The Idea for the Interpretation of King Herod’s Tomb at Herodium National Park

The planning team examined many issues: the extent of archaeological information; analysis of the finds; comparative research; survey of examples elsewhere in the world; international conventions and professional ethics; materials; engineering aspects; connection to general conservation at the site; study of Prof. Ehud Netzer’s proposal; examination of alternatives; and analysis of feasibility.

By Zeev Margalit
Director of Conservation and Park Development
Architect, Israel Nature and Parks Authority

By Roi Porat
The Delegation of the Excavation at Herodium
Archaeologist, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
March 2012

Herodium – General Background

Herodium, also known as Mount Herod, is a royal fortress dating from the end of the Second Temple Period (40 BCE–70 CE), which was built by King Herod (37–4 BCE). The fortress is at the top of an artificial hill about 12 km south of Jerusalem. It is in fact a fortified royal palace surrounded by a double wall. King Herod decided that this would be his burial place and built his tomb on the slope facing Jerusalem. As a backdrop to the tomb, Herod built the artificial mountain atop a natural one, a monumental landmark that gives the mountain its present day form. At the base of the fortress, an impressive royal compound was built covering an area of approximately 150 dunams (37.5 acres), which has become known as Lower Herodium. Another impressive architectural project is the aqueduct which channeled water from Solomon’s Pools, south of Bethlehem, to Herodium.

The historian Josephus Flavius wrote:

“But while he thus perpetuated the memory of his family and his friends, he did not neglect to leave memorials of himself…. An artificial rounded hill, sixty furlongs from Jerusalem was given the same name [Herodium] but more elaborate embellishment. The crest he crowned with a ring of round towers; the enclosure was filled with gorgeous palaces, the magnificent appearance of which was not confined to the interior of the apartments, but outer walls, battlements, and roofs; all had wealth lavished upon them” (Josephus Flavius, Jewish War I, 419–420, trans. Thackeray).


In the year 40 BCE, Herod was forced to flee for his life from Jerusalem and the Hasmonean ruler Mattathias Antigonus, after the latter struck an alliance with the Parthians (the eastern empire that was then fighting the Romans). Antigonus and his allies pursued Herod and caught up with him southeast of Bethlehem. Herod fought a desperate battle there and was almost killed, but in the end, he was able to escape and continue his journey. The events of that stormy day were etched on Herod’s soul, and it seems that even back then, he resolved to build his tomb there. Immediately after these events, Herod went to Rome where the Senate crowned him king of Judea. But taking charge of his realm did not come easily to Herod; it took him three years to defeat Mattathias Antigonus. Thus the Hasmonean kingdom came to an end, and Herod, under Rome’s protection, became the sole ruler of the country.

In around 28 BCE, Herod returned to the place where he had survived the battle with Antigonus and began to build Herodium. It was apparently built as a government and administrative center in Judea, alongside the mainly religious center of Jerusalem. Herod built the site with marvelous daring and grandeur and named it after himself. Although it was on the edge of the desert, Herodium had abundant water brought from far away, flourishing gardens, and bathhouses.

Herod planned the site as a giant complex of palaces (the largest in the Roman world at the time) consisting of three parts: 1. the fortified mountain palace – a unique combination of palace, fortress, and monumental landmark; 2. Lower Herodium, combining a magnificent recreation area, an administrative center, and a system of structures to serve during the king’s funeral; 3. the slope, on the northern part of which Herod built, close to the time of his death, a huge monument in the form of an artificial mountain that could be seen from afar. The gigantic complex, extending over approximately 250 dunams (62.5 acres), was carefully planned and built in stages, making Herodium one of the most important buildings in the ancient world.

After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Herodium became part of the kingdom of his son Archelaus, who ruled for about 10 years. The Roman procurators then held the place until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE. During this revolt, rebels entrenched themselves at Herodium until the Romans defeated them in 71 CE.

During the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135/6 CE), the fortified mountain palace served as an important center for the rebels. Evidence of the presence of Bar Kokhba’s fighters was found in excavations at the site as well as in documents uncovered in the Muraba‘at caves in the Judean Desert.

