Sunday, February 21, 2010

Herod the Great

Posted by Eric and Colleen

For the 4 weeks that we have been here in Jerusalem, we have learned the lay of the land by walking it. I have discovered that its not only great getting to see these wonderful ruins and places of the Holy Land but getting to them is definitely 1/2 the enjoyment. On our walks tour busses, taxis and sharuts (shared taxies) all race past us to their next destination. By walking the city, we have begun to appreciate what it meant for all those who came before us so many years ago. Getting somewhere was no easy task for them but we have the advantage of nicely paved streets (usually) and even staircases (usually).

The Herodian

Herod The Great was anything but good. He was a man plagued with paranoia and greed. However, a book, titled Herod the Great Builder accurately reflects his astonishing, unparalleled greatness in architectural achievements.  One such achievement was the Herodian (aka Herodyom, aka Herodium), which we visited the other day.

How to Get There?

(click for a live map)


About 10 miles away, the Herodian is not exactly in walking distance, and it requires crossing into Palestinian territory, so our journey began with a walk to the Damascus Gate on the north side of Old City. This Gate is predominantly an Arab passageway so you get a little different cultural experience than the Zion and Jaffa gates—gates we typically enter through. It is also the gate where you can catch a sharut, taxi or bus for an out-of-town excursion. Because there are five of us, a taxi would be a pretty crowded ride so we moved on to  the sharuts. However a gentleman approached us and offered to drive us there himself in his SUV. In our negotiations with him, he reminded us that the sharuts would not be able to take us through Bethlehem to the Herodian because the Israelis are not allowed in Bethlehem. Since he was Arab, he would be able to take us without any trouble. So for 400NIS, we got a ride to the  Herodian and a ride back. He waited 1.5 hours for us as Eric showed and taught us what he had learned from his field study here a few days before.

As we left Jerusalem, it wasn’t long before we could see the Herodian in the distance. It is the largest peak around—considering the number of peaks, that’s saying a lot. It looks like a volcano as you approach because the top is flat.  There would have originally been 4 towers peaking another 60 feet above. On our previous trip east toward Jericho we saw the Bedouin tent cities and an occasional camel. Driving south out of Jerusalem, we saw sheep, goats, olive groves and a few men riding donkeys which appeared weighted down with all his goods. The olive groves were planted among the naturally terraced hillsides in this part of Israel. Just before arriving at the base of the Herodian, there was a red sign forbidding Israeli entry, though we turned left avoiding that road, it highlighted the tensions of the area, the reason for an Arab driver. 

Click on the picture below to see the naturally terraced landscape of the hills.




Herod the Horrible
74BC – 4BC

164BC Hasmonean Dynasty Starts

The Hasmoneans (aka Maccabean) dynasty begins 99 years of autonomy of the Jewish people. One of the hallmarks of Hasmonean rule was their forced conversion of the inhabitants of the land to Judaism (requiring the male participants to be circumcised, ouch).


140-130BC Capture of Idumea

Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus captured the Idumean region of Palestine (South-West). The Idumeans were descendants of the Edomites who had been pushed out of Edom (East of the Jordan, south of Dead Sea) early by previous Roman conquest. The Edomites were descendants of Esau. Thus the Idumeans were distant cousins of the Israelites.


The grandfather of Herod was one of the converts to Judaism. The father of Herod (Antipater the Idumean) was then a second generation convert.


63BC – Roman Capture

In 63BC, when Herod was 11, Rome’s Pompeii captured Palestine, thus ending the 99 years of autonomy the Jewish people had enjoyed under the Hasmonean dynasty.


 49BC – Herod as Governor of Galilee

At the age of 25, Herod was appointed as Governor of the region of Galilee, his older brother Phasael as governor of Jerusalem.

40BC – Recapture of Jerusalem

Antigonus II Mattathias (son of Aristobulus II, the king of the Macabees when Pompeii came), recaptured Jerusalem with the help of the Parthians.


Herod fled to Rome. Convinced Rome to name him King of Judea.


Herod marries the teenage niece of Antigonus, Mariamne, as an attempt to secure in the Jewish mind a rightful place on the throne. Herod was already married to Doris, so he had her and their 3 year old Antipater banished. Nice guy.

