Herod’s Edifice Complex
The great Judean builder and his outsized ego are the subject of a monumental Israel Museum exhibit
There’s another, wider sense of restoration here, as well. These sites, which represent perfectly the extreme historical density of Israel (which is kind of like a country-sized palimpsest), are once again Herod’s. Much of what Herod built was later seized, built upon, destroyed, renovated, destroyed again, and so on. These layers of history are interrelated in all sorts of complicated and interesting ways, but the later narratives have often come to “own” the site: If you’ve visited Masada, you probably heard plenty about the Roman assault and the Jewish rebels’ mass suicide and very little about Herod’s greatness. Masada, though, was built by Herod (who in turn had captured it from Alexander Jannaeus), and all the bits that stupefy—gigantic aqueduct in the middle of a desert; vast quarries and storehouses; three-tiered palace on the side of a cliff—are his doing. The Jewish rebels’ architectural contribution here is limited to building a shul and trashing the place.
Or consider Caesarea, a city essentially founded by Herod, who built a magnificent port/temple/market/theater/hippodrome. And while Herod hasn’t exactly gone unacknowledged, he’s got a lot of successors vying for historical primacy: The city and the sites have, over the course of the last two millennia, been subject to many, many landlords. The Romans of the Byzantine Period. The Arabs of the Rashidum Caliphate. Louis IX fortified the walls but could not keep out the Baybars. The Crusaders were displaced by the Mamluks. More recently, the city was populated by Bosniak immigrants, until, finally, everything was more or less purchased outright by the Rothschilds (who, under a unique and strange agreement with the state of Israel, maintain semi-autonomous control). By scraping some of the later layers off and demonstrating Herod’s essential and visionary contributions, the exhibit attempts to reascribe the sites’ glory to their founder. It’s a sort of historical archaeology.
And approaching history from the bottom up is an awfully instructive way to do it. The Second Temple is usually thought of primarily as a religious structure—and it’s monumental in both the religious and structural sense, to be sure—but it’s arguably even more interesting as a study of Herodian politics. Herod’s Jewish roots were extremely iffy—his father was Idumean, his mother a converted Nabatean—and the Pharisees, the dominant Jewish sect of the era, refused to recognize Herod’s Judaism as legitimate. This, according to historians, caused Herod no end of grief, and throughout his life he sought to prove his religious pedigree to himself and others. So, he rebuilt the Temple, the holiest man-made structure in Judaism and one the largest, most ornate buildings in Jewish history. And while Herod was for the most part respectful of Jewish sensibilities and strictures—he employed Kohanim to build in the areas forbidden to everyone else—he was also unwaveringly loyal to Rome: As homage, he installed an enormous golden eagle over one of the Temple’s main gates, which really irked the Jewish population. Yes, the Temple was one of the holiest and most ambitious architectural projects of its time, but it also represents a complex interplay of motivations and loyalties and appeasements, which this exhibit, with its braided Jewish and Roman strains, is wonderfully attentive to.
Which is true in a larger sense, as well: At the (complimentary) lunch after the press preview, two Israeli journalists at my table fought for a solid 45 minutes over whether Herod was a villain or hero. Yes, he put a lot of people to death, including his own children and a good fraction of his 10 wives, out of jealousy or suspicion or some equally petty motive. (One of the walls of the exhibit displays a quote, attributed to Augustus: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”) And anytime an ego as prodigious as Herod’s is matched with limitless power, you’ve got trouble: Herod ordered that, when he died, the 70-member Sanhedrin should be put to death so as to guarantee widespread mourning. (This was never carried out.) That we leave with the question “What do we really think about the guy?” being less answerable than when we walked in is, I think, testament to the exhibit’s depth and poise.
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