Herod’s Tomb Found
Searching for Herod’s Tomb
Somewhere in the desert palace-fortress at Herodium, Palestine‘s master builder was buried
Dedicated to the memory of David Rosenfeld.a
I had no idea of searching for Herod‘s tomb when I began my archaeological work at Herodium. But I confess it has now become something of a minor obsession with me. Whether I will eventually achieve my goal is still an open question, but the search itself is instructive and enjoyable. Although I cannot, in all honesty, conceal my desire to find the tomb of the Holy Land‘s greatest builder, I shall nevertheless consider myself richly rewarded even if I continue to fail.
We know that Herod was buried at Herodium because Josephus tells us so.1 On a matter such as this, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this well-known, first-century Jewish historian, who was born in Palestine about 40 years after Herod‘s death in 4 B.C.
Herodium is a magnificent palace complex in the barren Judean hills eight miles south of Jerusalem and three and a half miles east of Bethlehem. Herod‘s decision to build a palace at this spot was not an accident. In 40 B.C., Herod had fought a crucial battle here against Mattathias Antigonus, the last Hasmonean (Maccabean) king. Antigonus had rebelled against his Roman overlords in collaboration with Rome‘s traditional enemy, the Parthians from Iran. Herod, the consummate politician, refused to join Antigonus‘s revolt. Instead, Herod fled south from Jerusalem with his close family and bodyguards, heading for the safety of his fortress at Masada. Antigonus and his troops pursued and at the site of what would someday be Herodium, Herod turned and fought, winning a decisive battle that allowed him to continue his escape. Passing with difficulty through Arabia and Egypt, Herod finally reached Rome, where Mark Anthony nominated him king of Judea. With Mark Anthony‘s nomination, Herod was quickly elected by the Roman Senate, but it took three years of constant war with Antigonus before Herod was able to assume his new position.2
Only hours before the crucial battle with Antigonus at the future site of Herodium, Herod lived through another terrifying experience. Josephus tells us that as Herod and his family were fleeing Jerusalem, the chariot carrying Herod‘s mother overturned, seriously injuring her. Herod was so shocked and anguished that he nearly committed suicide. Indeed, he had drawn his sword and was about to stab himself when his friends restrained him. Herod then ministered to his injured mother, who eventually recovered.
This traumatic personal experience and the crucial battle with Antigonus that followed no doubt left a deep impression on Herod. Twenty years passed before he returned to the battlefield, this time as an established and active king, as well as an experienced builder. His feelings toward the place were so strong that he decided not only to commemorate his victory there but also to name the site after himself—the only site to which he gave his name.b More than that, he decided to be buried there.
Although Herodium consists of both a mountain palace-fortress and a lower complex of buildings, when people think of Herodium, they immediately focus on the spectacular, cone-shaped, artificial mountain. Through the ages many scholars have believed and even now believe that Herod‘s tomb lies somewhere undiscovered within this unique mountain palace-fortress.
Herod built this mountain palace-fortress on top of a natural hill. The main feature of the structure is a cylinder-like wall. The cylinder, approximately 200 feet in diameter, consists of two concentric circular walls with a corridor 39 feet wide between the two walls. When this cylinder was constructed, it rose about 90 feet above bedrock. Between the two concentric walls there were seven stories—two sub-structural cellars with barrel-vaulted ceilings and five stories of corridors that also served as storage areas. Today the two or three uppermost stories are no longer extant.
When the cylinder wall was completed, a massive fill of earth and gravel was added on the outside. The fill reached to about the fifth floor (counting the lowest of the two subcellars as the first floor), or to approximately two-thirds of the height of the cylinder. Thus, only about one-third of the cylinder wall was exposed after the fill was heaped up outside. Inside, Herod built a spacious, private palace on a level platform he created on top of the natural hill. The outside fill reached three stories above this platform!
This fill imparts to the huge structure a cone-like shape, with the palace inside far below the top of the wall, giving the mountain the appearance of a volcano with building remains inside its crater.
The fill-created conic shape transformed the structure into a distinctive monument. The steep slope formed by the fill, together with the upper free-standing part of the cylinder walls and the towers built into them, made it extraordinarily difficult to penetrate the fortress. No doubt the fill was not added later, but was planned from the beginning as an integral part of the structure.
Within the cylinder walls, Herod built a private, intimate, exotic and protected palace, divided into two equal parts. In the eastern half was an oblong courtyard surrounded by a peristyle. At either end was a semicircular niche, or exedra, for a statue. Originally, the courtyard was full of planted bushes and colorful flowers, with pathways between them.