37BC – Herod Takes back Jerusalem

After capturing Jerusalem, Herod turned Antigonus over to Mark Anthony who had him beheaded, thus ending forever the Hasmonean dynasty, and starting the Herodian dynasty.


29BC – Mariamne Executed

Herod accuses his wife of adultery, likely trumped up charges. Her own mother, Alexandra witnesses against her. When Mariamne was executed, Alexandra names herself as queen declaring Herod as mentally unfit to rule. Herod had her executed without a trial.


28BC –Brother-in-law Executed


23BC-9BC Building Projects

·      27 Samaria rebuilt, named Sebaste

·      23 Palaces in Jerusalem & the Herodian

·      22 Starts Caesarea Maritima

·      20 Begins expansion of the Temple Mount and Second Temple

·      10 Temple Inaugurated (not completed)

·      9 Caesarea Maritima Inaugurated


7-4BC Survival

·      7 Had his sons by Mariamne executed fearing their uprising.

·      4 Had his son Antipater executed

·      Infanticide of all 2 year-olds in Bethlehem


4BC Herod Dies

Given how well hated he was, Herod’s greatest accomplishment was dying of old age.


Approaching the Herodian (click)



The Herodian was a double palace.  The lower palace (the columns in the picture left) was at the base of the hill.


Aerial view of the Herodian.

(Photo courtesy


The higher palace/fort was built into the top of the hill.

(Illustration courtesy


A Brief History of the Herodian

Built in 23 BC by Herod as a Palace / Fort controlling an important northward route into Jerusalem.  During the first Jewish revolt the Jews captured it in 70AD and held it until 73 when it was retaken by the Romans and largely destroyed. During this occupation a synagogue and Jewish ritual baths were built. Around 132 during the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt the Jews once more captured the mound.  During this time they dug numerous escape routes and hide-out tunnels within.


Today, none of the remains protrude above the hill line.  Here you can get a small sense of the magnitude, by the size of the people half way up the hill. Where the people are walking is approximately where the natural hill stops and the artificial hill begins.

The Herodian was quite impressive. This was not just a hill that Herod fortified, he actually built most of the hill, raising an existing small hill using the rocks and dirt from an adjacent hill that was previously considerably higher than the Herodian.

Within in the walls, there was a synagogue, Raman baths (cold, warm and hot), cisterns, living quarters, courtyard, etc.


I was most impressed as we descended many floors below the surface through tunnels and cisterns used first by the Romans, then the Jews during the occupation of the Maccabean revolt, again by the Romans, and finally extended by the Jews during the Bar Kokhba revolt.

The cisterns were unbelievable and the tunnels extensive.


The Historian Josephus recorded that Herod was buried here, but since the 1940’s numerous excavations have not found any signs of a tomb.  Then, in 2007 it was finally located.

As you can see by the man lowering himself by a rope, the tomb is still being excavated but we got to see some of the progress.


The precision of the tomb’s cut stones was impressive.

DSC_0024 Celine, Colleen and Eric all took pictures of the excavation. We certainly will not return home short of pictures.  The challenge is to remember what they are. We have little time to label all of them.
Plastered Faux Stone over the original softer semi-chalky limestone

The soft chalky stones of the palace were originally plastered over with a faux impression of larger solid stones imprinted on the plaster. And you thought faux was a 1990’s thing.

IMG_0167 A view from the top behind the girls, looking down at the lower palace.  You can see the pool just left of Celine’s (middle) head.
HPIM2802 Another view of the lower palace with an idea of the climbs we are taking routinely.
IMG_0176 The original entrance to the palace now mostly covered by debris.
IMG_0191  Ancient toilet.
IMG_0192 Tally evidently couldn’t wait.
HPIM2857 …neither could Lillian. Celine used the facilities at the bottom of the hill. : )
IMG_0166 How would you like to look up to see one of these coming at you down the hill? These round “stones” were used by the Hasmoneans to fend off the Romans who were charging the hill. Simple, yet effective—and just cool to see.


Herod the Not So Great

There is no doubt that the architectural accomplishments of Herod are astounding, likely the greatest achievements of any one person in the history of mankind. The Herodian itself is a fine example of the magnitude of these achievements, having essentially moved a mountain to create another, more grandiose mountain.

