Tag Archives: architecture

The Enigma that is Herodium

Today I was at Herodium with clients. As we descended into the bowl of the upper fortress/palace I noticed a group of workers sitting eating lunch in front of the wooden doors to the excavations taking place in the staircase. I immediately recognized Roi Porat and Yakov Kalman who had been in charge of the excavations of the tomb area with Prof. Netzer when I volunteered at the site in summer of 2008. Yakov was kind enough to let us peek inside. Here he shares some of his views about excavating at Herodium.

You have to put aside what you read in the books and examine and evaluate what you see as you excavate in order to understand what is going on. Herodium is not a simple site. The staircase was filled in with earth in Herod’s time, it doesn’t appear that the stairs were completed or ever used. There are two levels of arches, the lower ones to support the stair bed, the upper ones to define the space in which to walk – but there is no stair bed. Along one side is a covered drainage channel that carried water from the courtyard to the cistern. There is a small entrance hall with plastered walls and frescoes; the walls of the stairwell are rough stones.

I thanked him and mentioned that my week working at the excavation was very important to my understanding of Herodium and one that I value very much as a guide. And then Yakov had to get back to work. I did manage to take a few photos on my cell phone.

Herodium staircase

Looking down the staircase, covered channel on the left resting on unfinished lower arches.

Herodium frescoes in staircase

Small entrance way, plastered walls with fresco.

Herodium enigma

Small area between the entrance way and staircase.

Herodium, Netzer, King Herod and the Israel Museum

Each day we rose before dawn and the unrelenting desert heat to continue digging east of the monumental staircase. In the summer of 2007, after Professor Netzer had discovered the base of the mausoleum, I volunteered at the archaeological site at Herodium. Among seas of pottery shards, we dug up baseball-sized stones hurled by a Roman catapult (ballista). Scanning with a metal detector, we found tiny, encrusted bronze coins, from the period of the Great Revolt.

Herodium Tomb areaWe uncovered a few well-carved stones strewn about – an egg and dart pattern, two five-petaled flowers from a decorative frieze. The high-quality limestone is meleke, from the root “king”, is not local to the site; it had been brought to Herodium specially for the mausoleum. At Herodium last week, these pieces were not to be found.

Herod the Great exhibitThe first image at the entrance to the Herod exhibit at the Israel museum opening today is neither architecture or artifacts, but the Judean desert – the site where Herod built his monuments is important.

Throne Room, JerichoFollowing Herod the Builder, museum staff re-constructed three rooms from Herod’s palaces at the museum. The first room you enter is a replica of the throne room from Herod’s third palace at Jericho, excavated by Netzer for his doctorate. The original frescoes with their intense natural colors were removed from the palace and moved to the museum. So fond of Herod, Augustus had permitted him to mine cinnabar, a red mineral pigment, from his private property in Almadén, Spain.

When Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ deputy visited Judea in 15 BCE, he was so impressed by Herod’s building projects that he sent Roman builders and artists to Judea to contribute their sophisticated skills. Opus recticulatum is a technique for strengthening walls to resist earthquake damage. All three examples of this Roman technique are found in Herod’s projects, discovered by Ehud Netzer: in the palace at Jericho, at the remains of a building north of Damascus gate rumored to be Herod’s Family tomb, and in a section of temple wall at Banias.

Bathtub Opus SectileThe second room displays Herod’s private stone bathtub uncovered by Netzer at the palace in Cypros. The museum displays floors from Cypros and Herodium laid with a Roman technique, opus sectile. Natural-colored stone tiles are cut in geometric shapes and laid in repeated patterns. In other cases, the floors are mosaic – two mosaic floors from the bathhouse at Lower Herodian, one in an opus sectile pattern and the other geometric shapes with pomegranates.

Secco - loggiaThe third room is a reconstruction of the loggia, the VIP box from the Herodium theater with its unique secco wall paintings. According to this Roman technique, paint is added to dry plaster compared with the more usual fresco – fresh, wet plaster technique. These paintings are trompe de l’oeil views of an open window, with wooden shutters, that look out onto a natural scene, at the artistic standard found in the finest palaces and villas in Rome and Pompeii.

Herodium MausoleumThe exhibit is laid out faithfully to the site at Herodium where the loggia and the mausoleum flank the staircase. At the museum, we move through the viewing platform toward the full life-size reconstruction of the top-level of the mausoleum. The very decorative stones I excavated at Herodium are in their proper places in the frieze. A microchip was attached to each stone of 30 tons that were transported from Herodium to the Museum – as an aid to tracking and assembly. For the same purpose, the Hebrew letter “chet” can be seen on one stone, a sign left by the ancient Jewish stone masons. The structure is so heavy that the floor had to be specially reinforced.