The western half of the palace contained the living quarters. Sleeping rooms and living rooms surrounded a cross-shaped room that probably included a square, open courtyard in the center. South of the sleeping and living rooms was the triclinium—the official reception and dining room (45 feet long by 30 feet wide). At a later stage (during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans), this room was transformed into a synagogue by the addition of benches around the walls and four columns to support a new roof.
On the northern side of the sleeping and living quarters was a complete Roman bathhouse. Here Herod, accompanied by his intimate friends, enjoyed the comforts of the bath. A fairly large, barrel-vaulted room served as the hot room (caldarium). From there one passes through a round warm room (tepidarium), which is still covered by a beautiful stone cupola, to the small cold room (frigidarium) containing a stepped water basin.
The palace on top of the hill was about 100 feet above the base of the cone. It could be entered in only one way: by a steep stairway nearly 500 feet long that went directly up the mountain, first outside for about 300 feet, then through a tunnel in the mountain for the remaining 200 feet. Josephus counted 200 steps, but I assume there were many more. I doubt if the stairs were made of white marble, as he described them. They were probably of hewn stone.
Four prominent towers on the outside of the cylinder wall overlook the palace and command a wide view of the surrounding countryside. They precisely mark the points of the compass. Three of these towers are substantially the same. They are semicircular and are built against and bonded to the outer cylinder wall. Originally, each contained about 20 rooms distributed over five or six stories (60 rooms altogether in the three semicircular towers). Only in the upper stories did these rooms have windows; no windows were present in the lower floors of the towers, because these floors were covered with fill piled outside the walls. The illuminated rooms above the fill were probably used for palace staff or guards, perhaps even for guests of the king. The unlit rooms in the lower stories served either for storage or as dormitories for servants or soldiers.
The eastern tower is unique. It is round, not semicircular. It extends through both the inner and outer cylinder walls and into the oblong courtyard. An examination of its construction reveals that it was the first structure built at Herodium—even the cylinder walls were built later. The walls of the cylinder are not bonded to this tower. Its diameter, 55 feet, makes it larger than the other three towers. Moreover, to its extant height it is solid, except for a water cistern and two small cellars. Originally the cellars, which served now-missing upper stories, were entered from their roof.
Several levels of apartments must have topped the eastern tower at Herodium—making up a secondary dwelling unit, just as Josephus suggests existed on top of the towers Herod built in Jerusalem. At Herodium this secondary dwelling unit must have been especially important because the palace dwellers inside the mountain suffered from two major disadvantages the lack of wind (especially on a hot day) and the lack of visual contact with the outside world. The apartments on top of the eastern tower made up for these disadvantages. Here Herod could repair and enjoy a gentle breeze even on the hottest day and gaze at the beauty of the landscape. The view of the Judean desert, the Dead Sea and the distant mountains of Moab is truly breathtaking.
Many scholars believe that Herod‘s tomb lies at the base of this tower or somewhere within it. I am sure, however, that the tomb is not here.
The ancient Jews did not bury their dead inside buildings, especially buildings that had been used as dwellings. They did not even use places attached to dwellings for burials. Tombs and cemeteries had to be isolated.
No evidence of a tomb has so far been found anywhere inside the hilltop palace. Although Herod could have been buried inside the base of the eastern tower, Jewish religious laws, as I indicated above, preclude this; the solid base of the eastern tower was not built to hide a tomb but as a result of architectural and structural considerations.
Herod built a number of monumental towers with solid bases, several of which are described by Josephus in great detail. In Jerusalem, Herod built three famous towers at the northern end of his palace, one named for his brother Phasael, one for his friend Hippicus and a third for Mariamne, his wife.3 Hippicus, Josephus says, was “solid throughout” and rose to a height of 80 cubits.c Phasael had a “solid base” and was 90 cubits high. Mariamne was “solid to a height of only 70 cubits.” The solid foundations were probably necessary because of the towers‘ great heights, particularly because of the danger of earthquakes. Josephus tells us that sometimes, as with Hippicus, a water cistern was built on top of the solid foundation. (At Herodium, a water cistern survives on top of the eastern tower.)
The base of the Phasael tower has survived as part of Jerusalem‘s Citadel; it is adjacent to the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. It has, as Josephus says, a solid base. Herod also built four towers at the four corners of the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem. One Antonia tower was exceptionally high—the one overlooking and commanding the Temple Mount.4 Another exceptional tower, named Drusion for Caesar‘s stepson, was built at Caesarea.5
Thus, it was common for Herod to build impressively high towers, all probably with solid bases, and to name them in honor of his friends and relatives. These towers served as military observation posts, but more important, as striking monuments. A similar impulse in other historical periods has led to the construction of church towers and minarets. In the Middle Ages, city palaces in Italy had towers. Among the most famous still standing are those of Bologna and San Gimignano.
