An extraordinary archaeological exhibit opened on February 12 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It marks the journeys of two men separated by 2,000 years. One journey was the funeral procession of King Herod the Great—feared, hated and lionized—whose monumental works still mark the landscape of Israel; the other journey was the life work of renowned Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who described Herod as “a king who lived and breathed the art of construction, deeply understood its ways and, quite simply, loved to build.” In fact, one might fairly say that Netzer himself lived and breathed the man and the works of Herod.
Intermittently over 40 years, Netzer excavated at Herodium, Herod’s Judean desert fortress, exposing for the first time, below the conical mountain, the palatial pleasure palace with its pools, decorated bathhouses, and hints of lush gardens, as well as the 1,200-foot-long leveled area resembling a race course.a In 2007 Netzer and his team identified the burial place of Herod that had eluded them for decades on the flank of the mountain, above the end of the course. Only then did it become clear that the course was planned and built by Herod for his own burial procession.
Herod died in 4 B.C.E. at his winter palace in Jericho. The 25-mile procession from the throne room in Jericho where the king’s body lay to his tomb in Herodium became the organizing concept for the Israel Museum’s Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey.
On October 28, 2010, Netzer was leaning against a wooden railing at Herodium when it gave way. He plunged almost 20 feet from the edge of the royal box into the tiered seating area of an elegant small theater uncovered shortly after the discovery of Herod’s mausoleum nearby on the hillside. Three days later he died of his injuries. Only hours before his fall, he had finished walking about with the Israel Museum curators to mark those elements at the site that would remain and those that would be carried to Jerusalem for display and restoration. His wife, Dvora, recalled that “on that day Ehud had been amazingly happy.” The exhibit he had sought and helped plan was moving toward fruition.
BAR readers know about the discovery of Herod’s tomb from the lavishly illustrated article Netzer wrote just before he died.b What you cannot easily imagine is the intense work that was occurring in the unseen areas of the museum more than two months before the exhibit’s February opening. Invited by co-curators David “Dudi” Mevorach and Dr. Silvia Rosenberg, I walked among the fresco, pottery, stone and architectural conservators working urgently in the labs and storerooms to prepare the exhibits that would bring to life a 2,000-year-old event: Herod’s funeral. Boxes of broken remains from Herodium rested on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Fragments were spread out on long tables by conservators searching for the elusive matches of patterns and breaks that could lead to a renewal of what once was.
When the theater’s fresco windows with their trompe l’oeil open shutters and painted outdoor land and seascapes were first exposed, the museum sent conservators to work side by side with Netzer and his team. In preparation for the exhibit, fresco fragments found on the floor of the theater’s royal box were restored at the museum to reveal a window with a bull, a shrine and trees, as well as another featuring a ship in full sail—quite 015 astonishing in the desert. The stucco panels decorating the ceiling of Herod’s throne room at his winter palace in Jericho, where the dead king lay in state, were also pieced together from fragments. Original fresco appears on the walls of the throne room, and above it faint lines indicate missing pieces from the pattern.
My glimpse into the exhibit space was the entrance to the 900-square-foot gallery itself. A photomural of the Judean desert leads to the reconstructed throne room from Jericho, starting visitors on the route of the burial procession. On the walls above original frescoes, faint gray geometric outlines suggest what is lost. A multilingual text projected on the floor of the empty throne room represents the dead king’s body on his bier, echoing Josephus’ description: “The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in a purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the scepter beside his right hand.”
Visitors leave the throne room on a route leading them to the central themes of the exhibit: Herod’s impact on the architectural landscape of the Land of Israel; his complex relationships within the Roman Empire; and, ultimately, his burial at Herodium. Along the way, more than 200 objects found at Herodian sites, including Jerusalem, Jericho, Cypros and Herodium, are exhibited for the first time. One of the most complete and dramatically personal is a huge stone bathtub from Cypros. Herod’s special affiliation with Rome is expressed through sculpted portraits of Augustus, Cleopatra, Livia and Marcus Agrippa (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum and the Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus) and by luxury objects in silver, glass and marble carried to the region from Rome, as well as Herodian finds imported or crafted by Roman artisans.
The exhibit’s finale is the reconstructed tholos, or uppermost chamber of the mausoleum at Herodium. In this burial room rests the presumed sarcophagus of Herod made of red limestone. It is the most elaborate of the three sarcophagi found with the tomb and the one most completely destroyed, possibly by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt in 66–70 C.E.
About a third of the full-scale reconstructed burial chamber consists of the original architectural blocks excavated at the site. Standing 82 feet high, the tholos of the mausoleum weighs 30 tons, requiring the museum to build a strengthened foundation for the gallery to support its great weight.
A catalog will accompany the exhibit with contributions by leading scholars about Herod and Herodian architecture, including three articles by Ehud Netzer. Herod the Great—The King’s Final Journey will be on display for eight months. Its destiny after closing was unknown at the time of my visit.—Suzanne F. Singer, Jerusalem
An extraordinary archaeological exhibit opened on February 12 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It marks the journeys of two men separated by 2,000 years. One journey was the funeral procession of King Herod the Great—feared, hated and lionized—whose monumental works still mark the landscape of Israel; the other journey was the life work of renowned Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who described Herod as “a king who lived and breathed the art of construction, deeply understood its ways and, quite simply, loved to build.” In fact, one might fairly say that Netzer himself lived and breathed the man and […]