In 1982, while Netzer was excavating, he came upon a water cistern in the mountain. He was puzzled that the cistern had been reinforced to support a great weight. Unbeknown to him, he had come within a meter of discovering the mausoleum. Why would Herod have insisted that the mausoleum be built on top of a cistern? According to the curator, Dudi Mevorah, Herod chose this precise location because it is best seen from Jerusalem. Once the mausoleum was complete, Herod dismantled the stage and buried his theater in order not to distract the eye.

The Israel Museum

The Israel Museum

Netzer drew on his familiarity with Herod’s oeuvre and his expertise as an architect and archaeologist to imagine the mausoleum. Netzer conceives a colossal three-story monument – 25 meters high. The first level is cube-shaped – only the base exists and can be viewed at Herodium halfway up the mountain on the north side. The second level is a tholos, a cylindrical structure with Ionic columns and crowned with a conical roof. In addition to the Roman style, there are Nabatean elements to memorialize Herod’s Nabatean mother Cypros – two stone replicas of Nabatean funerary urns are on display out of five that adorned the roof.Nabatean Funerary urn

Entering within the structure, the sarcophagus that Netzer claims was Herod’s rests. Netzer found its shards – the stone box had been smashed in antiquity and reconstructed by museum staff.

The Israel Museum/Meidad Suchowolski

The Israel Museum/Meidad Suchowolski

Made of reddish limestone, mizzi ahmar, from the Arabic, this is very hard stone and would have been difficult to carve – perhaps that made it all the more appealing. Originally, Netzer suggested that the side panels of the sarcophagus were decorated with five flower medallions. There are sarcophagi like that, one in the Louvre taken from the Tomb of the Kings, one outside the Islamic museum on the Haram el-Sharif. Based on the museum reconstruction, it seems that these panels are plain.

Two sarcophagiBeside the mausoleum, the other two sarcophagi that Netzer discovered are displayed. Netzer posits that these belonged to Herod’s family members. One is decorated with a vine pattern – very similar to the stucco decorations in Herod’s theater box. The other sarcophagus, displayed for the first time, is completely plain as if waiting for the stone-carver.

The Israel museum has built a monumental exhibit that expresses Herod’s architecture and aesthetics as discovered by archaeologist, Professor Ehud Netzer – Herod would have been pleased with the result. To understand more requires going beyond the exhibit halls, to experience the drama of Herod’s life in situ, at the sites that Herod built.

For an in-depth full-day tour of Herodium and the Israel Museum’s “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” exhibit and/or personalized guided tours of Herod’s other sites and more, contact Shmuel.

Kathisma Church

Aerial photo of Kathisma site, IAA

Despite the many people traveling along the main road to Bethlehem (or Gilo or Gush Etzion) before the turnoff to Har Homa and Herodium few notice the ruins of a 5th century Byzantine church and monastery. Discovered by chance in 1992 when the road was paved and excavated briefly in 1999 by Rina Avner, the site is worth exploring but lies abandoned due to lack of money, time and initiative. Called the Kathisma church, after the word in Greek for seat (καθισμα), according to Christian tradition it is where Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem just before giving birth to Jesus.

Most Byzantine churches are in the shape of a basilica, a rectangular plan with a central nave and two aisles, with a semicircular apse at the far end. Not exactly a church, the Kathisma is a martyrium, a special structure that functions as a church (or mosque) and marks the site of a holy event. Rather than a basilica, the church is octagonally shaped and built over a flat, protruding rock in the center. There are 3 concentric octagons, the innermost one around the rock, the second a walkway (ambulatoria) with one chapel and the outer one made up of 4 chapels and smaller rooms.

The floors are covered in mosaics in geometric and floral designs in white, black, yellow, green and red stone tesserae. The mosaics have been mostly covered with felt mats and sand to protect them.

Kathisma palm mosaic from Arab period, IAA

One of the finest mosaics is from the Arab period, an ornate mosaic of a date palm in the southeastern corner. According to the Koran, Mary sat and rested under a palm during the onset of her labor.

There are ruins of another octagonally shaped church at Capernaum. The remains of a 5thC church were uncovered that consist of a central octagon with eight pillars, an exterior octagon with thresholds still in situ, and a portico. Later an apse with a pool for baptism was constructed in the middle of the east wall. The central octagon was placed directly on top of the walls of Simon Peter’s house with the aim of preserving its exact location.