If Herod‘s towers were indeed built primarily as monuments and military structures, then the dramatic structure with its towers on the mountaintop was built not as a mausoleum, but as an integral part of the mountain palace, a fortress and a monument both to Herod‘s great name and to his military victory at this site. It was not his burial place.
If Herod was not buried on the mountaintop, then where at Herodium was he buried? Possibly, Herod‘s tomb is inside the hill, far below the level of the palace-fortress. However, the inside of the hill is not totally terra incognita. Over the years, we have studied a complex system of tunnels cut into the hill during the second Jewish Revolt against the Romans (132 A.D.–135 A.D.). Herodium had already been occupied by the Zealots during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans (66 A.D.–70 A.D.). After that, Herodium was neglected, but during the second Jewish Revolt the mountain was again used as a fortress. This time the Jewish warriors decided to improve the defensive possibilities by digging a system of tunnels along the northeastern slope of the mountain, on both sides of the stairway. Three large Herodian water cisterns that had been carved into this side of the mountain were integrated into the tunnel system as junction points. The cisterns were also used to store the debris from the construction of the tunnels. The tunnels were connected at one end with the building on top of the hill; at the other end, they were connected with the outside by a few hidden outlets situated on the steep slopes. This gave the fortress‘s defenders a hidden underground tunnel system, unknown to the Romans. From here, the Jewish ‘defenders could surprise the Romans or hide from them if they reached the mountain top. During our investigation of these tunnels—more than 750 feet of them—we found no sign of a tomb. My belief is that Herod‘s tomb is somewhere near the base of the mountain.
Although I have studied the mountain palace-fortress, measured it and performed some small sondages there, and have even studied the tunnels inside the mountain, the great bulk of my Herodium excavations have been undertaken at what is called Lower Herodium, the complex of buildings at the foot of the mountain. As my studies have shown, these buildings were an integral part of the larger complex that archaeologists call Greater Herodium.
Earlier archaeological excavations focused on the mountaintop. In a way, it was through those earlier excavations that I was first drawn to Herodium.
Father Virgilio Corbo directed the first archaeological excavation at Herodium from 1963 to 1967—a Franciscan mission excavating on behalf of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. As an Israeli, I could not visit Herodium during those years. The only spot from which I could view Herodium was the observatory at Ramat Rahel, just south of Jerusalem, atop an Iron Age palace-fortress excavated by the late Yohanan Aharoni. Even from that distance, Herodium was breathtaking.
In 1963, Father Corbo visited Masada, where I was working as an architect in the excavation and reconstruction of that magnificent site. None of the members of the Masada expedition could speak Italian. Neither could I, but since I had picked up a few words of Italian on visits to Italy, I volunteered to escort Father Corbo around Masada. As we walked together, Father Corbo told me of his excavations, at Herodium. I listened with excitement.
About four years later, a few days after the Six Day War, I visited Herodium for the first time. It was an unforgettable experience. Now I have been to Herodium hundreds of times, but even after all these years and after four seasons of excavations, I am still awestruck each time by the grandeur of this man-made mountain monument.
In 1972, I was ready to begin working on my Ph.D. thesis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Yigael Yadin. It was he who suggested that I take the Herodian remains at Jericho and Herodium as my topic.6 Though I could have undertaken the project just by sitting in the library studying and analyzing the reports of earlier excavations, I decided in addition to go to the field and to study the site with a pickax and spade, that is, by excavation.
What attracted me most were the widespread remains at Lower Herodium. An aerial photograph of the entire site was of enormous help while I was deciding where to dig; it revealed just how extensive the remains of Lower Herodium were. Indeed, this aerial photograph was to become my guide and my compass.
The most prominent feature of Lower Herodium is a great pool, now of course dry. Even in its present condition, it is impressive. It is over nine feet deep and measures 135 feet wide by 210 feet long. In one corner of the pool, stairs nearly eight feet wide are preserved.
The walls of the pool, which are five feet thick, are constructed of large, rough, partly drafted stones. A gray hydraulic mortar mixture consisting of lime and ashes was applied to the walls to prevent seepage. The pool itself was partly cut into the bedrock and partly built on top of a fill. Originally the pool was fed by an aqueduct from springs three and a half miles away at Urtas.
