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.
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
A thorough new biography chronicles the rise and fall of the big, Jewish self-destructive funnyman