Herodian Building Project-Sites
During Herod the Great's reign over Judah, he completed several major building projects, which included expansive fortified palaces and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Excavations have uncovered the architectural grandeur of the Herodium, Masada, and Machaerus. These ruins tell their own stories about life in Judah during the years before and after the transition from B.C. to A.D.
Herod the Great was king of Judah during the year of Jesus’ birth. After the Magi returned to the East without telling Herod where Jesus could be found, the king ordered the death of all male infants under the age of two. After his death in 4 B.C., his son, Herod Antipas, succeeded him to the throne. Jesus’ fifth trial was before Herod Antipas, but it seems Jesus never spoke a word to him (Luke 23:6–12).
For years critics have dismissed Herod and his many building projects as a literary invention. But now, archaeologists have potentially uncovered the spectacular building projects of Herod the Great.
Herod the Great built the Herodium, which he named after himself, as a memorial to his victory over his enemies. This particular palace-fortress, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, was built where Herod defeated the Hasmoneans and Parthians in 40 B.C. (Antiquities XIV, 352–360).
Josephus writes that the Herodium was located on a hill about sixty stadia from Jerusalem (one stadium equals approximately two hundred meters). What the historian calls “pleasure grounds” were at the base of the hill and were notable for “the way in which water, which is lacking in that place, is brought in from a distance and at great expense.” He mentions the fortress's round towers, steep stone steps, and the expensive royal apartments, which were designed both for ornamentation and security. “The surrounding plain was built up as a city second to none,” writes Josephus, “with the hill serving as an acropolis for the other dwellings” (War 1, 31, 10; Antiquities XIV, 323–325).
Look in the Book
The Jewish historian Josephus says that Herod died from some disease, perhaps a sexually transmitted one. He was extremely hungry, suffered from a high fever and convulsions and had foul discharges. It was said an aqueous liquid settled about his feet and that his putrefied “privy member” produced worms. He found it difficult to breathe when he sat upright (Antiquities 17.6.5).
The Herodium was identified as Herod's fortress in the nineteenth century, but most excavations of the hilltop palace, standing 758 meters above sea level, occurred in the early 1960s. Off and on since 1972, archaeologists have excavated the buildings at the foot of the hill. The excavations confirm Josephus’ account that the Herodium was actually two separate areas.
When Herod the Great died, his body was carried on a jewel-studded golden bier from Jericho to the Herodium. His family members and hundreds of slaves swung censers as they followed the bier. Herod's body was clothed in purple. He wore a gold crown and held a golden scepter. Five hundred servants carried the spices used to bury Herod's body.
A circular wall punctuated by towers surrounded the grand palace, on top of the hill. Other buildings were grouped around a large pool on the northern plain. Josephus also provides a historical account of the king's funeral procession and burial at the Herodium in a tomb he had built (War 1, 33, 8; Antiquities XVII, 196–199).
Towering 1,400 feet above the western shore of the Dead Sea stands the rock fortress of Masada. Built as a place of refuge between 37 and 31 B.C., Masada was a rather sophisticated fortress. Thirty towers and four gates were set in the wall enclosing the rock plateau. Archaeologists have uncovered two aqueducts and numerous deep cisterns that provided water for daily use and the gardens, decorative fountains, and assorted bathhouses.
After David killed Goliath, King Saul tried to kill David. First Samuel 23:14 states that David hid in the desert strongholds of the northwestern part of the Dead Sea territory. Most scholars believe that David hid on top of Masada. “The Lord is my rock,” writes David in Psalm 18:2, “my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock in whom I take refuge.” The Hebrew word for “fortress” is the same word as for “Masada.”
On the northern edge of the cliff, Herod's palace was built in three tiers connected by a staircase. Its roofs were supported by rows of columns. Within these frescoed walls and on these mosaic floors, Herod the Great entertained his guests. Other buildings were used for various purposes including residences, offices, storehouses and workshops, and military barracks.
The Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.) built Machaerus nine miles east of the Dead Sea in the gorge of Callirhoe as a frontier fortress against his Arab enemies. Also known as the Black Fortress, it towers 3,860 feet above the Dead Sea and 2,546 feet above the Mediterranean. During Herod the Great's restoration of the fortress, Josephus writes that the king built a wall round the very summit and erected towers at the corners, each 27.4 meters. In the middle of this enclosure he built a palace, breathtaking in size and beauty.
Though not mentioned by name in the Bible, Machaerus has an important biblical connection. Three of the Gospels provide varying accounts of how John the Baptist angered Herod Antipas by openly condemning his divorce and subsequent marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:21–29; and Luke 9:7–9). Herod imprisoned John at Machaerus. The infamous dance of his stepdaughter Salome, which ended with John's head on a platter, also took place here at Machaerus. Josephus confirms John's death in his writings (Antiquities 18: 116–119). The ruins of Machaerus, now known as M'khaur, are thought to still be visible on the northern end of Jebel Attarus.