The floor of the portico is a geometric patterned mosaic. In the area of the external octagon, the mosaics represented plants and animals in a style similar to that found in the Basilica of the Heptapegon at Tabgha. In the central octagon, the mosaic was composed of a strip of flowers, a field of fish with small flowers and a circle with a peacock in the center.

Another church that is octagon-shaped and crowned by a copper dome though enclosed in a rectangular envelope is the church on the Mount of Beatitudes. The church is from 1938 and was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in neo-Renaissance (Byzantine) style.

He chose the octagonal shape to match the eight beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-5) and on the eight stained glass windows beneath the dome are verses from the Sermon.

There are only a couple of other churches that have been built over a rock, the Basilica of the Agony and the Basilica of the Heptapegon but neither is an octagon.

According to our understanding the Kathisma church was renovated in the 6thC and used as a mosque in the 8thC after which it was destroyed. A mihrab, or prayer niche facing Mecca was built into the southern wall of the outermost octagon. This means that the church was not destroyed during the Persian conquest and existed at the time of Abd el-Malik who commissioned the building of the Dome of the Rock, a martyrium in octagon shape over a rock – it may have been the inspiration for what has been called the earliest example of Islamic architecture.

A Morning on Mount Scopus

Construction of the campus of the Hebrew University began in 1918 on land purchased from the Gray Hill estate. The dedication ceremony was held in 1925 in the presence of many dignitaries, including Lord Balfour, Viscount Allenby, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the poet Haim Nahman Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, Dr. Chaim Weizmann and many others.

A design for the university campus by Sir Patrick Geddes positioned the university buildings on the slopes of Mount Scopus, below a domed, hexagonal Great Hall recalling the Star of David, as a counterpoint to the octagonal Dome of the Rock in the Old City. This plan was never implemented, but Geddes designed the university library, today the Faculty of Law building. The master plan for the campus was taken over by German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn in 1935. Mendelsohn greatly influenced the local Jerusalem International Style (Bauhaus).

Notice the living sculpture outside of the Sinatra building that commemorates the nine students killed by a bomb left in the university cafeteria in July 2002, a tree growing out of the ground at an angle, by Israeli sculptor, Ran Morin. The Tilted Tree signifies humankind’s ability to withstand even the most disruptive shocks and to continue to grow upwards.

Prof. Sukenik and his colleagues, including Prof. Nahman Avigad, had planned to open a museum on Mount Scopus in 1948 to display items related to the history of the Jewish people in ancient times. Among the artifacts are ceiling tiles from the ancient synagogue* discovered in 1932 in the city of Dura Europos, located in the desert above the banks of the Euphrates in Syria. Sukenik had been invited by the Yale University team to visit the site (in Syria) and join in the publication of the findings. He was given 3 ceiling tiles that he brought back to Israel. The outbreak of the War of Independence with the result that Scopus was isolated within Jordanian-occupied territory made the opening of the museum impossible.


Sixty-three years later, these painted clay tiles and other artifacts have been put on display, including some half dozen ossuaries, mosaics, clay vessels, etc. from excavations in Israel by members of the Archaeology department. The modest museum is open to the public.

Walk through the botanical gardens organized by Alexander Eig, head of the Botany Department, based on the flora of the Land of Israel planted in 1931 to some caves with Second Temple period tombs. It was here that they found some half dozen ossuaries (the ones displayed on site are replicas, the originals are in the museum) including one with a 4 line inscription in Greek and Hebrew:

[In this ossuary are] the bones of [the family of] Nicanor of Alexandria who made the doors
Nicanor  Alexa

Nicanor is mention in the Babylonian Talmud in Yoma 38a, the donor of the two bronze doors for the Temple. The original ossuary is at the British museum in London.

In 1940s, Pinsker and Ussishkin, early leaders of the Zionist movement, were buried in one of the caves.

Went back to the Jerusalem War Cemetery on Mount Scopus and found the graves of Jewish soldiers who served in the British army during WWI and fought and died here. In addition, I noticed two gravestones of Turkish soldiers.


Visited the memorial at Givat HaTachmoshet to see the model of Jerusalem and how the city was divided in the ceasefire agreement of Nov 30, 1948 signed by Dayan (Israel) and el-Tell (Jordan). Article VIII of the 1949 Armistice Agreements signed by Israel and Jordan in April 1949 called for a resumption of “the normal functioning of the cultural and humanitarian institutions on Mount Scopus and free access thereto; free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives; resumption of operation of the Latrun pumping station; provision of electricity for the Old City; and resumption of operation of the railroad to Jerusalem.” Jordan did not abide to the agreement. There is a movie with original army footage that relates the events that divided the city in 1948 and shows how Israel recaptured the area from Jordan in 1967 and reunited the city.


