Israel’s national museum recently announced that it will open the world’s first exhibition devoted to the architectural legacy of biblical King Herod, according to published media reports. Two millennia ago, it was this Jewish proxy monarch who ruled Jerusalem and the Holy Land under Roman occupation.
Museum curators have said that the exhibit includes the reconstructed tomb and sarcophagus of Herod, considered by many to be one of antiquity’s most notable and despised figures.
Palestinians have raised objections to the showing of artifacts that were exhumed in the West Bank, as contemporary politics are being injected into this ancient find. Experts have noted that Palestinians wish to suppress any factual evidence that there was a Jewish presence in Israel in ancient times in order to buttress their claims for statehood. The Israeli museum insists it will return the finds once the exhibit closes.
Beginning on February 12, the nine-month long exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem will feature about 30 tons of artifacts – – including hundreds of tiny shattered shards pieced back together.
The exhibit, “Herod the Great,” is the museum’s largest and most expensive archaeological project to date, according to Museum director James Snyder. “It’s a name that’s always on everyone’s lips,” Snyder said, “And yet there has never been an exhibit devoted to his material.”
Herod was the subject of vilification in the New Testament as he is presented as a ruthless tyrant who engaged in massacres of the male children of Bethlehem in an attempt to prevent the prophesied birth of Jesus. He is also said to have murdered his wife and sons.
Revered for his ambitious building projects, Herod’s accomplishments included opulent desert palaces and an expansion of the Second Jewish Temple complex in Jerusalem. The Western Wall, today the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray, was a retaining wall for the compound.
The final grandiose project of the ancient dealt with preparations for his own death. Curators believe Herod constructed an extravagant, 80-foot-high tomb and Ehud Netzer, an Israeli archaeologist spent 35 years of his career searching for it.
Netzer drew international attention in 2007, when he announced he had discovered what was believed to be the tomb at Herod’s winter palace, located on a cone-like hill that still today juts out prominently in the barren landscape of the Judean Desert, near the city of Bethlehem.
In 2008, the archaeologist first approached the Israel Museum about creating an exhibit that would display artifacts from one of the greatest finds of his career. Tragedy ensued as Netzer fell to his death while surveying the Herodion site with museum staff. Since that juncture in time, the staff has pushed forward with planning the exhibit.
In 2011, the museum used a crane to remove dozens of half-ton columns and the roof of what Netzer identified as the top floor of Herod’s tomb, which he thought held his sarcophagus. Each stone was affixed with an electronic chip so it could be more easily put back together at the Israel Museum.
Among the three sarcophagi that were found at the site, curators believe that one of was Herod’s. While it bears no inscription, it is made of a special reddish stone, found smashed into hundreds of pieces. Curators have speculated that the Jewish zealots who took over the Herodion after the death of Herod most probably smashed the sarcophagus to pieces, destroying the symbol of a man who worked with the empire they were rebelling against.
Co-curator, Dudi Mevorah said, “It’s not 100 percent. But archaeology is never about 100 percent. The circumstantial evidence points to one man.” The sarcophagus will also be on display.
Joe Zias, an archaeologist who did not participate in the excavation or the exhibition, corroborated the beliefs of others that the tomb was likely that of Herod. “It’s a monumental tomb out in the middle of nowhere in a place he built for himself,” Zias said. “It’s as authentic as one could ask for.”
Featuring a reconstructed throne room from one of Herod’s palaces in Jericho, the museum exhibit will also display a full-sized replica of Herod’s theater viewing room at the Herodion, incorporating detailed fresco wall paintings and other decorative elements that museum staff collected on site.
There are still pieces of the puzzle left to assemble. At the museum’s lab, workers were still rushing to fit together all the small stucco wall lining pieces found to display in the exhibit. One fresco wall painting, found in tiny fragments, has taken 2 1/2 years to reassemble.
Other items include the paint jars used for Herod’s frescos and plump jugs of wine imported from south Italy labeled in Latin characters, “Herod King of Judea.”