Herod’s Edifice Complex
The great Judean builder and his outsized ego are the subject of a monumental Israel Museum exhibit
The press preview for the Israel Museum’s new and very shiny exhibit “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” was very crowded and a bit of a balagan. I pretty much immediately lost my guide (though through the wireless headset I could hear her talking about some artifact I couldn’t see), and so I wandered among the exhibit’s more than 250 artifacts and installations—frescoes, busts, coins, columns, pottery, furniture, a giant bathtub, basins, ossuaries, sarcophagi, a reconstructed throne room, parapet fragments, artwork, cutlery, mosaics, cast-iron models, videos, and much more—and nearly collided with a guy photographing an enormous and very old-looking stone ashlar, the length and width of a small coffin, and three times as high. I asked him what it was, where it came from, what it had been used for. He shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said and snapped a couple of photos. “But look how big it is!”
So, when I say that the Herod exhibit is tremendously significant, it’s less an artistic judgment than a blunt statement of fact. “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is the largest archaeological exhibit the Israel Museum has ever undertaken and the first anywhere wholly dedicated to the legacy and personage of Herod, who ruled Judea as a Roman client king in the 1st century B.C.E. and who built palaces and fortresses—many of which are still under excavation—across and even beyond his kingdom, not to mention the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The most significant aspect of Herod’s legacy is, without question, structural. Few of his undertakings were modest. This is true in terms of size (his constructions were among the largest in the world), architecture (Herod introduced innovations in fortification, build-quality, shape, and use), and sheer number of projects: He was responsible for palaces/fortresses in Jericho, Masada, Herodium, and Jerusalem; major aqueducts in Jerusalem, Herzilya, Masada, and elsewhere; the port and town of Caesarea (including Hippodrome, theater, and temple); the unprecedented renovation of the Second Temple; and, according to Josephus (the primary, if often only, historical source for pretty much everything we know about Herod), various constructions in Ascalon, modern-day Akko, Damascus, Tripoli, Tyre, Beirut, Sidon, Byblos, etc. Building things, in case you were still wondering, was how Herod earned his appellation.
But just because Herodian scope/scale is so massive doesn’t mean it’s easy to convey. How, within a handful of narrow temporary hallways, do you evince enormity? Short of busing visitors to the actual sites, there’s a limit to what an exhibit can do. Superimposing computer-animated Herodian structures onto live footage is an effective and nifty idea—there were audible gasps at the press preview as a digital version of Herod’s Jericho palace rose from the ruins. The hi-definition video of Herod’s Jerusalem Palace and the Second Temple, filmed at the museum’s own ancient Jerusalem model, is stop-in-your-tracks gorgeous. A coffee-table-sized and highly detailed model of Herodium, the enormous palace-cum-fortress built on top of a man-made mountain, is informative and pretty cool. That massive ashlar—which turned out to be from a construction near the Second Temple—is synecdochic of just how big, ambitious, and complex these buildings were.
What’s so interesting and admirable about this exhibit is that it isn’t content to catalog and applaud Herod’s construction projects, it also attempts to convey the man (and the ego) behind them. We can admire all that he built and accomplished, but what do we really think about the guy? Herod the man was morally atrocious, but as a politician, he was something of a phenom. He switched loyalties with astonishing finesse, aligning first with Mark Antony and then with Mark Antony’s usurper, Augustus. He ruled effectively, if forcefully, and oversaw peace and relative prosperity (if at the expense of the occasional violent suppression). The Hasmoneans—whom Herod displaced and is in political competition with—were strife-ridden. But the Hasmonean dynasty has been, rightly or wrongly, appointed as the Zionist predecessors, and Herod the Roman King has often been cast as the anti-Zionist (though in a particularly non-modern sense). The exhibit, in subtle and interesting ways, seeks to challenge this reputation. His political acumen is celebrated; his cruelty isn’t glossed over; and his architectural legacies are laid out like trophies.
The centerpiece of the exhibit—the most ambitious response to the challenge of scope—is a restored section from the mausoleum at Herodium. Inside is Herod’s sarcophagus, also painstakingly rebuilt. (That this sarcophagus is Herod’s is actually high-probability guesswork: Josephus writes that Herod was buried in Herodium, and of the three sarcophagi found there, only one—made of expensive, reddish limestone and characterized by outstanding craftsmanship—was found in shards too small to be accidental. This convinced researchers that the sarcophagus was Herod’s, destroyed by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt.) The mausoleum is breathtaking—pieces of Ionic columns and curved cornice rebuilt to original dimensions and placements—and represents the Israel Museum at its finest: extraordinary restoration working toward an as-authentic-as-possible experience of what once existed. With the possible exception of the melodramatic lighting inside, there is zero salesmanship or kitsch, which, for an exhibit of this sort, is high praise.
The mausoleum is doubly astonishing because, as an artifact, it’s so recent. Ehud Netzer, the chief archaeologist at Herodium, long believed that Herod was buried somewhere on Herodium—Josephus, whose historical claims have been vindicated often enough to establish their authority, says so. But Netzer couldn’t locate the mausoleum for 40 years, until 2007, when he found it accidentally on the side of the mountain, where no one expected someone like Herod to place his mausoleum. (Netzer died, tragically—“almost biblically,” James Snyder, the museum’s director, said to me—when a railing at the dig at Herodium collapsed and he fell three meters onto his head.) One of the most interesting substories of the exhibit is how massive an undertaking and investment it represents: The museum excavated and transported to Jerusalem more than 30 tons of stone, enough that the ceiling had to be raised and the foundations reinforced. There was also political capital expended: Herodium is now part of the Palestinian territories, and officials there have accused Israel and the Israel Museum of looting.
A thorough new biography chronicles the rise and fall of the big, Jewish self-destructive funnyman