Herodion: Herod’s Fortress-Tomb

What an eventful few weeks the tail end of winter has been!  The end of February and the beginning of March saw lashing rains and icy winds, not to mention one of the nastiest, dirtiest election campaigns in living memory – culminating, yet again, in an indecisive result in which it seems that neither of the two leading candidates may be capable of forming a government.  In all that, I found time for another field trip with Yad Ben Zvi, and a visit to the opera.  And now we are in the midst of this awful Coronavirus epidemic. Many of you are possibly “confined to barracks” (ie. stuck at home), whether because you have been exposed to the virus and are in self-isolation, or because you live in one of those countries where restrictions of various degrees have been imposed by the authorities, or because (like me) you are afraid to go out for fear of unwittingly coming into contact with  someone who has been infected and does not yet know it – or because, with shops, schools, places of entertainment and many places of work having been temporarily closed down, there is simply no-where to go!
Whatever the reason, you now have plenty of time for reading and so I am inviting you to join me on another virtual field-trip through the highways and byways of Israel.

At the end of February, after several days of heavy rains and thunderstorms, the skies miraculously ceased their weeping on the very day scheduled for our tiyul.  It was still cold and heavily overcast, and I had a fold-up umbrella discreetly packed in my knapsack – just in case.

We were headed for Herodion, Herod the Great’s palace-cum-fortress, and eventually, site of his tomb.  Situated some 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem and 5 kilometres south-east of Bethlehem, it was built – so we are told by the Jewish historian Josephus – in commemoration of Herod’s victory over the Parthians.

Josephus describes it thus:

And as he transmitted to eternity his family and friends, so did he not neglect a            memorial for himself, but built a fortress upon a mountain towards Arabia, and named it from himself, Herodium, and he called that hill that was of the shape of a woman’s breast, and was sixty furlongs distant from Jerusalem, by the same name. He also bestowed much curious art upon it, with great ambition, and built round towers all about the top of it, and filled up the remaining space with the most costly palaces round about, insomuch that not only the sight of the inner apartments was splendid, but great wealth was laid out on the outward walls, and partitions, and roofs also. Besides this, he brought a mighty quantity of water from a great distance, and at vast charges, and raised an ascent to it of two hundred steps of the whitest marble, for the hill was itself moderately high, and entirely factitious. He also built other palaces about the roots of the hill, sufficient to receive the furniture that was put into them, with his friends also, insomuch that, on account of its containing all necessaries, the fortress might seem to be a city, but, by the bounds it had, a palace only.

(The Wars of the Jews I,21:10)


Herodion is visible for miles around, even from Jerusalem. I used to be able to see it from my old apartment.  Josephus described the hill as being shaped like a woman’s breast, although to my mind, it seems more like a volcano:



At the foot of the hill is Lower Herodion, where Herod built, among other things, a great pool, with a pavilion on an island in its centre. The pavilion was once covered by a roof, supported by columns. The water was brought to the pool by aqueduct, from the springs of Artas near the so-called Pools of Solomon, to the west (about which, more later). The pool, which was plastered, served in Herod’s time as the main reservoir for Herodion, and was also used for swimming.




And here is a view of the Lower Palace complex, seen from above:




The Lower Palace complex was surrounded by porticoed gardens, the remains of whose columns can still be seen. It served Herod for entertaining (and impressing) his friends – but it was vulnerable. Herod, as we know, was paranoid to the point of insanity – perhaps, after all, not entirely without reason. A lot of people had just cause to wish him dead. He therefore had another palace constructed on top of the hill, which rose 60 metres above its surroundings. This palace was more of a fortress – a peculiarly Herodian design, which he repeated in other places, the best known of which is probably Masada.  The design is circular.  Two massive concentric walls, with 2.5 metres between them, towered 30 metres high, and were protected by four towers. The fortifications surrounded a palace-fortress seven storeys high. Five storeys towered above the central courtyard, and two more were basement storeys.  Of the four towers, three were semi-circular. The eastern tower, built on bedrock, was circular and, at a height of about forty metres, was the largest of the four. The Royal Suite on the top floor offered a panoramic view over the Judaean desert, as well as the possibility of enjoying a refreshing breeze on even the hottest days.










After construction of the fortification around the hill, an earth rampart of considerable height was laid against its outer foundations.  This gave the hill its conical shape, as well as artificially raising its height.