During the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries CE), Lower Herodium was built on the remains of structures from Herod’s time. It was a large village with three churches. A small monastery was also built during that time among the remains of the fortified mountain palace. The settlement at Lower Herodium apparently continued to exist until the fifth–eighth centuries CE, after which Herodium lay abandoned until the beginning of its exploration by archaeologists.

In May 2007, the late Prof. Ehud Netzer announced that he had found the tomb of Herod after thirty years of searching at the site. The tomb was found during excavations of the outer northern slope of the mountain underneath remains of a wall surrounding Herodium. Its location was above the lower palace that served as the departure point for Herod’s funeral procession, near the remains of a staircase linking Lower Herodium to Herodium. At that point, facing north toward Jerusalem, the foundation of a mausoleum built of magnificent ashlars was revealed, as well as smashed fragments of a sarcophagus. Prof. Netzer died in October 2010 after he fell while working on the theater at Herodium, not far from Herod’s tomb.

Herodium has been prepared for visitors and is today a national park under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Until the intifada, hundreds of thousands of tourists visited the site, but their numbers declined significantly thereafter. Recently, numbers are once again on a continual rise. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, in cooperation with the Gush Etzion Regional Council, the Civil Administration, the Israel Government Tourist Corporation, the Hebrew University archaeological expedition to Herodium, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the Prime Minister’s Office have undertaken conservation excavations and development. It was in this framework that the proposal was made to construct a model at the site.

Herodium – Proposal for a model in 1:1 scale of Herod’s Tomb

In light of the fascinating discovery of Herod’s Tomb at Herodium and the very special opportunity the site presents, the ethical and professional aspects of a full 1:1 reconstruction of Herod’s tomb structure at Herodium are now under study. The goal is to increase the number of visitors while strictly protecting the heritage values of the site.

The planning team examined many issues: the extent of archaeological information; analysis of the finds; comparative research; survey of examples elsewhere in the world; international conventions and professional ethics; materials; engineering aspects; connection to general conservation at the site; study of Prof. Ehud Netzer’s proposal; examination of alternatives; and analysis of feasibility. After consideration of all of the above, the following proposal has been offered:

Construction of a 1:1 model of the reconstructed tomb of Herod in situ at Herodium. The model will be made of light, modern, durable materials that best simulate the complete original architecture of the structure based on existing knowledge. The planning and implementation will be based on the following principles:

1. Construction of the model will not damage the antiquities!

2. New construction will be clearly separated from the original remains.

3. The principle of reversibility will be strictly observed at all times; after implementation is complete, the model will be able to be dismantled and the site returned to the previous state.

4. Conservation of all archaeological findings at Herodium will be carried out together with the construction of the model, including the nearby structures – the royal chamber, the theater, the monumental steps, etc.

The team is aware that the idea is unique, extraordinary, and unprecedented at an archaeological site. However under the circumstances at Herodium, the team recommends moving ahead with this idea. Due to the sensitivity of the matter, the team recommends a public hearing to study preliminary planning of the idea as it will be presented by the planners.

Comments (1)

I think this to be part of a trend we will see for the future along with the debates about it.

In my humble opinion, I understand fully the desire of the archaeologists to keep the site as pristine and uncontaminated as possible. Even the cautious efforts of the best Dig Teams can taint a site. Also, the notion of interpreting the site with a given paradigm will tend to exclude other contrary paradigms and lead to a series of misconceptions about the site as being interpreted to the public.

This being said, paradigms and conceptions change throughout history when interpreting and investigating most antiquities.

As for the reconstruction and interpretation, I think that if it is done well and with all due caution and oversight it will be a benefit to all involved.

One of the first things I came to realize in my role as resource interpreter is that you have to get the public to actually care about the resource in order to get any change regarding it to occur. Even more so if you are expecting to get money to fund the projects we professionals care about-let alone any public or governmental monies.

This is a trade-off and one worthy of heady debate and caution. The benefit is that we elevate the consciousness of the public with a minimal negative impact to the very resources we are out to preserve or protect.

#1 - Matthew Jones - 02/12/2013 - 13:40

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.