Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End Jun 18, 2008

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Flag of Palestinian Territory  ,
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Herod's Legacy

Herod was both a very bad man and an outstanding builder.  It would be hard to exaggerate either of these characteristics.

Even when compared with other ruthless despots of his time (73 B.C.-4 B.C.), this King of Judea ranks high on the evil scale.  He killed anyone he believed might threaten his authority.  These included his favorite wife (as well as her mother, brother, and grandfather); three of his sons; and, according to the Gospel of Matthew, all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. 

Herod also constructed some of the greatest buildings in the world.  Among his achievements were the Second Temple in Jerusalem; Masada, where Jewish fugitives committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans; and Herodion, a magnificent palace and fortress in the Judean hills. 

Herodion is well worth a visit, even though it means venturing into the West Bank about seven miles south of Jerusalem.  The site of Herod's palace is one of the many Israeli-controlled holes in the Swiss cheese of the Palestinian Territories.  After passing through an Israeli checkpoint, we saw side roads with signs prohibiting access to Israeli citizens.  Other roads led to guarded Jewish settlements that forbade Palestinians to enter. 

Herod's masterpiece continues to dominate the landscape two thousand years after it was built.  It originally consisted of double, cylindrical walls 220 feet in diameter and seven stories high.  Herod built his fortress on the highest hill in the area.  Not satisified with what nature provided,  he made the hill even higher to get a commanding view of the countryside.  From the top it's possible to see Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea on clear days.  Scattered below are flat-roofed Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements with their characteristic red peaked roofs. 

Standing in the ruins of the upper palace, I marveled at how in three years Herod transformed this desert hill into one of the largest palaces in the Roman Empire.  He built luxurious apartments for himself, his family and his entourage (at least those he hadn't killed). 

It's still possible to walk through the bathhouse with a vaulted hot room, a small round warm room, and a cold room.  There are remnants of the salons where Herod received guests and presided over dinner parties, but the roofed porticos that provided welcome shade have not survived. 

Looking down to the lower palace, I could see his enormous swimming pool with an artificial island in the center.  We learned that he filled it with water he brought in an aqua duct all the way from Solomon's Pools near Bethlehem.  He also imported soil so that his pool would be surrounded by a lush garden.  The complex even included stables and a racetrack.

Herod ruled for 36 years, dying when he was 69 with what physicians today speculate was kidney disease, complicated by a severe infection that caused his genitals to rot.  Dying in such a gruesome manner did not cause Herod to change his ways, however.

Shortly before his death he received permission from Rome to execute his son Antipater, who had tried to poison him.  Herod also directed that all noteworthy Jewish men be detained in the Jericho hippodrome and slaughtered after his death.  This order, intended to assure that there would be cause for mourning, was never carried out.  Instead the men were freed and the populace celebrated.

The historian Josephus Flavius reported that Herod was buried in Herodion "in a bier of solid gold studded with precious stones."  But his tomb was not found until Hebrew University's Ehud Netzer announced just one year ago, on May 8, 2007, that he had discovered the tomb after 35 years of searching. 

Herod's remains were long gone, but the archeologists found a large gold bier inlaid with gems and a gold scepter and crown.  The discovery of the tomb confirmed why Herod built such an elaborate structure in a place that had little strategic value:  he always intended to be buried there.  

After Herod's death, the site was used at various times as a seat for Roman governors, a hideout for Jewish rebels, a sanctuary for Byzantine monks and finally the home of a Bedouin tribe.  These Bedouins could well have descended from the nomads who watched Herod built his mighty fortress, palace and mausoleum on the parched earth of the Judean hills over two thousand years ago.
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