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King Herod Exhibition Tracing the Life of a Builder and a Murderer

Lionized as “the greatest builder in human history,” King Herod was also demonized for his cruelty and his shady religious origins.
Handle of a footed marble basin decorated with Seilenoi heads, the 1st century BCE.

Handle of a footed marble basin decorated with Seilenoi heads, the 1st century BCE.

In 2007, after a 40-year search, renowned archaeologist Professor Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem discovered King Herod’s tomb at Herodium on the edge of the Judean Desert. The site included a fortress palace and a leisure complex with gardens, large pools, decorated bathhouses, and a theatre with a royal box. In his final years, Herod reconfigured the architecture of the complex to prepare the setting for his burial procession and site, and constructed a magnificent mausoleum facing Jerusalem.

The late Prof. Ehud Netzer displaying a shard from a 2,000-year-old amphora bearing King Herod’s name.

The late Prof. Ehud Netzer displaying a shard from a 2,000-year-old amphora bearing King Herod’s name.

On Tuesday, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem premieres the world’s first exhibition on the life and legacy of Herod the Great, one of the most influential – and controversial – figures in Jewish, Roman, and Christian history. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Professor Netzer, who died in 2010 at the site of his seminal discovery.

“Professor Ehud Netzer capped his decades-long excavation of Herodium with his discovery of King Herod’s tomb in 2007, and over the past five years, archaeologists excavating the site have made remarkable discoveries that have deepened our appreciation of Professor Netzer’s remarkable achievement and enriched our understanding of Herod, his reign, and his role in the history of the region,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director. “We are proud of the extensive restoration work that our conservation staff has been able to complete and thrilled to present these important finds to the public for the first time in an exhibition that will illuminate a pivotal period in the history of the Land of Israel.”

On view, through October 5, 2013, the landmark exhibition “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” will present approximately 250 archaeological finds from the king’s recently discovered tomb at Herodium, as well as from Jericho and related sites. They shed anew light on the political, architectural, and aesthetic impact of Herod’s reign from 37 to 4 BCE.

Among the objects on view—all of which have undergone extensive restoration—will be three sarcophagi from Herod’s tomb and restored frescoes from Herodium, his private bath from the palace at Cypros; never-before-seen carved stone elements from the Temple Mount; and an imperial marble basin thought to be a gift from Augustus.

Lionized as “the greatest builder in human history,” King Herod was also demonized for his uncertain ethnic and religious pedigree, controversial political alliances, the execution of his wife and three of his children, and—according to the Christian Bible—the “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem.

King Herod is known for his large-scale building projects, which required enormous resources and transformed the landscape of the Land of Israel. He built elaborate palaces, fortresses, public buildings, pagan temples, and cities which reflect the integration of local building traditions and materials with Roman technology and style. Herod’s extensive building activities is illustrated in the exhibition through architectural elements and archaeological fragments from several Herodian sites, including Jerusalem, Jericho, Cypros, and Herodium.

According to Rabbi Ken Spiro, the most ambitious of Herod’s projects was the re-building of the Temple, which was almost certainly an attempt to gain popularity among his subjects who, he knew, held him in contempt and also to make amends for his cruelty toward the rabbis.

It took 10,000 men ten years just to build the retaining walls around the Temple Mount. The Western Wall is merely part of that 500-meter-long retaining wall that was designed to hold a huge man-made platform that could accommodate twenty four football fields. When it was completed, it was the world’s largest functioning religious site and until today it remains the largest man-made platform in the world.

“Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” seeks to provide a better understanding of this ancient figure through the monumental architecture he created and the art and objects with which he surrounded himself. The exhibition will examine Herod’s remarkable building projects, complex diplomatic relations with the Roman emperors and nobility, and, finally, the dramatic funeral procession from Jericho to the mausoleum he constructed for himself in Herodium.

A striking reconstruction of the burial chamber of the mausoleum is a centerpiece of the exhibition.

“Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is organized around the route of Herod’s carefully planned funeral procession, from the throne room at his winter palace in Jericho, through Jerusalem, to his monumental tomb at Herodium. Central themes of the exhibition include Herod’s impact on the architectural landscape of the Land of Israel; his complex relationships within the Roman Empire; and his death and burial.

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