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Visitors to the exhibit first encounter a huge photograph of the desert outside Jericho, a view very similar to the one Herod had from one of his several winter palaces in the city. Herod’s throne room was fully reconstructed for the exhibit, with many of the original opulent frescoes on display. Lab tests have determined that the gorgeous colors did not come cheap and were brought to Judea from Emperor Augustus’s private cinnabar mines in Spain.
Herod died in this room, and visitors are invited to follow his funeral procession en route to Herodium. Much of what is known of Herod stems from the books of Josephus (né Joseph ben Matityahu), the Jewish-turned-Roman historian who documented the era. One of the earliest print editions of his works, circa 1470, is on lavish display, complete with hand drawn, gold-leaf illustrations.
Josephus recounted Herod’s problematic lineage — the son of a Nabatean mother and an Edomite father who had converted to Judaism, Herod wasn’t considered Jewish enough for the Judean elite — and his sometimes murderous actions, as when he ordered the execution of his own wife, Mariamne, along with three of his sons.
The next room focuses on the interior decorations of Herod’s palaces. Its centerpiece is one of Herod’s giant royal bathtubs — made of a chunk of calcite taken from a stalactite cave — that weighs more than a ton. It was unearthed in a bathhouse in Cypros, on a mountain overlooking Jericho. A stone-inlaid opus sectile floor completes the image of a traditional Roman bathhouse miraculously transported into the Judean desert.
The exhibit continues with a section dedicated to Herodian-era buildings in Jerusalem, most notably the Second Temple, which was the largest religious compound in the entire Roman Empire and represented Herod’s attempt to curry favor with the religion that ultimately rejected him despite the fact that he saw it as his birthright.
An Ionic capital from the top of one of the Temple’s columns posed a particular challenge for the museum staff. At three tons, it required breaking ground and strengthening the museum’s foundations to support its weight.
A plaque honoring a Jew from Rhodes who supplied the funds for tiling one of the Temple courtyards serves as a reminder that the art of the shnorrer, so common in these parts, dates back to antiquity.
Some of the exhibition’s most enchanting features, though, are brand new. Screens display aerial footage of modern-day Jericho, Caesarea and Masada, as computer-generated models of Herod’s constructions pop up, superimposed with the terrain. Simple and devoid of texture, they are more architectural mock-ups than Hollywood-style renderings, but when projected alongside the countless historical artifacts, they restore familiar landscapes to their former glory.