Holy Land Sites: #2 Herod’s Herodium

Remains of Upper Herodium

Remains of Upper Herodium

In the year 40 B.C., Herod the Great, not yet king of Judea, found himself and his family in danger of an ensuing Parthian invasion. With a large company of family, friends, and soldiers, Herod fled south into the desert toward Masada. Along the way, however, a tragic wagon accident left his mother nearly dead and the “mama’s boy” distraught – the Parthians were gaining on them, and his favorite person in the world might be dead! Herod decided the best action to take was to kill himself, but the large company with him convinced him otherwise. His mother was recovered and the journey continued, but not until Herod and his soldiers faced off against the angry Jewish army of Antigonus. Claiming victory at the site where tragedy had nearly struck just moments before, Herod vowed to return to the spot with two small mountains which he would later name Herodium.

The pool at Lower Herodium

The pool at Lower Herodium

Herod began his building project at Herodium around 23 B.C. Taking fill from the smaller of the two natural mountains, he built up the other into a huge, conical fortress. Atop the man-made mountain, Herod built a circular palatial fortress with four towers. Three of the towers were semicircular protrusions from the fortification wall, and the fourth was a large round tower that jutted into the midst of the palace. The dwelling place within the cylindrical fortress housed a large peristyle courtyard and garden, frescoed chambers and bedrooms, a dining hall, and a full Roman-style bathhouse. The palace was probably two stories tall and fully contained within the towering exterior double-wall which measured as much as 30 meters in height. As for the towers, the three semicircular-shaped protrusions each contained as manay as twenty rooms used for storage and servant housing. The height of these towers is unknown, but one theory that seems to fit well with Herodian architecture is that the towers were built up to one story below the top of the fortification wall, and the top of the towers would have then served as colonnaded and roofed balconies for visitors to view the landscape and escape the desert heat. The circular eastern tower was probably built well above the fortifications and might have included royal chambers at its top.

Artistic rendering of ancient Herodium

Artistic rendering of ancient Herodium

At the foot of the artificial mount, nearly 100 meters below, Herod constructed a second palace complex. The remains of the palace itself are minimal, though the foundations remain to give testament to its grand size, approximately 130 x 60 meters. To the west of the main palace building was a large pool surrounded by a formal garden almost as large as the main building! The garden was surrounded by colonnades on three sides. As for the pool, it measured 69 x 45 meters and was 3 meters deep. In the middle of the pool was a tholos structure, a sort of round pavilion accessed by small row boats upon which its visitors could relax or enjoy a small meal. No doubt that this was an intentionally blatant display of wealth on Herod’s part, a luxurious oasis in the midst of the harsh Judean desert.

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer with the remnants of the red sarcophagus

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer with the remnants of the red sarcophagus

Especially worthy of mention are the remains of a tomb found on the side of the artificial mount in 2007. Archaeologist Ehud Netzer spent his life studying and excavating at Herodian sites, the Herodium being his crowning glory before his tragic death in 2010. The tomb structure was his great last find, which he attributes as the burial place of Herod the Great. The three-story mausoleum was the only edifice at the site constructed of a shining white limestone, ornately designed and crowned with a beautiful peripteral tholos, a round building surrounded by a colonnade with a concave conical roof. The tomb housed three sarcophagi, one of which was large and well-carved out of red limestone. The tomb was looted and the red sarcophagus smashed to tiny pieces by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt. And while some scholars disagree that this was Herod’s tomb, the famous historian Josephus gives an elaborate description of the funeral procession of Herod to his “final” resting place at Herodium.

Aerial view of Upper and Lower Herodium

Aerial view of Upper and Lower Herodium


For additional information on Upper and Lower Herodium, see The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder or The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great, both by Ehud Netzer. See also Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus (14.13.360; 15.9.323-25). For information on Herod’s Tomb, check out http://www.herodium.org/history-and-archology/the-complexes/the-building-on-the-mountain-slopes/herods-grave/ and http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/herodium-the-tomb-of-king-herod-revisited/.