Tag Archives: ehud netzer

Herod – Design and Realpolitik

The New York Times article reporting on the Herod exhibit at the Israel Museum concludes with my comments.

Shmuel Browns, a tour guide and expert on Herodium who helped Netzer excavate the site as a volunteer, said he was awed by the meticulous reconstruction, particularly of a large basin adorned with several heads that was found in pieces in two disparate places at the site, now an Israeli national park.

“They’ve built things from what was found that you could never imagine from what you saw at the site,” Mr. Browns said. “The message is very, very strong about who Herod is and what he did. He wasn’t intimidated by topography, he wasn’t intimidated by material, he wasn’t intimidated by lack of water.

“He’s a fascinating character,” Mr. Browns added. “He just got very, very bad press.”

Silenoi headsWhile excavating Lower Herodium, archaeologist Ehud Netzer found marble pieces of a wash basin in the bath-house, including a pair of Silenoi heads – the companion and tutor of the wine god, Dionysos. Conceivably, it was a gift from the Emperor Augustus that his deputy Marcus Agrippa presented to Herod, on his tour of Judea in 15 BCE and installed as a fountain. Imagine this fragile and heavy object making its journey from Greece to Rome to Judea and the bath-house at Herodium. The conservation staff of the museum painstakingly reconstructed the basin with its ornate decoration.

Greek 3-footed basin

Though it is not known to what degree Herod observed traditional Jewish practices, he appears to have respected them. Aside from this basin, no other human images, in sculptural form, have been found in any of Herod’s palaces.

Loggia trompe l'oeil painting

Boat billowed sailWhen Netzer excavated above the theater at Herodium he found the loggia, the VIP box for Herod and his guests, like Marcus Agrippa. Delicate trompe l’oeil paintings were on the walls, done in secco – painting on dry plaster, a technique unusual for this area. Scenes of nature through a painting of an open-shuttered window, itself a painting hanging on the wall. Dudi Mevorah, one of the curators of the exhibit, pointed out a painting of a boat with billowing sail on plaster from the loggia, alluding to Marcus Agrippa’s history-changing victory over Mark Anthony at the naval battle of Actium. Herod dictated the images in the paintings as a lead-in to the discussions that Herod was interested in having with his guest.

Herod the Great: The King’s Last Journey is a monumental exhibit that should not be missed. It gives us new insights into the very complex figure that is Herod, his determination not be constrained by nature, topography or materials and his consummate grasp of realpolitik.

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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.

Monumental enough for Herod the Great?

My article with Bonna Devora Haberman in Jerusalem Post:

So they went eight furlongs [a mile, per day] to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried. And thus did Herod end his life.  Josephus, Antiquities, XVII, 8.3.

Herodium

From 37 B.C.E. until his grisly demise in 4 B.C.E., Herod the Great ruled over Judea. World history has anointed few with the epithet “the Great”. He masterminded and engineered the Jerusalem Temple – among the magnificent temples in the ancient world, the fortress-complex at Masada – the most-visited site in Israel, Caesarea – in its day, the largest all-weather harbor built in the open sea, imposing cities, aqueducts, and finally, Herodium – the most spacious palace known to us in the Greco-Roman world before the common era. A giant who moved mountains, Herod was respected, feared, and despised. Reckoning with Herod is indispensable to interpreting the historical and material landscape of Israel.

Herod’s passion lives on. Herod proved to be archaeology professor Ehud Netzer’s nemesis. The Israel Museum staff have been toiling for three years to present Netzer’s discoveries in the first exhibit in the world dedicated to Herod. Commensurate with his life and work, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is unprecedented in grandeur and expense – displayed in 900 square meters, approximately 250 artifacts related to Herod are exhibited, many for the first time. To show even this tiny sampling of his massive production, Herod fittingly required the museum to reinforce its very foundations.

The Jewish Roman historian Josephus Flavius records extensive narrative about Herod – nearly a century after the events. Though he describes in precise detail Herod’s majestic funeral procession to Herodium – performed according to Herod’s own orders – Josephus mysteriously neglects to mention the location of Herod’s tomb. [Read more]


For an in-depth day with Herod – at Herodium and the Israel Museum and/or personalized guided tours of Herod’s other sites and more, please contact Shmuel.

Archaeology in Israel Tour

I’m delighted to announce that Dan McLerran at Popular Archaeology and I are creating a phenomenal tour of archaeological sites in Israel that I will be guiding October 2013.
I invite you to join us on this adventure, 12 days of touring in Israel, where we’ll cover the famous sites like Megiddo and Hazor and uncover some of the less well-known gems like Sussita-Hippos, one of the Decapolis cities overlooking the Sea of Galilee that was destroyed in the earthquake of 749CE and never rebuilt.

Sussita excavation

We’ll start by going back 6500 years to the Chalcolithic period and tour up on the Golan Heights to learn about burial at that time. We’ll see dolmens, the megalithic tombs consisting of a flat rock resting on two vertical rocks that mark a grave. We’ll hike to the cultic site of Rujm el Hiri – is it a site that is connected to the calendar or to burial? At Ein Gedi we’ll see the ruins of a Chalcolithic temple. We’ll see artifacts at the Israel museum, examples of clay ossuaries and fine bronze castings of ritual objects.