Within the fortifications, stood Herod’s private palace, of modest size but luxuriously appointed. The King spared no expense.  There was, for example, a fairly lavish bath-house, consisting of two changing rooms (apodyteria), a large caldarium, or Hot Room, heated by a hypocaust,  a round tepidarium (Tepid Room) with a domed roof (the earliest of its type to have survived in Israel), and a small frigidarium, or Cold Room.  The latter included a stepped pool which may have served as a mikveh (ritual bath).

Here, you can see the domed roof of the tepidarium:



And in this picture, you can see the remains of the hypocaust which heated the caldarium:



You can see the low pillars which supported the floor, under which the hot air flowed and, if you look carefully at the wall, you can see the flue-channels in the walls through which the hot air rose to the barrel-vaulted ceiling,  heating the whole room.

Here we can see the remains of some decorated pillars:



Excavations are still in  progress on the site and new discoveries are being made every day.




One of the most interesting discoveries was the triclinium or reception hall.

It had a mosaic floor and frescoed walls and a roof supported by columns. Later, during the Great Revolt (66 – 70 CE), the triclinium was converted into a synagogue by the Jewish fighters, who added stone benches on three of its sides.  It served as a synagogue also during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132 – 136 CE).

Herodion was situated in the middle of nowhere, basically, and a major problem which Herod’s architects and engineers had to solve, was the lack of water.  I have already mentioned the aqueduct which brought water from Artas to the pool in Lower Herodion.  In addition,  cisterns below the fortress were filled with rainwater and three large cisterns were cut into the hillside, whence it was drawn by servants, in jars and water-skins, and carried to another cistern at the top of the hill, which was probably always kept full.

Here we can see part of the underground water system:


During the Great Revolt, the Jewish fighters excavated a tunnel to ensure the supply of water to the rebels in the Palace Complex, which was besieged by the Romans. This enabled them to bring water from the cisterns to the fortress, without being exposed to the enemy.

Sixty-five years later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Jewish fighters greatly expanded the underground network, and constructed a maze of high-roofed assault tunnels, to enable the swift passage of armed warriors, who could thus make surprise attacks on the Romans and disappear back “into the mountain”, before the enemy knew what had hit them. Two of the exits from this system of assault tunnels have been uncovered near the remains of what is now believed to have been the site of Herod’s tomb.



On exiting the underground complex, we came across Head Restorer Fuad Abu-Ta’a, who told us, with a grin, that he was “building antiquities” – restoring the small royal theatre where Herod would have entertained his special guests.

Here, too, a monumental staircase was discovered:



Adjacent to that, were the remains of what was identified by Prof. Ehud Netzer  as Herod’s Mausoleum.

Prof. Netzer (1934 – 2010) was a world expert on Herodian architecture, and the driving force behind the development of Herodion as one of the National Parks. He had searched for many years for King Herod’s tomb. Many of his predecessors had believed that the tomb was in one of the towers of the palace-fortress. Netzer believed that the mausoleum would be found outside, at the foot of the mountain.  That was how he discovered the lower city, which I described above. However, he did not find the tomb and he therefore began to search on the artificial slopes. In 2007, he began to excavate the slanted wall that encircled the mountain, halfway up its steep slope. He believed that if he dug along this wall, he would eventually find the tomb. After many months of digging, nothing had yet been discovered and so Netzer decided to take a break for a few months, clean up the excavation area and prepare the reports on the finds from Lower Herodion for publication. Reportedly, he remarked to one of his colleagues that the tomb might be cursed and that, when he finally discovered it, something bad would happen.

During the cleanup operations, a fragment of a reddish stone sarcophagus, decorated with a carved rosette, was discovered, as well as the remains of two other white stone sarcophagi, so magnificent that he was convinced they could only have come from King Herod’s tomb. Shortly afterwards, the excavation team unearthed ornamental carved stones and the remains of a monumental building. Eventually, the base of the mausoleum itself was discovered on the north-eastern slope of the mountain, facing Jerusalem and close to the monumental staircase.

The mausoleum itself, was destroyed during the Great Rebellion against Rome and the sarcophagus of the much-hated king was smashed to smithereens by the rebels, such was the loathing felt for the usurper.