Although we found no evidence of colonnades, footpaths or gardens, they must have been part of this large and important pool complex. East of the pool was a large, artificially leveled area whose upper layer was thick, pure, brown-black earth that was probably brought here for the gardens surrounding the pool. At Jericho we found some vivid remains of the garden surrounding the pool. We did not find similar remains at Herodium, probably because the ground here is cultivated yearly and farmers long ago destroyed any evidence of the gardens and colonnades surrounding the pool.
In the center of the pool—on what was a little island—are the remains of a large circular building about 40 feet in diameter. We exposed only part of the remains, but enough to enable us to get a clear picture of the original building—probably a colonnaded pavilion.
One early explorer in Palestine, the Frenchman, Felicien De Saulcy, conjectured that Herod was buried in this island pavilion, but De Saulcy conducted a small dig and found no evidence to support his hypothesis. Our own excavations and analysis of the surrounding area refute any suggestion that this was Herod‘s tomb.
The pool served as a water reservoir, a swimming pool, a lake for small sailing boats and, most important, as an architectural focus for Lower Herodium. Here were the pleasure grounds of Lower Herodium that vied with the artificial mountain palace-fortress itself in beauty and grandeur. In an area where water was scarce, here was water aplenty.
The island pavilion served as a small exotic reception hall that could be reached only by boat. We have discovered no evidence of a bridge to the island. The elegant pavilion set off the beauty of the pool and its surrounding gardens. From ancient drawings, we know that at each of several other sites a round pavilion or tower was located at the center of a rectangular pool. A similar pavilion was probably part of the middle terrace of the northern palace at Masada.
Between the pool and the mountain, just at the foot of the mountain, are the remains of a huge building. At the end of the last century, Claude R. Conder and H. H. Kitchener of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund carefully surveyed this 400-foot-long building. We too studied the remains which, unfortunately, are poorly preserved. We concluded from its size and location that this building must have been the central palace at Herodium. It is more than twice as large in area as the entire mountain palace-fortress. Built on an elevated platform (a few of the large, vaulted, substructural halls remain), this lower palace was clearly the most prominent building in Lower Herodium. Herod‘s retinue stayed in this lower palace, as no doubt did Herod himself when he did not want to go up to the mountain palace-fortress.
From the early stages of our work at the site, we were especially interested in and curious about an artificial terrace in front of the lower palace. We call this artificial terrace simply “the Course.” It is instructive to look at the Course in the aerial photograph. To the observant eye it is different from the largely natural agricultural terraces that continue above it on the left. The Course is large. It is almost 1,100 feet long and 80 feet wide, nearly three times longer than the huge palace above it. The eastern end of the Course is clearly defined; beyond it the hillside is covered with natural rocks. On the lower (north) side of the Course parts of the original retaining wall may be seen. At the western end of the Course is perhaps the most significant building we have yet found at Herodium. We call it the Monumental Building.
At first I assumed that the Course was a hippodrome for horse races and chariot races. With this in mind, we paid special attention to the building that we at first thought was a U-shaped structure at the Course‘s western end. We assumed at this stage that this building was a small theater-like building from which Herod and his friends watched the races. But what we thought was a U-shaped building turned out to be a square building. It was not a theater, but a Monumental Building containing an elaborate hall. Moreover, colleagues more familiar with hippodromes convinced me I was wrong to identify the Course as a hippodrome because the Course was too narrow to be a hippodrome. (A few years later I located and exposed the hippodrome Herod built at Jericho, which was three times as wide as the Course at Herodium.) However, I have no doubt that the Course was connected harmoniously with the Monumental Building.
The Monumental Building measures roughly 45 feet by 45 feet. Its northern and southern walls are over 10 feet thick. Inside, is a single hall with a series of niches between pilasters extending from the walls. In a few places, plaster fragments are preserved, indicating that the inside walls were covered with frescoes. The building was built on bedrock and was even partially cut into bedrock.
After our excavation season ended, we analyzed all our finds, and suddenly the idea occurred to me that this Monumental Building may have been Herod‘s mausoleum. From then on, the idea shaped our thinking and planning.
In the following season, we excavated the northern half of this structure. Since it is symmetrical, we thought that excavating the northern half would make excavation of the southern half unnecessary. We also thought that excavating the northern half might lead us to Herod‘s burial cave, which we speculated might be behind the building. Unfortunately, the cave was not there.
