As you drive from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea you pass close by Wadi Qelt at various points. To access it you can go to the nature reserve below Anatot, St. George Monastery or Herod’s Third Palace at Jericho. The palace was built on both sides of Wadi Qelt which during the winter rains flooded and made the palace appear to be floating on the water. Although Jericho is in AREA A, under the control of the Palestinian Authority and out-of-bounds to most Israelis by Israeli law as a tour guide licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism I am authorized to guide there.
This photo was taken of Wadi Qelt from near the archaeological remains of the palace, looking east as it flows to the Dead Sea. The technical details, shot with a Nikon DSLR camera, ISO 1000, 18mm, F13 at 1/1250 sec.
The site of Cypros above Wadi Qelt occupies a commanding position overlooking the Jerusalem-Jericho highway and a spectacular view of the Jericho Plain and the Dead Sea (a good place to take photographs). Originally a Hasmonean fortress, Pompey destroyed it in 63 BCE and King Herod rebuilt it as a palace-fortress and named it for his mother, as recounted by Josephus. After 1967 the Israeli army used it as an outpost of bunkers, today it lies deserted.
In 1974 Netzer and Damati did preliminary excavations and then left it in ruins. Cypros consists of 2 parts – a palace-fortress on the mountaintop and additional buildings 30 meters below the summit (perhaps Herod got the inspiration for the palace-fortress at Herodium from this site). It’s a short hike from the parking lot entrance to St. George’s monastery in Wadi Qelt to Cypros.
The ruins are not in good condition but there is something special to exploring a site the way an archaeologist might see it as opposed to a site that has been prepared for visitors. The remains of 2 bathhouses are still exposed, one on the mountaintop and the other below that suggest the grandeur of the site in Herod’s time. The remains of a simple white mosaic floor and pieces of plaster with red and yellow from the wall frescoes and the stone pedestals from the hypocaust floor of the calderium can be seen. There are also some sections of columns, one with some of the original plaster.
Click on the above thumbnail photos to see larger images.
Beside a mikve (ritual bath) the most unusual element found in situ, is a large stone bathtub – today its position is marked by a concrete recess, the bathtub is at the Rockefeller museum.
Down below in the bathhouse pieces of ceramic pipes that were attached to the walls of the calderium and broken ceramic discs that were piled one on another to hold up the hypocaust floor can be seen.
Walking around the site I came across a few broken pieces of terra sigillata (the first examples that I’ve found at an archaeological site),a type of fine, red-gloss Roman pottery that would have been imported from Italy or Gaul, additional evidence of Herod’s grand lifestyle.
On the Mediterranean coast, 40 km north of Tel Aviv was a small, sleepy Phoenician town founded about the 3rd C BCE with a modest port called Strato’s Tower. All that changed when King Herod chose the site for the development of a large, protected harbor that could be used year round. This boosted trade and commerce (and made a lot of money for Herod) and enabled closer ties with the centers of the Roman empire. Caesarea was a well-planned urban center, a walled city with streets laid out in a grid, warehouses, a Roman temple, a large theater (the first one in Israel according to Netzer), a stadium/hippodrome, public baths and according to Josephus several palaces. There was plenty of water for the city brought by an aqueduct and later in the time of the Emperor Hadrian by a second aqueduct built by the Tenth Roman Legion. To date, only a small percentage of the city has been excavated.
In Josephus there is a detailed description of Herod’s palace, preceding even the harbor which was an exceptional feat of engineering and probably a great source of pride to Herod. Its location on a promontory jutting 100 meters out into the sea makes it another of Herod’s unique palaces. The placement of a pool in the center (where one would expect to find an internal courtyard) shows Herod’s exceptional building style. The other two natural promontories at Caesarea were used to anchor the harbor. All of the pool is hewn into the kurkar sandstone bedrock, coated with hydraulic plaster and from the outset was filled with fresh water and was intended for swimming and bathing. Evidence that pozzolana cement was used in the construction of features of the pool is further evidence that it was constructed at the same time as the harbor.
Some scholars regarded the pool as a fishpond and the entire structure a piscine, or fish market of sorts based on a network of open channels, intermediate pools and sluices linking the pool with the sea but according to Netzer this was at a later stage, 600 years after Herod when the pool was put to secondary use. Many fallen drums, pedestals and capitals were found at the bottom of the pool presumably from rows of columns that framed a peristyle courtyard. The pool is bordered on the east by the triclinium (formal dining room) and on the west by additional rooms closer to the sea. The floors of the triclinium and smaller rooms on each side had elaborate, geometric mosaic floors.
Additional excavations in 1976 followed the development of the east wing during the Roman period. Beside the triclinium was added a small caldarium, whose hypocaust and furnace were well preserved. One of the tiles of the furnace has the stamp of the Legion X Fretensis. Excavators found two inscribed marble columns with six dedicatory inscriptions that reveal important new information about officials of Caesarea from the 2nd-4th C CE.
Caesarea was battered by a strong storm in December 2010 (see Haaretz article) and 1000 year old artifacts were swept into the sea and lost forever (on my recent visit to the park I saw Park Authority staff working to cleanup the damage to the palace).
Besides the architecture there is also the human drama. Josephus describes many incidents in peoples lives that happened in Herod’s palace. Agrippa I died in the palace after opening the Games and blaspheming in the stadium (Acts 12:20-23). A hall in the Upper Palace was the destination of the apostle Paul for a hearing before Antoninus Felix (Acts 23:35.). Later, Herod Agrippa II and his sister Berenike visited a new governor, Porcius Festus, and heard Paul’s self-defense there (Acts 25:23). Josephus relates a demonstration outside of the palace demanding the removal of Roman standards with the images of humans and animals from Jerusalem. Pilate had the Jews held in the stadium and threatened to kill them but backed down. Found in secondary usage at the theater was a dedicatory inscription inscribed with the name Pilatus (there is a copy in the peristyle courtyard of the palace, the original is on display at the Israel Museum).