On the site now is a scaled-down model of the mausoleum:



Here is the view from the windswept hill Herod chose for his final resting place:









After the discovery of the mausoleum, Prof. Netzer contnued to excavate the surrounding area – excavations which led to the discovery of a small theatre (with room for about 400 spectators) and a lavishly decorated chamber which probably served the king and his guests. Neither the theatre nor the royal chamber are open yet to visitors.

Prof. Netzer’s remark about the mausoleum being cursed, proved eerily prophetic.  On October 25th, 2010, he was surveying the site together with the curators of a projected exhibition at the Israel Museum.    He sat down to rest and leaned against a railing, which gave way, hurling him down to the theatre below, where he struck his head. He died three days later, at the age of 76.
Our guide told us that Prof. Netzer’s widow remarked that her husband had died in the very place where he would have wanted to meet his end.

I mentioned before that water for the great pool in Lower Herodion was brought from the misleadingly-named “Solomon’s Pools” in Artas. Their construction is attributed to King Solomon (10th century BCE) on the flimsy evidence of the verse in Ecclesiastes 2, 6:

I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the wood springing up with trees.

Most scholars nowadays, however, believe that the pools date from the 2nd – 1st centuries BCE, that is to say, from the Hasmonean era. The three pools are situated just outside Bethlehem, in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, so we were unable to visit them, but merely to view them from the nearest high point overlooking the reservoirs (the Israeli settlement of Efrat). The pools were part of a complex water system, the later part of which may have been built by Herod the Great, which included at least five aqueducts, as well as natural springs.  Two of the aqueducts led to Jerusalem.

Here, we can see the Lower Pool. I had to use the maximum zoom on my camera, so the quality is not all that good.


The water system continued to supply water to Jerusalem, on and off, for two millenia, including during the British Mandate and even afterwards, by the Jordanians – until 1952, according to our guide.

As I mentioned above, two of the aqueducts led to Jerusalem. One of them, the Lower Aqueduct, also known as the Hasmonean Aqueduct, includes a tunnel which cuts through the ridge separating the Armon Hanatziv neighbourhood from the Old City of Jerusalem. This section is 423 metres long. The entrance is a five minute walk from my father’s house and yet this was the first time I had visited it!

It is very narrow.  For this reason, at the entrance, visitors are required to squeeze through a gateway no wider than the narrowest point of the tunnel. Those who fail to do so are not allowed to enter the tunnel, in order to ensure that no-one gets stuck down below!

It is also very dark.
Definitely not recommended for anyone with claustrophobia, a weak heart or a tendency to panic attacks!

The tunnel’s exit is just below the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, within the boundaries of the Arab village of Jebel Mukaber:


All Jerusalem now lay before us, including the Dormition Abbey and the Old City, all the way to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus and beyond:






As this was the end of the day’s tour, I now left the group and lightly tripped to my father’s house for a brief visit and thence, to my own home, a short walk away.

Our next field-trip, which was to have been last week, has been postponed till the end of April – not because of the COVID-19 crisis, but because our guide has been called up for military reserve duty.  In the meantime, I shall not be going anywhere, except maybe to the supermarket to buy (but NOT hoard) food, as we have all been asked to play our part in the war against the invisible enemy (the Corona Virus) by not leaving our homes unless absolutely necessary and keeping ourselves to ourselves, in order to minimise physical contact with others and thus help to prevent the spread of this plague. It isn’t exactly a curfew – not like in Italy. But, as I said, in any case, there isn’t anywhere to go and I certainly don’t want to risk being ill.

One thing worries me more than the virus. No, not the blow to the economy, although that too is cause for great concern. What worries me most is the Blame Game being played by so many. When the crisis started, I wondered if maybe this epidemic had been sent by the Almighty as a punishment for all the causeless hatred in the world. Then I thought, perhaps it is a test, to see if we can all overcome our differences and learn to work together. But I fear that, if the latter is the case – if it was meant to be a test – then we are failing lamentably.

What do you think?

About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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1 Response to Herodion: Herod’s Fortress-Tomb

  1. it always amazes me how these structures have, for the most part, withstood the “sands of time” and how they were constructed in the first place. guaranteed my house, built with bulldozer, electricity and anything else deemed usable will NOT be here 1000’s of years from now…. thanx for sharing !! 🙂 ♥♥

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