Antonio Barluzzi

Antonio Barluzzi is known as an architect but for many years he thought about entering a seminary. It was on the advice of his spiritual mentor and encouragement of his older brother Giulio, already an architect, that he entered the engineering school at university to study to become an architect. After graduation and his army service he worked with his brother on several architectural projects in Rome.

By 1910 Turkey is described as the “sick man on the Bosphorus” and all the European powers were staking their claim to pieces of the Holy Land. Schiaparelli of the Italian Missionaries Association hired Giulio to design and build an Italian hospital in Jerusalem with substantial financial aid from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Guilo is overloaded with work and probably prefered Rome to Jerusalem so he sent Antonio.

Schiaparelli recommended that “in the new building, a worthy chapel should have a place of honour, which can accommodate, in special circumstances, the Italian colony”. He also suggested that it be named Santa Maria Latina in memory of the old church of the Amalfitans in Jerusalem (today the Crusader part of the German Lutheran Church in the Muristan). So Antonio designed the hospital, definitely Italian looking, a curious mixture of the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza Signoria in Florence and the tower of the Mangia in Sienna.

With the outbreak of the First World War Barluzzi left for Italy and entered a seminary and stayed for 40 days, then Italy entered the war and he was called up. Italy allied itself with Britain, Barluzzi was recommended to the Ministry of War as an expert on the Holy Land and so on December 11, 1917, our architect entered Jerusalem on foot through Jaffa gate together with General Allenby.

In 1978 while studying in Israel I took some photos of the Old City with a Nikkormat SLR camera using black and white film. One photo in particular I liked quite a lot, a pastoral scene just across from Damascus Gate looking north, of a young Arab boy shepherding four goats in a field. In the distance, framed by two trees is an Italian looking building. Of course, today the field is gone but the building is Barluzzi’s Italian hospital, his first building in Jerusalem.

The question was where would I find that photo from 30 years ago. I started looking through shoeboxes of photos and after about 10 minutes in a box with old letters, lo and behold found the negatives. I took them to be developed and a few hours later had prints of the photos. I shot a similar view the other day from the ramparts at Damascus gate.

From there I walked over to the chapel – the Italian hospital buildings are being used by the Israeli Ministry of Education. Unfortunately the chapel is not open to the public.

Barluzzi was asked to build two churches by the Franciscans, on Mount Tabor and in the Garden of Gethsemane. He returned to Italy to ponder his future. He wrote in his diary: ‘I go to Father Corrado, the confessor of my youth, I explain my circumstances and ask what I must do. ‘Go and build the Sanctuaries, and then we’ll talk again.’ My heart leaps for joy, and I say: ‘It is Gods will’.

So Barluzzi began to build a basilica on the top of Mount Tabor, one of the traditional sites of the Transfiguration. This was a challenging task in 1919 because there was not even a road or water, which had to be carried by mules; even the stone masons were brought from Italy. Again Barluzzi borrowed from an existing church, St. Simeon the Stylite near Aleppo, for his design because of the importance of the Transfiguration in the Syrian liturgy and the triple division of the facade matched the three figures in the story, Moses, Jesus and Elijah. The roof was originally of alabaster tiles in order to let the light in, unfortunately these had to be covered to prevent the rain coming in but Barluzzi used the element of light to the full.

At the same time he was working on the basilica at Gethsemane, called both the Church of All Nations and the Church of the Agony. Here Barluzzi developed his symbolic architecture, in this case Christus dolens et triumphans. The suffering of Jesus and his pain is represented by a building of Byzantine inspiration which evokes the beginning church, a somber interior of dark mosaics with the light filtered by purple glass, with twelve small domes, like the apostles. The glory is  the triumphal facade of classic Roman inspiration, a triple round arch, supported by four large pilasters surrounded by columns topped with Corinthian capitals (a similar capital was found during the excavations and is on display at the Stadium Biblicum archaeological museum).

Barluzzi went on to build numerous other churches, transforming into stone the deepest sentiments of his heart and dedicated his life to honoring and glorifying the earthly Jerusalem. It is a blessing to be able to experience his work.

Just inside Jaffa gate is the Franciscan Christian Information Center. As of the date of this post, there is an exhibit about Antonio Barluzzi that I highly recommend.

Jerusalem Armenian Ceramics

Walking the streets of the Old City your first introduction to Armenian ceramics may be the tiles designed by Mr. Karakashian that display the names of streets in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Please note that much of the painted pottery that you see in the souvenir shops in the Arab market is done in Palestinian workshops in Hebron.

