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Herodium (Herodion)

Herodium, or Herodion, is the archeological site and remains of Herod’s summer palace, fortress, monument, burial ground, and district capital.

It is located in the Judean Desert just outside of Jerusalem and very easily accessible.

Like Masada, the Second Temple, and Caesarea, Herodium was built by Herod who is sometimes referred to as “the builder king.”

According to the historian Josephus, Herod was built on the spot where he was victorious over Hasmonean king and his allies the Parthians, allowing Herod to take the kingdom for himself with Rome’s approval.

To commemorate the event, the Herod built a fortified palace at the spot, which he named Herodis after himself, and was continently located near the ancient roads to the Dead Sea.

Herodium was built in two separate areas, each with a distinct function:

Upper Herodion, which sat at the top of the mountain, contained the palace set within a circular fortress on an artificial cone-shaped mountain surrounded by a wall with towers.

Lower Herodion, located at the base of the mountain, consisted of numerous palace annexes around a large pool, use by Herods’ family and friends, and for the central offices of the district capital.

Herod built himself a tomb on Herodium where, according to Josephus, he was buried.

Upon his death, Herod bequeathed Herodion to his son, Archelaus, who ruled for two years before being banished, at which point it passed into the hands of the Romans.

Then, during the Great Revolt against Rome in 66 C.E. it was seized by the Jewish rebels who built a synagogue and ritual baths on the site.

They remained there for there four years, until they were defeated by the Romans.

Herodium, was one of the last three fortresses held by Jewish rebels after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Herodium was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE.

According to Josephus Flavius, the Roman historian, Herodium surrendered, but archeological evidence indicate otherwise.

For example, the entry gate to the upper palace was burned, and that the fire spread to underground areas, causing considerable damage.

The site was abandoned until 132 C.E., when it was once again occupied by Jewish rebels fighting in the Bar Kochba revolt.

During the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132 to 135 or 136 CE, Mount Herod also served as a base for the rebels, where they created secret tunnels and caves carved in the rock.

With the quelling of the rebellion in 135 C.E., Herodion once again was abandoned.

Josephus described Herodion in great detail and it was of great interest to eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars.

However, it was not until 1962 that Upper Herodion was first excavated, and not until 1972 that excavations began in Lower Herodion.

Only in recent decades did they find an assault system in Upper Herodion from the Bar Kochba period.

As the excavation progressed, extensive restoration was carried out on the structures.

The large pool at Lower Herodium is, as in times of old, once more surrounded by (restored) porticos.

You can also descend to the 300 meter-long tunnels, cisterns, and rock-cut spaces under the hill.

The Palace-Fortress

The combination of fortress and palace is a uniquely Herodian innovation, which he repeated on several other sites, including Masada.

At Herodium, a circular palace-fortress was constructed on top of a hill, which rises 60 meters above its surroundings.

The fortification was originally about 30 meres high, with seven stories.

Two of these stories were underground foundations, strengthened with barrel-vaulted ceilings, while the five stories building was considerably higher than the palace courtyard.

Wooden ceilings separated the stories, which were used for storage and as quarters for soldiers and servants.

Huge towers projected from the walls on all four sides.

The eastern tower the largest and rose above the entire fortress containing 5 stories of of royal suites.

Its roof had a panoramic view and also served as a hiding place in times of danger.

Towers of this kind were an architectural innovation.

The other three towers were semi-circular and their upper stories served as storage spaces and living areas.

This circular design of a round building surrounded by round towers was rare in ancient architecture.

The entry-gate to the fortress, in the northeast, was reached via a straight, steep staircase within a corridor built into an earthen rampart.

Cisterns beneath the fortress, filled with rainwater which was channeled from above, assured its water supply.

In addition, near the entrance to the staircase, three very large cisterns were cut into the slope outside the fortress and rainwater was channeled into them from the hillside.

Herod’s private palace, of modest dimensions, stood within the fortification.

It was decorated with floors of colored tiles, mosaics, and wall paintings depicting geometric patterns, and included every imaginable feature for comfort.

It included an ornamental garden, a bath house, several residential rooms, and a reception and banqueting hall.

In the eastern part of the palace was the garden, surrounded on three sides by porticos, its columns adorned with Corinthian capitals.

The western portion of the palace had two stories.

Its ground floor included: a hall with a roof supported by four columns, a cruciform courtyard with rooms at its corners, a small bathhouse whose preserved domed roof is the earliest example of a dome found to date in Israel.

The bath house was built in accordance with Roman bathing rules, and had an entrance lobby and dressing room, a caldarium (hot room), a circular tepidarium (warm room), and a frigidarium (cold room) with a small bathing pool.

The hot air came up from the double floor, through channels carved in the walls.

In the warm room, an impressive stone dome has survived in its entirety, the oldest of its kind in Israel.

Lower Herodium

Lower Herodion was built around a large Roman-style garden surrounded by columns.

At the center of the garden was a large pool used for swimming, boating and as a reservoir.

Lower Herodium, spanning some 38 acres, includes the “Great Palace” building, the pools and gardens, the bath house, and accommodation for guests and for members of the district administration.

The buildings were constructed around a large pool, which was filled by water from the aqueduct especially built to carry water from the springs at Artas near Solomon’s pools.