In several ensuing seasons, we were unable to explain the function of the Monumental Building—or of the artificial terrace onto which the Monumental Building opens. The Monumental Building is too massively built to be a reception hall or a pavilion or even a library. Its side walls are ten feet thick. The unusual thickness of these walls indicates they supported a barrel-vaulted ceiling, an upper story or perhaps a monumental roof. Not only the size of the Monumental Building but also its dimensions and relatively isolated location puzzled us. There is nothing like it at other Herodian palaces. The possibility that it might be connected with Herod‘s tomb continued to intrigue us. Connecting the Monumental Building with Herod‘s burial also suggested a function for the Course. Perhaps the terrace had been built as a parade ground for Herod‘s elaborate military funeral, described in detail by Josephus.7
We next speculated that the entrance to Herod‘s burial cave might be hidden in the southern wall of the Monumental Building, which abutted the natural slope of the hill. So in 1978, we returned to the site and exposed the remaining half of the Monumental Building. Our excavations revealed that the ruined eastern facade, opposite the course, once contained three entrances. But for all our efforts and hopes, we found no tomb.
Over the years, we excavated a number of other areas at Lower Herodium and established that Lower Herodium was an integral part of the mountain palace-fortress, built contemporaneously with it. The whole complex of Greater Herodium covered an extensive area of approximately 45 acres, requiring a huge architectural and engineering effort. Indeed, of all the known Roman palaces, only two are larger than Herodium—the Villa Adriana near Tivoli and Nero‘s Golden House at Rome. Both are considerably later than Herodium. Herodium was no doubt Herod‘s main summer palace, secondary only to his large central palace at Jerusalem. Herodium was a harmonious integration of a countryside palace, rich in gardens and orchards, with a monument, a fortress, the burial place of Herod and a district capital.
The riddle of the Monumental Building continued to bother me, however, and in 1980 we returned to Lower Herodium for our fourth season. Our main target was the Monumental Building and its adjacent rooms. We still wanted to locate Herod‘s burial cave—if it was there. And we wanted to leave no possibility open that we had missed the spot, if the cave was not there.
We examined the area north of the Monumental Building and exposed a staircase that connected the Monumental Building to the pool complex, which was about 12 feet higher than the Monumental Building. On the southern side of the Monumental Building we found an adjacent room, part of the Monumental Building, that appeared to be promising. It was full of fallen ashlar stones, and clearing it was slow and difficult. Most of the room had been cut into natural bedrock, a perfect location for a burial tomb. But we were disappointed again. I was close to abandoning hope.
Since we had only a few days remaining before the end of the season, we decided to concentrate our effort in one corner of the Monumental Building in an effort to understand the architectural relationship between the Monumental Building and the southern end of the Course.
Here we were surprised to find a large number of ashlar stones quite different from anything we had seen in all previous seasons. These distinctively Herodian stones were of exceptional quality, with well-carved margins and elevated bosses. Such elegant ashlars had appeared nowhere else at Herodium, not even on the mountaintop. They were lying in the debris as if they had fallen from an adjacent building. We were thrilled! We were on the verge of discovering another monument—perhaps the burial monument—when the season ended.
We returned to the area two months later, in October 1980, only to find that the beautiful ashlars were reused; in about the fifth century A.D., they formed the wall of a Byzantine church. This was the third Byzantine church we had exposed in Lower Herodium. (During the fifth and sixth centuries, Lower Herodium was occupied by a Byzantine settlement.)
We had not expected to find a large church on the slope of the mountain. Indeed, we were expecting to find a Herodian monument. But the church had in fact been built there with reused, beautifully carved Herodian stones. The stones had fallen from the church, and not from the Herodian monument in which they must originally have been used.
These beautiful ashlar stones are tantalizing, for they are unique at Herodium. Although most of the other buildings at the site, including the mountain palace-fortress and the Monumental Building, were built of carefully carved ashlars, they were originally faced with lime plaster. Not only from our work at Herodium but also from our work at Jericho and even at Masada, we knew of Herod‘s fondness for smooth white plaster as a high quality interior and exterior finish for buildings. The ashlar stones that were found reused in the newly discovered church, however, originally had not been covered with coats of plaster. And they were made of a much harder stone, with smoothly cut margins and projecting bosses. They must have been used in a building with a monumental facing surpassing anything found so far at Herodium.
Moreover, some of these stones show evidence of being part of a Doric frieze. Such friezes have been found in Jerusalem tombs of the period, including Absalom‘s tomb in the Kidron Valley and the so-called “Tomb of the Kings” near St. George‘s School. I believe that these stones at Herodium were part of a monument related to Herod‘s burial.
Whether we are close to solving the secret of Herod‘s tomb, I cannot say. If a burial cave exists, even if we find it, it was probably looted in antiquity. But it would not surprise us to find a cave that used these beautifully carved stones, stones befitting the burial of the greatest builder in the history of the ancient land of Israel.
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