We’ll follow in the path of the Kings from 1000BCE to 586BCE by traveling from Dan where a piece of a basalt victory stella in Aramaic was found mentioning the kings of Israel and the house of David. We will explore the City of David, the walled Jebusite city on the ridge between the Kidron and Tyropean valleys. We’ll walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel that brought the water of the Gihon spring to the Siloam pool inside the walls. From there we will follow in the steps of pilgrims to the Temple mount. Part of the 650m distance will be in Jerusalem’s drainage channel until we come out right under Robinson’s Arch. We’ll see the Broad wall, the remains of an 8 meter high wall that protected Jerusalem from the north in the time of the Kings.

Khirbet Qeiyafa

We’ll explore the walled Judean city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, with two gates and hence identified as Shaarayim, situated on the border of Judea facing the Phillistines.

We’ll learn about the Second Temple Period, specifically the time of the Hasmoneans and King Herod who ruled under the auspices of the Romans. We’ll check out Herod’s impressive building projects. At Caesarea, we have the temple to Augustus, the protected harbor, the palace as well as a theater and a hippodrome later used as an amphitheater. At Sebaste there is another temple to Augustus. Josephus writes that Herod built a third temple at Banias. It’s unclear whether the temple was at Banias or nearby, perhaps at Omrit. We’ll visit Herod’s palaces at Masada, the Western palace and the 3 tier hanging palace on the northern end of the site. We’ll explore the palace and administrative complex at Lower Herodium and the palace/fortress on the top of a manmade mountain where the base of a mausoleum was discovered by Prof. Ehud Netzer in 2007.

Herodium Palace:fortress

We’ll visit the newly opened exhibit at the Israel museum Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, artifacts from Herodium on display for the first time. We’ll also visit the Second Temple period model that displays Jerusalem at its peak just before its destruction at the hand of the Romans. We’ll visit the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea scrolls and other artifacts and combine that with the archaeological site of Qumran by the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found.

We’ll focus on the architecture of sacred space and check out various churches, in the basilica and martyrium form from the Byzantine period (4th to 7th century) and synagogues from the same period. We’ll see some amazing mosaics by visiting the  museum at the Inn of Good Samaritan, the archaeological sites of Sepphoris/Tzippori, and the synagogue at Beit Alfa. We’ll visit sites off the beaten path like the Kathisma church on the way to Bethlehem and Samaritan site on Mount Gerizim.

Synagogue mosaic floor at Israel Museum

Besides the Western wall, Judaism’s holy site, we will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site to Christianity and go up onto the Haram el-Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site to Islam.

We’ll travel around the Sea of Galilee stopping at sites important to Christianity like Kursi, Capernaum and Magdala. We’ll even go up to the Golan Heights to the Jewish city of Gamla, the Masada of the north.

Gamla

For anyone who enjoys taking photographs, there will be plenty of opportunities and as an special incentive to join the tour, participants will be able to submit their best photographs from the tour to a special Pinterest site and will have a chance to win up to $1000. for the “best photo”.

If you’re interested in participating in an archaeological tour of the Holy Land, contact  me.

Photo of the Week – Lower Herodium

Another photo of an archaeological site, one of my favorites, not far from Jerusalem. Many tours of Herodium take you straight to the park skipping the area of Lower Herodium that was excavated by Prof. Ehud Netzer ז”ל in 1970s. Here you can see the remains of the Monumental building – was this structure built as King Herod’s final resting place? Take a guided tour with me to find out. You can click on the image for a larger view (which may take some time to load depending on your Internet connection). Please share this post with your friends by clicking on the icons at the end of this message.

The technical details – the photo was taken with a Nikon D70 digital SLR camera on November 2 (ISO 200, 25mm, F10 at 1/400 sec).

To read more about the Monumental building check out my post at https://israeltours.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/nymphaeum-herodium/

FYI, the Israel Museum has announced that the exhibit on the latest finds at Herodium, including sarcophagi and secco wall paintings from the loggia of the theater will open February 2013.

Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

Model of Herod’s Tomb

I was at Herodium today and took the opportunity to photograph the new smaller than life-size model of Herod’s tomb which has been installed by the path that leads to the palace-fortress. The model was built from drawings by Prof. Ehud Netzer based on the base of the mausoleum uncovered and Netzer’s expertise as both an architect and archaeologist on the Herodian period. Netzer estimates the nefesh as 25 meters high, with a cube-shaped lower level with two rows of decorations below the roof line, a row of egg and dart pattern and below it a row of medallions and vertical bars. On top of this cube sits a cylindrical second level, a tholos with columns and a conical roof. The model shows Nabatean funerary urns in four places along the roof line and the peak of the cone. We found two pieces of stone carved in the egg and dart pattern a few years ago when I volunteered at the dig.

There is also a short video, currently only in Hebrew, that attempts to illustrate the account by Josephus of Herod’s death.

Archelaus omitted nothing of magnificence therein, but brought out all the royal ornaments to augment the pomp of the deceased. There was a bier all of gold, embroidered with precious stones, and a purple bed of various contexture, with the dead body upon it, covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it, and a secptre in his right hand; and near to the bier were Herod’s sons, and a multitude of his kindred; next to which came his guards, and the regiment of Thracians, the Germans. also and Gauls, all accounted as if they were going to war; but the rest of the army went foremost, armed, and following their captains and officers in a regular manner; after whom five hundred of his domestic servants and freed-men followed, with sweet spices in their hands: and the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried.

There were a half dozen people working at the tomb site. I noticed the remains of some additional structures that have been uncovered. Unfortunately, access to the tomb area is still closed.