The foundations of a round building were found in the center of the pool, which once had a roof supported by a row of columns, and was probably a pavilion for relaxation and entertaining.

The pool was surrounded by extensive, well-tended gardens.

An octagonal room at the center of the western hall leading from the pool had walls decorated with pilasters and frescos.

It is assumed that this room served as a reception hall, or perhaps even as the king’s throne room when he resided at Herodium.

The pool complex was surrounded by buildings of various functions.

In the southwest a large bathhouse was excavated, which probably served the royal entourage and the king’s guests.

It comprised a number of rooms and pools, a caldarium (hot room) heated by the hypocaust system (the floor was raised on supports, allowing hot air to circulate below the floor, thus heating the room).

The bathhouse walls were decorated in painted square patterns and in imitation marble.

The floors were paved with colored mosaics in geometric and floral patterns, as well as with pomegranates, grapevines and grape clusters.

In the area between the mountain and the pool – which is partly covered by dense Byzantine period buildings – is the “funeral complex” with a large hall alongside which was a mikve.

A few years before his death, Herod began to complete the vast tomb estate at Herodium:

A mausoleum-like burial structure was built and around it the artificial mountain was constructed to be a giant monument to preserve his memory.

Mount Herod

A partly man-made mountain, on which are the remains of Herod’s palace, bath house, and fortifications, including a double fortification wall and sturdy towers.

Herod turned the hill into a prominent cone, with a passageway serving as entry to the hill, including a monumental flight of stairs leading to it.

The mountain was built of layers of earth and small stones.

The observation point at the top of the conical mountain offers a view into the crater within, and the two fortification walls that surround the crater in two circles.

The crater was originally a building rising five stories above the level of the courtyard.

Herod’s Tomb

Researchers searched for his tomb for many years, and were unable to find it.

In 2007, Prof. Ehud Netzer discovered the remains of a large structure and a grand sarcophagus in the hillside facing Jerusalem.

The mausoleum was built three stories high.

The first two floors were square, and the top floor was circular surrounded by 18 pillars.

At the top of the roof, constructed in the form of a concave cone, like the Tomb of Absalom in Jerusalem, stood an urn with other urns placed at the bottom of the cone.

The remains of three sarcophagi were found.

One has a reddish shade decorated with rosettes, and was suggested to have been the one in which Herod was buried, since it stands out for its meticulous workmanship.

The sarcophagus was found smashed.

The other two sarcophagi were made of white stone, and they were thrown out of the mausoleum before it was dismantled, and found in pieces on the ground.

Two members of Herod’s family were buried in the sarcophagi, one of them apparently his fifth wife, the mother of his heir Archelaus.

The remains of a supporting wall, and above it garden soil and an irrigation pond, are evidence that the mausoleum was surrounded by an ornamental garden.

Later, a royal theatre and other buildings were also uncovered on the hillside.

The Theater

Near the mausoleum, a small theater 400-seat theater was found.

It appears that the theater was used to provide entertainment for the palace guests.

At the top of the gallery a private box was found, presumably intended for Herod and his guests.

The room was decorated to a high standard, apparently by artists brought from Rome or Pompeii.

Among others, there are paintings of windows seemingly looking out on rural landscapes.

When the monumental staircase and artificial mountain were built the theatre was dismantled, some 10 years after its construction.

At that time, the royal box and other parts of the structure were used to accommodate the builders constructing the artificial mountain.

Remnants of the revolts against Rome 

The rebels of the Great Revolt built a synagogue in the palace hall and added stone benches on three of its sides.

The original ceiling of the room was replaced by a lightweight ceiling, supported by four columns that were not there originally.

Outside the entrance to the hall, a small room was used as a mikve.

Another mikve dating to the Great Revolt was found in the center of the courtyard, close to the east tower.

This mikve contained a small pool, and alongside it a water storage tank.

The are also remains of a complex system of underground tunnels.

A steep tunnel was hewn to guarantee the water-supply to the Palace-Fortress.

This made it possible to carry water from the lower cisterns up to the fortified palace without being exposed to the view of the Romans besieging the place

Escape tunnels 

Escape tunnels, cisterns, and hidden caves for sneak attacks all carved out by the Bar Kochba rebels, which is a testament to their great ingenuity.

These tunnels emerging from the fortress cellars and leading to sortie exits, intended for taking the Roman army units by surprise.

Further complex tunnels were dug, connecting the earlier cisterns with one another.

These led from the fortress to hidden openings which allowed surprise attacks on Roman units scaling the hill.

As opposed to the narrow and restricted tunnel complexes from the Judean Shephelah, the Herodium tunnels were broad, with high ceilings, allowing for rapid movement.

The tunnel-diggers dumped the spoil into the empty cisterns, already out of use at the time.

Visiting Herodium

If you don’t want to drive there, you can easily take Bus 366 from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station to the foot of Herodium.

There you will find a fully equipped visitors center where you can enjoy a short film and buy guide books or snacks.

A path leads you to Lower Herodium and Upper Herodium, both of which you are free to explore.

Everything listed is viewable including the tunnels.

At the top, you can walk along the walls and enjoy the view.

See the Heroidum webpage for visiting hours and ticket prices.

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