Rome and Jerusalem, the birthplaces of modern Western civilization, share an infamously bloody history. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman general Titus in 70 C.E. effectively excised Jerusalem from the world’s annals for almost 2,000 years, while securing its place in prayer books.
In our collective memory, the two seem eternally at loggerheads. But as a popular new exhibition now on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum demonstrates, less than a century prior to the sacking of the city there was room for a thriving, mutually enriching coexistence between the two cities. That the man responsible for this minor miracle was King Herod the Great, one of the region’s most controversial figures and the subject of the exhibition, is but one of the display’s great ironies and pleasures.
“Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” just might be Israel’s hottest ticket; it has attracted more than 230,000 visitors since its opening this past February (it is scheduled to close in January 2014). It is definitely Israel’s largest archaeological exhibit ever.
The fact that Herod, who ruled as client King of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C.E. on behalf of his Roman benefactors, left a massive architectural footprint on the Land of Israel, is hardly news for anyone who has ever paid a visit.
His aesthetic legacy lives on in the port and amphitheater at Caesarea in the North, the Masada fortress in the South and especially in the collective memory of Jerusalem’s Second Temple. But it was at Herodium, the most idiosyncratic of his constructions and the only one named for him, that the exhibit was born.
Herodium is a truncated conical hill — off the beaten track for most tourists because of its location, east of the Green Line — where Herod built both a palace and his final resting place. Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist and professor, spent 35 years excavating Herodium in search of the king’s tomb before finally uncovering it in 2007. As one of the exhibit’s curators, Silvia Rozenberg, a longtime colleague and former student of Netzer, told me, the museum had originally planned on displaying only the tomb.
“But we decided we couldn’t show the man’s death without also showing his life,” she said. Herod’s life is conveyed primarily through his construction.
As Netzer wrote in the introduction to the exhibition’ catalog, despite not being an architect himself, Herod “lived and breathed the art of construction, deeply understood its ways, and, quite simply, loved to build. It seems that over the course of his 33 year reign, Herod never once stopped building.”