“Regular” people are not able to accomplish so much in a lifetime. Herod was not, however a regular person – history bears this out. His maniacal, or worse yet, megalomaniacal nature can be seen in the brutal acts he did in the name of maintaining his throne – murdering his own wife and children, and all the babies of the entire village of Bethlehem are stark reminders of his character. It is as if Herod thought he could live forever, for why else would he murder his own progeny in order to prevent them from dethroning him?

Yet, all his measures to protect himself proved quite empty. Today nothing remains of Herod himself – even his tomb appears to have been destroyed. The poor guy couldn’t even preserve his dead body, let alone remain alive. But even more telling is the subtle irony seen in the picture above. The photo is an enlargement of the old, lower palace as seen from the top of the very impressive remains of the Herodian. These grounds themselves appear to portray a quite impressive establishment. But look closely at what is now being dumped onto what was once a part of Herod’s amazing palace – yes, that’s right, garbage from a local “modern” house. Someone who now lives in what appears to be near squalor over top of what used to be undoubtedly a quite impressive royal palace is throwing their trash into Herod’s former back yard. The King of the Jews couldn’t manage to stay alive any better than he could keep a quite poor person (at-least in comparison to Herod’s fortunes) from throwing their trash onto his old house.

Down the street a “nobody” was born in a very simple place – a birth place not really well suited for any person, certainly not that of a king. This “nobody” grew up the son of poor parents, not in a palace, or a fortress. He had nothing fanciful to hold over people as an adult. But this humble one who actually could have preserved his life chose not to, instead he died for the sins of the world, and as a result of this great sacrifice the world can benefit. Believers in Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, have a room with a view waiting for them in heaven, a place so wonderful that even the “trash” is better than the best riches of earth. Herod was a king determined to be known, and to preserve his life. Jesus was a man determined to give his life for all who know Him as their savior.

Which is greater? The way of the cross is crazy in how it reverses things…


April said...

Wow! This is such a cool entry. I am loving this blog. You guys are doing an amazing job with the history of what you are seeing. With all the walking ya'll are doing, you are going to be skinny-minnies when you get back!!


Kathleen said...

Again - just very cool that you guys are walking these streets where Jesus once did.

I can't imagine living in an area where I can't go somewhere b/c of my religious belief or family heritage... that is un-imagineable.

Question (and coincidence) - tonight our bible reading was when Jesus went before Caesar then Caesar sent him to Herod then Herod sent him back to Caesar ....
Different Herod than the one who killed all the Bethlehem babies? Had to be, right? But if he killed his sons - what is the story behind the same name?

Request (if possible) - picture of the Dung Gate...(I know - silly, but this has always been an odd thing to me...) and other gates and the other Old City and/or temple areas? Did you tell us they won't let you or was that just at the Western Wall?

Last question - I sponsored a girl in the Gaza Strip. Is it just not titled on your map or am I totally looking in the wrong area of where i thought it was? I thought it was off to the left and south.

Love you guys! Can't wait to share this blog with the girls (asleep at the moment :) )

midspoint said...

Once again, I am captivated by the immense scope of history, which confirms the Scriptures, and from the views of the ruins along with what has remained through the centuries! Even for so tiny a nation, one gets a feeling of vastness not just from the topography, but from the span of time itself!
This was amazing!!

Eric Robishaw said...

To clarify the story behind the name Herod. Herod the great was the first Herod, he started the Herodian dynasty. He did have sons that survived him. He only killed some of the sons. Actually he had 5 wives in all, and 6 sons.

His wife Malthace bore him Herod Antipas, named Tetrarch over Galilee & Perea, who killed John the Baptist and tried Jesus along with Pilate).

Malthace also bore him Archelaus, who ruled after Herod the great as king (Mt 2:22).

Aristobulus, one of the 2 sons of Mariamne he had killed had a child before being killed, named Herod Agrippa who ruled 37-44 and opposed the early Christians (Acts 12).

Its all very confusing. See this link for a family tree.

Regarding Gaza
If you go to the Google map, Gaza is the dotted area along the coast, just south of Ashkelon.

Dung Gate
We have pictures of the dung gate we've taken, we'll post soon. We have a funny one I think you'll enjoy.