Israel Museum’s Herod Show is King of Exhibitions

Judean King's Palace the Hottest Ticket in Jerusalem

If Walls Could Talk: Professor Ehud Netzer and Roi Porat in the Royal room of the theater at Herodium.
Courtesy of israel museum
If Walls Could Talk: Professor Ehud Netzer and Roi Porat in the Royal room of the theater at Herodium.

By Tal Kra-Oz

Published August 27, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
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A display of jugs re-creates a royal storeroom, full of imports from abroad — garum (a smelly fish sauce), apples, pickled onions and copious amounts of wine. As Rozenberg pointed out, these weren’t just the whims of an epicure; they also served a political purpose, allowing Herod to provide Roman-style royal banquets for official visitors, thereby indicating that the Judean kingdom was firmly part of their world.

And clearly, Herod was a smooth political operator. Securely under the patronage of Mark Antony, Herod’s reign was in danger when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra and out of favor with the Senate, eventually losing the Battle of Actium to Augustus and committing suicide. Instead of hiding, Herod traveled to Rome and pledged allegiance to the new emperor. A juglet of balsam oil, an ancient perfume — liquid still intact, though the fragrance is long gone — is a relic of Antony’s tragedy. The oil was produced in Herod’s fields in the Jordan River Valley, fields that Antony gave Cleopatra as a gift and were restored to Herod only after the Battle of Actium. A two-ton bust of Augustus, found in a shrine at Sebastia, by Nablus, stands watch — headless — from across the hall.

Though Netzer’s quest for Herod’s tomb spanned decades, he never regretted the search. “I am grateful that the tomb was revealed only years later,” he wrote in the exhibit’s catalog, “while we were still digging, unknowingly, alongside and below its remains!” Had it been discovered earlier, entire areas in the magnificent site — a palace with royal quarters and court, an amphitheater — might never have been unearthed.

But while Netzer was eventually triumphant, the discovery’s aftermath was tragic. On October 25, 2010, at Herodium to prepare for the exhibition, Netzer leaned on a shaky railing that gave way. He suffered a 20-foot fall, and died three days later in Jerusalem.

Rozenberg and her colleague, Dudi Mevorah, were left to finish his work. Presciently, years ahead of the catalog’s publication, Netzer had already completed its introduction.

Herod’s tomb site was a tower more than 80 feet tall, with huge columns and a conical roof, halfway up the volcano-shaped hill. The tower was toppled and wrecked during the Jewish revolt (66 –70 C.E.), and three shattered limestone sarcophagi were found in its vicinity. Though unmarked, one had a different color — red — and appeared to have been smashed with particular vengeance.

Now, with the tower’s upper floor reconstructed at the museum, and the sarcophagus painstakingly pieced together, thousands of visitors a day pay their respects to King Herod, master builder, but also, at best, ruthless proto-Machiavellian, and at worst, murderous psychopath (Emperor Augustus was apocryphally quoted saying that “it’s better to be Herod’s pig than his son”). Rozenberg told me that she feels very little ambivalence toward Herod. “

Yes, he was a murderer, but he succeeded in keeping Judea independent, prosperous and peaceful during his 33-year reign, despite those being very tumultuous years for the Roman Empire,” she said. “I’m an archaeologist. I tell stories with stones, and these are incredible stories. Herod’s architecture was world-class. He made a lasting impact on the landscape here and even influenced Rome. There have been many murderous kings, but very few kings, murderous or not, that had his positive impact.”

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer and law student living in Jerusalem.


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