Six Feet Under with Herod the Great

Six Feet Under with Herod the Great

A Jewish king with dubious origins and a penchant for building, Herod the Great’s mark on the Land of Israel is unquestionably the most distinct and unforgettable. His passion for construction breathed new life into the aging Second Temple in Jerusalem; his projects rivaled the greatest architectural achievements in the Roman world.


Herod has long been a figure shrouded in myth. The Talmud alludes he preserved his dead wife, a descendant of the Hasmoneans, in a vat of honey. The New Testament (in a remarkable parallel to the Biblical story of Moses) claims Herod sought to kill the infant Jesus. In the 2005 series “Rome” he is portrayed as a slippery character, with a preference for dark corners and narcotics.

These nuggets have allowed Herod to survive in Western collective memory alongside the most distinguished figures of his day. The combination between his megalomania and his passion for big projects is compelling to so many. Similar to the story of Antony and Cleopatra, however, Herod’s legacy has little historical basis, and until recently there was still a question as to where the king was buried.

Enter Ehud Netzer, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University bent on discovering the tomb of the famous king. Arguably as thirsty for success as the man he sought, Netzer spent 35 years tearing up the layered earth in search of Herod, using the ancient historian Josephus as his guide. In 2007, at the foot of his winter palace of Herodium (in the West Bank), Netzer found the remains of a once-15-meter-high tomb.

The fascinating story of the tomb’s discovery and impassioned archaeologist took a legendary turn of its own, when Professor Netzer suffered a terrible accident at the site, dying amidst his lifework. It was in Netzer’s honor, paired with the desire to tell Herod’s story through his architectural and administrative genius, that the Israel Museum opened its newest exhibit, “The Final Journey of King Herod the Great”, in full, regal display.

The exhibit, showing through October 2013, features over 250 artifacts gathered from the many cities and palaces that Herod built, including Jerusalem, Caesarea, Jericho and Herodium (where he was buried). Detailed 3-D recreations of the sites allow a fresh perspective of how these ruins may have appeared two millennia ago. Brilliantly envisioned by the museum staff, visitors to the exhibit will find themselves flanked by restored frescos and supported by marbles floors. Picturesque farmland scenes accompany dramatic sea battles. The vibrant greens, yellows, cinnabar and pinks of the past have painstakingly been brought back to life in order to surround the ancient king, and the thousands of expected visitors, in the comforts and grandeur of the ancient world.

Despite the vibrancy of the exhibit itself, King Herod’s sarcophagus rests in a simple, albeit stately, manner. It is as if the assortment of worldly riches on display: the ornate oil lamps, goblets, bottles of perfumes, terra sigillate tableware, and wine from Campania, mattered little to a man who measured himself more on architectural accomplishment than material wealth.

Questions surrounding King Herod remain, and the Israel Museum intentionally decided to avoid the sexy, but yet unfounded legends about his behavior and his family. Instead, the exhibit is a heavily grounded picture of the man behind the myth: a strong leader, who made Jerusalem and the Judea relevant again, while temporarily transporting its guests into a complex world of artisanal beauty.

Expeditions by Da'at February 21st, 2013 5 Comments Places