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The Tomb of Herod the Great

Germans and French gave King Herod last honors 2011 Years ago

by Ulrich W. Sahm, Jerusalem, May 8, 2007

"We could well feel the furor and hatred of the rebels against King Herod. " The Israeli archaeologist Roi Porat was the first to have held bits and pieces of the sarcophagus of the biblical king in his hands. It was made of reddish chalkstone with beautiful carvings of rosettes. But some time in antiquity, possibly during the Jewish uprising against the Romans, the sarcophagus was busted into tiny pieces. Hundreds were collected and should make a reconstruction possible.

"We saw the signs of the systematic and willful destruction with hammers", Porat said, standing on the slope of the artificial Herodion Hill just east of Bethlehem and in sight of Jerusalem, which is only some 10 miles away. He was standing on what was already excavated of a beautifully carved "podium". Its perfectly fitting white stones were brought from some other place and fitted perfectly without the need of cement. On it stood a mausoleum, which housed the remains of King Herod in a 2 meter long unique sarcophagus. "We have found enough pieces to put it together again and restore it. I am sure we will find more missing pieces", says Porat. Of the mausoleum built on top of the podium, only few remains are left, some of which can been seen unexcavated in situ: a carved lintel and an urn. These urns were used to contain ashes of the dead, but they also served as architectural elements on the roofs of monumental graves carved into the rock in Petra (Jordan) by the Nabateans.

The famous "King of the Jews", as he Romans called him, was in power between 47 and 4 BCE. According to Professor Ehud Netzer, Herod prepared his funeral well in advance. On top of the artificial hill Herodion, named after the king, Herod built several towers and palaces. At the foot of the hill he installed enormous pools, more palaces and gardens. "They were among the biggest in the entire Roman Empire", according to Netzer.

Between the ruins, a reporter made his statement in front of the camera, making also a political point: "King Herod was one of the greatest builders of antiquity, but the King of the Jews was also well known for his cruelty."

The sensational discovery was presented by Professor Ehud Netzer at a press conference at the Hebrew University. Herod is one of the most famous figures in human history. More than a hundred journalist turned up at the press conference after Israeli news papers prematurely published "import discovery" which was supposed to be kept secret until the last moment. For 35 years, Netzer had been digging at Herodian sites in Jericho and on the Herodion. For years he also had been looking for the funeral site at the Herodion. The Jewish-Roman historian wrote a detailed account about the funeral of Herod, after he died in Jericho and was brought to the Herodion. "These days, exactly 2011 years ago, King Herod was buried", the veteran archaeologist announced. It was first proposed, that the king was buried in one of the towers on top of the hill. But Netzer said that this could not be. According to Jewish tradition, one cannot be buried in a house used by living people such as a palace. Then Netzer thought, that a majestic building at the bottom of the hill was the mausoleum. A large ramp, 300 meters long and some 30 wide led to this building. "It could not have been a stadium", Netzer said. But the majestic building did not fit the theory of being a mausoleum. He then noticed that a very wide stairway led from the other end of the ramp all the way to the top of the hill.

And then, by coincidence, half way to the top, on the steep northern slope, he discovered a cistern which was reinforced with heavy columns. Obviously, the cistern was rebuilt to sustain a heavy building above its roof. And there it was: the sill intact stone cut podium above which the mausoleum was built. And there, among the ruins of the destroyed mausoleum pieces of a royal decorated sarcophagus was found. Now also the majestic building at the foot of the hill and the ramp, which led to the staircase made sense and fit perfectly well into the account of the burial ceremony 2011 years ago. Following is the account of Josephus:

"Herod's funeral
(670) Instantly, Archelaus was hailed with acclamations and congratulations; and the troops coming forward in companies with the civilians, pledged their loyalty and joined in prayers for God's blessing. Then they turned to the task of the king's funeral. (671) Everything was done by Archelaus to add to the magnificence of the ceremony; he brought forth all the royal ornaments to be carried in procession in honor of the deceased. The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones and draped with the richest purple embroidered with various colors. On it lay the body wrapped in a crimson robe, with a diadem resting on the head, and above that a golden crown and the scepter by the right hand. (672) Around thebier were Herod's sons and a host of relatives, followed by his guards and the Thracian contingent, Germans and Gauls, all equipped for war [a], (673) The remainder of the troops marched in front, armed and in perfect order, led by their commanders and officers, and followed by five hundred of the house slaves and freedmen, carrying spices [b]. The body was carried for a distance of two hundred furlongs [c] to Herodion [d\, where the late king commanded it to be interred. So ended the reign of Herod [e]."

(Josephus, The Jewish War, ed. Gaalya Cornfeld)

Now it was easy to imagine, how Herod was first lying on his golden bier, and taken along the ramp to the stairway, while warriors from Germany and France were standing in line, "all equipped for war".

Ulrich W. Sahm









Last updated: 01.06.2011
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