ft (105 by 10 m). In the center of the pool Herod had a round podium erected that served as the foundation for a pavilion or tholos. The podium’s surface remained underwater when the pool was full, giving the impression of a small island with a delicate building floating on the water. It could be reached by boats and imitated Alexandrian style. The pool was supplied with water by an aqueduct tapping a source 2.2 miles (3.5 km) away. To the east of the pool the main garden extended with a size of 361 by 187 ft (110 by 57 m); 59 ft (18 m) wide garden zones surrounded the pool like strips of a carpet, followed by 18 ft (5.5 m) broad colonnades.

The most enigmatic part of Lower Herodium, however, was the “Monumental Building,” an elaborate hall of 49 by 46 ft (15 by 14 m) flanked by auxiliary rooms on both sides and a reflecting pool (39.4 by 9.8 ft [12 by 3 m]) in front of and parallel to it. Not entirely excavated, the function of this complex at such a prominent place in the Pool Complex remains somewhat of a mystery. Netzer first thought that the monumental hall served as the burial place of Herod, but this does not seem likely since the funeral pillar was found on the hill slope a short distance higher. The monumental hall might originally more likely have served some sort of representative purpose (possibly a reception hall or large dining hall), and in that way may indeed have fulfilled a prominent role in the context of the funeral ceremonies during Herodium’s last stage of royal use. Apparently, that was the last role Lower Herodium had to play.

Post-Herodian Occupation.

Little is known about the period after Herod’s death. In 66 C.E. a small group of zealots captured Upper Herodium and established a small community in the ruins. Since this “village” existed for a shorter period than the one on Masada and was possibly inhabited by fewer people, fewer substantial traces remained visible, the most important ones being the conversion of the triclinium into a meeting hall (synagoge) just like in Masada. The monumental funeral pillar must have stood for ca. 70 years until the zealots destroyed it in an outburst of hatred and contempt for the socius populi Romani et amicus Caesaris (“ally of the Roman people and friend of Caesar”) to revenge the scores of pious people that Herod had murdered. The sarcophagi were pulled out of the pillar, opened, and smashed into dozens of pieces; the pillar was dismantled; and the debris was scattered around. Ballista balls document fighting when the Romans drove out the zealots in 70 C.E. In Lower Herodium traces of post-Herodian habitation are even more scant, and one may even question whether his son and heir Archelaus ever used the palace for his own purposes. How far the Lower Palace further functioned as administrative center for the toparchy is also difficult to say. In any case, some parts were inhabited by the zealots, too.

After a short period of neglect, the fortress was again taken by rebels during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.). Some documents from the Bar Kokhba period are known to have been written at Herodium. The rebels dug deep tunnels into the fills under Upper Herodium, resembling the hideouts found in many Judean cities.

After the end of the Second Revolt, Herodium seems to have remained uninhabited until a small community of monks settled in the palace complex at the foot of the fortress and established a small church there. Sometime during antiquity or the Middle Ages Herodium must have become victim of substantial robbing, which stripped the slope of much of its smooth, glacis-like stone coating.

[See also BAR KOKHBA CAVES; CAESAREA; HERODIAN JERICHO; and MASADA.)]

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Jürgen K. Zangenberg