‘Our largest archaeological project ever” is how Israel’s national museum has described its new exhibition featuring King Herod. James Snyder, the museum director, proudly announced that no fewer than 30 tons of material have been brought from one archaeological site alone — Herodion, one of Herod’s palaces and the location of his recently discovered tomb.
On the face of it, an exhibition dedicated to one of the most significant figures in the region’s history is a natural choice, particularly considering that many discoveries from the past few decades have not been placed on public display.
But interest in Herod and the West Bank site of Herodion has not occurred in a vacuum. Since Herod’s grave was unearthed, the site and the historical figure have enjoyed an unprecedented revival in Israel, particularly within the settler movement.
Last April, for example, a model of a reconstructed mausuleum was unveiled in Herodion in the presence of government ministers, Knesset members and settler leaders. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan asserted that “of all his magnificent provinces, Herod chose to be buried nowhere else than Gush Etzion,” referring to the adjacent block of settlements.
Members of Knesset Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and Otniel Schneller (Kadima) explicitly underscored the connection between the historical site and local Jewish construction. The head of Gush Etzion’s settelments’ Regional Council, David Perl, added: “Herodion is a national site illustrating our right to this land and the ancient Jewish history that took place in this region.”
Herod himself would no doubt be amused by this turn of events. After all, this Roman suzerain has been an especially hated figure in Jewish memory: The Sanhedrin sages poured contempt on his Edomite origins, and he oppressed them while methodically assassinating the descendents of the last Jewish royal family, the Hasmonean dynasty.
The early Zionists, secular as well as religious, also despised Herod, and it’s no coincidence that not a single street in Israel is named after this great builder and renovator of the Second Jewish Temple. But now his grave, an official “national heritage site,” is becoming an asset for settlers, part of the argument for developing the larger settlement bloc.