Digging King Herod
King Herod was a Jew of doubtful origin who ruled Israel in the years 40-4 B.C.E. During this same period, the Roman republic was being replaced by the Roman Empire with its vast expansionist aims. Relying on Roman support for his power, Herod was, in effect, Israel's little Roman emperor. And he played the part, bringing administrative order and economic prosperity to the country and creating hugely ambitious architectural projects. In the Roman way, he was also cruel, paranoid, and thorough, killing his wife, three sons, and an assortment of other relatives and confidants.
During his lifetime Herod initiated four major architectural ventures: the port city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, two desert fortress-palaces, Masada and Herodion (Herodium in Latin), and the renovation and expansion of the second Temple. The last of these projects was undertaken in a failed attempt to win over the Jewish masses.
The extent of Herod's failure came to light in 2007 thanks to one of the most electrifying archeological finds in recent times: the discovery of his tomb at Herodion.
Herodion lies high on a cone-shaped hill at the edge of the Judean desert, ten minutes south of Jerusalem and five minutes east of Bethlehem. Like Herod, the structure is a bit schizophrenic. The monumental complex is divided into two main sections, a fortress-like upper level and a lower-level pleasure palace where the king entertained his guests with flowing pools and terraced gardens. Local Arabs still call the place baradis: paradise. Herod indeed designated Herodion to be his personal gateway to paradise, for he was buried there. After his death, the hill was commandeered by Jewish rebels who used it as a fortified redoubt in their wars against the occupying Roman forces in 70-72 and 130-32 C.E. For the next two millennia, the site remained buried under dirt.
In 1972, five years after Israel conquered the West Bank in the Six-Day War, a team of Israeli archeologists led by Ehud Netzer began digging at the site, eventually devoting more and more of their energies to the search for Herod's tomb. Excavations were suspended during the second intifada, but after Netzer's team returned in 2006 it finally hit pay dirt in the form of three large, elaborately decorated blocks of white limestone that were part of an eighty-foot-high monument: Herod's mausoleum. They also found ornately carved sarcophagi bearing numerous hammer marks; one had been savagely smashed to pieces. It seems that the Jewish rebels, in a sign of the hatred they still felt for imperial Rome's collaborator seventy years after his death, had deliberately destroyed his ornate limestone tomb.
Responses to Netzer's discovery weren't long in coming. The Palestinian Authority claimed that Israelis were stealing Palestinian artifacts; ultra-Orthodox defenders of Jewish gravesites demanded that the bones uncovered by the archaeologists be reburied and the site sealed in concrete; Jewish settler leaders, for their part, hailed the find as another affirmation of the Jewish connection to the land. Of the three, the settlers' response deserves special attention.
From the beginning of the modern Zionist movement, Jewish nationalists looked to the rebellion against Rome as a model display of Jewish military virtue. Of course, Herod himself was no Zionist hero—quite the contrary—but the freedom fighters who struggled and died at his two palace-fortresses were held up as paragons of ancient fortitude and martial prowess. Today, however, some ardent Zionists are embracing both Herod and the rebels who despised him.
Why? Israelis don't need to reclaim Herod as a Jew in order to buttress their right to Herodion. It's sufficient that Jewish rebels twice used the site in their revolt against Rome (not to mention the fact that Herodion sits adjacent to the biblical town of Tekoa). Something deeper is happening. The figure with whom today's Israeli Jews can identify is the other side of Herod: the visionary builder. While his moral life remains repulsive, not to say incomprehensible, the mini-emperor can be invoked as a standard against whom to measure the achievements of other, modern builders in the land of Israel.
Two-thousand years after his death, it appears that Herod is finally earning the acceptance he so deeply craved, finding a home in a reborn Jewish state that is working its way through the ancient question of what Rome has to do with Jerusalem.