The Armenian community in Jerusalem goes back to the 5th century and in the Old City they live primarily in one of the 4 quarters, a walled neighborhood within the walls to the right from Jaffa gate called the Armenian quarter. Their religious center is the Cathedral of St. James that goes back to the 12th century. The Crusader King Baldwin II married the Armenian princess Morphia who bore him 4 daughters, the eldest, Melisende was married to Fulk, Count of Anjou who was King of Jerusalem and ruled in her own right from 1129-1161. She is buried in the Tomb of Mary in the Kidron valley. From at least the 17th century numerous ceramic tiles by Armenian artists from Kutahya and Iznik were sent as gifts to the Cathedral and  the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

After the British defeated the Turks, Ronald Storrs was the military governor of Jerusalem and one of the projects was to repair the 16th century ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock. David Ohannessian who had fled from the city of Kutahya, Turkey to Jerusalem and was known to Mark Sykes was recommended to Storrs. Ohannessian set up a workshop first on the Haram el Sharif and then later on the Via Dolorosa. Although the project fell through due to lack of funds he started producing ceramic wares and tiles to sell. An Armenian told me that the Muslims didn’t allow the Armenians who are Christian to work on the building.

Many recognize David Ohannessian as the founder of local Armenian ceramics based on the Iznik tradition and a bridge between the ceramic artistry of Turkey and what was to be developed later in Jerusalem. Ohannessian created tiles for buildings in Jerusalem until 1948 when he left for Beirut. You can see examples of these tiles at the Rockefeller museum and in my neighborhood, on the facade of originally Christian-Arab buildings, at 25 Emeq Refaim (I lead a tour of the German Colony that includes the Armenian story in the fascinating history of the German Templars) and next door to my house, at 24 Hazefira. Be on the lookout for other examples as you explore the city, buildings on Jaffa Road, in Talbiye, American Colony Hotel, St. John’s hospital (today the Mount Zion Hotel), Scottish Church of St. Andrew.

In 1922 Balian and Karakashian opened their own workshop at 14 Nablus Road where the families worked and lived for more than 40 years. Ballian was the master potter and Karakashian the painter artist and they passed on their skills and traditional craft to the next generation. It was here that the transformative process took traditional Kutahyan Armenian ceramics and created a uniquely Jerusalem pottery, the introduction of an art form that had not previously existed  in the city. It is a major contribution to decorative art, creating an artistic language that combines Eastern and local elements.

Their repertoire of forms was grounded in the traditional designs of Iznik (carnations, tulips, almond blossoms and saz leaves) and Kutahya (white or blue background with discretely outlines images) and included themes from the Bible. Two mosaic pavements in particular seems to have inspired them: the 6th century Bird Mosaic in the Armenian chapel and an Umayyad mosaic from the 8th century at Khirbat al-Mafjar (Hisham Palace) near Jericho. As they worked the two artists created new forms of their own inspired by local sources. Their first major project was a series of tile panels for the walls of the courtyard where the Patriarchs are buried in the Armenian Cemetery on Mount Zion. Their last work together done in 1963 were three rectangular tile pictures in the center of which are arched niches enclosed behind latticework doors for the facade of the Cathedral.

The designs were created by the master painter as drawings on paper. The paper design would be perforated along the lines so that the copyists could transfer them to the ceramics. The copyist-artisans would then paint the outlines in black and then colored glazes would be painted onto the ceramic. When the Balians and Karakashians separated in 1964, the traditional patterns, property of the joint workshop were divided between them.

In 1965 the Karakashian family moved to live and work in the Old City, where they created a studio, “Jerusalem Old City” on the Via Dolorosa between El Wad and Khan El Zeit (recently they moved to 3 Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Street in the Christian quarter). The main designs are those of arabesques, various bird designs, flowers, grapevines, a fawn, fish and biblical scenes on ceramic vessels and tiles.


The Balian studio, called Palestinian Pottery, is still at the original 14 Nablus Rd location.


The creative force behind the Balian workshop was Marie Balian, who had studied painting in Lyon, France. One outstanding example is her dialogue with the images of the tree, gazelles and lion from the Hisham Palace painted in various combinations. By the early 1980s Marie Balian was working on larger compositions of many tiles, as if they were monumental canvases.

In 1986 she created a multi-tile triptych for the “Sukkoth patio” of the President of Israel’s residence which included pomegranates, date palms and grapevines (from the seven species that grow in the Land of Israel).

For an excellent book on the subject check out
Kenaan-Kedar, Nurith, The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations 1919-2003, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Jerusalem, Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, 2003.  ISBN 965-217-217-0

Sato Moughalian, the grand-daughter of David Ohannessian published a book in 2019 about his life and art, Feast of Ashes.