Tour of Herodium and Herod’s Tomb

herodium mountain top palace fortress panorama

Panoramic view looking down into Herod’s palace-fortress

A guided tour of an archaeological site like Herodium can be a unique birthday present for a friend or family member. It was a hot and sunny day but there was a cool breeze on the mountaintop and you could understand one reason why Herod would have chosen this site.

When I guide Herodium I often start in the Old City to show people the remains of the buildings at the Wohl museum and the stones of the walls and streets from the Herodion period along the western wall below Robinson’s Arch. Also, the Herodion stones forming the base of the tower at the Roman Gate are impressive. Seeing examples of Herod’s architecture help people know what to look for when we get to Herodium.

Last summer, I participated for a few days in the latest excavations that Ehud Netzer is leading on the eastern side of the mountain, excavating the tomb area. We were working on the pool and besides many pottery shards we found some catapult stones (size of snowballs, not to be confused with the larger ones rolled down from the walls by the Jewish rebels) and some coins from the Great Revolt.

Excavations are continuing and they’ve excavated a much larger area now. More of the base of the mausoleum is now exposed. Additional stone architectural details of a very high quality can be seen. These are not of the local soft limestone but a more royal stone, called meleke, that would have been quarried some distance away and brought here. Netzer thinks that the base supported a nefesh or monument, cylindrical in shape, something like Yad Avshalom in the Kidron Valley.

Tomb area at HerodiumThe latest findings are changing our understanding of Herodium. For example, it seems that the earth that was piled up around the mountain palace/fortress is not from the time of Herod but later. Originally, there was a glacis, a sloping wall, that circumvented the mountain.

Glacis at Herodium

Also, the archaeological evidence suggests that the staircase that is described by Josephus “and provided an easy ascent by two hundred steps of the purest white marble” was built later, that originally there was a “snake path” like at Masada. Archaeologists are left with some interesting unanswered questions: When was it done, why and by whom?

I’ve uploaded additional photographs of Herodium to Flickr at


5 thoughts on “Tour of Herodium and Herod’s Tomb

  1. Shmuel Browns Post author

    Moish Oberman emailed me, asking this question:
    Would it still have looked look like “a breast” if there was only a glacis at that time?

    Herodium was built about 20BCE, Herod died 4BCE and Josephus only wrote about 100CE – by then the mountain had been covered by earth so Josephus described it as “rounded off in the shape of a breast” but like the stairs that Josephus described that Ehud Netzer says were added later, the earth hadn’t been piled up during Herod’s lifetime. Also, Netzer suggests that the model for the Herodium mountain top palace/fortress was the Antonia fortress. How does Josephus describe the Antonia:

    “… it was built upon a rock fifty cubits high and on all sides precipitous. It was the work of King Herod and a crowning exhibition of the innate grandeur of his genious. For, to begin with, the rock was covered from its base upwards with smooth flagstones, both for ornament and in order that anyone attempting to ascend or descend it might slip off…”
    Jewish War V 238-247

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  3. Brenda and Paul Breuer

    The tour of Herodium was awe-inspiring, largely because of Shmuel Browns, our guide. He is highly knowledgeable, and comes equipped with graphic documentation that fills the gaps of what one sees. He gave us a taste of the detective work of archaeologists. Further, Shmuel is very professional and a real “mensch”.

    Paul and Brenda Breuer

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