ሄሮዲየም (HERODIUM)

ሄሮዲየም (HERODIUM)

Herodion is a volcano-like hill with a truncated cone located 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) south of Jerusalem, near the city of Bethlehem which was built by Herod the Great as a fortress and palace

The Herodion, which was constructed by King Herod a few years before the Common Era south of Bethlehem, overlooks Jerusalem and the Judean Desert.

It contains a luxurious complex of living quarters, one of the world’s most ancient synagogues, a Jewish ritual bath, a bathhouse with all of the technology from 2,000 years ago, underground tunnels, and more.

Herodium was known by the Crusaders (12th century) as the “Mountain of Franks”  and  abal al-Fourdis or “Mountain of Paradise by the Arab inhabitants.

Imagine a mountain that is artificially wrapped in layers of dust and a thick double wall, resembling a kind of volcano, or as Yosef ben Mattityahu described it two thousand years ago, like a mountain in the shape of a breast.

Continue to imagine that at the heart of this mountain there are also winding tunnels and subterranean wells of water. Add to the fantasy a two-thousand-year-old synagogue, a Roman bathhouse with temperatures suiting the user’s requirements, and even a ritual bath for those wishing to be more strict and wanting to ritually immerse.


 

Herodion / Herodium

Now imagine that under this mountain there is an entire city, with pools of water, storage rooms, impressive gardens, and spas. Now you can stop fantasizing. All of this is just a short journey away from Jerusalem.

Welcome to the Herodian City

Like most of the other forts in the Judean Desert, Herodion was built by King Herod (hence the name “Herodian”) in the second decade before the Common Era.


 

The Lower City of Herodion

The location of Herodium is not by chance – it is the exact spot where the Jews, who had allied themselves with the Parthians who had arrived from the east to drive out Herod, who had only just arrived in Israel, were defeated several years before.

This is the reason why he decided to build an impressive monument to himself, which became a luxurious, eye-catching summer palace with a complete underground city (this subterranean city was about 150 dunams in area) that even served as the capital of the province for a certain period.

Wherever we wander in the southern Judean Desert, the Herodion Fort overlooks every side and direction, even from Jerusalem (11km or 7 miles away). Fortunately, Yosef ben Mattityahu, later the Roman historian Josephus Flavius, described the building of the Herodian compound and the place’s great beauty.

A Two Thousand Year-Old Trading Room

Immediately after climbing to the top of the Herodion, we can observe the entire surrounding area as far as Jerusalem – to the north: the Mount of Olives on its towers,  Kibutz Ramat Rachel, the neighborhood of Har Homa and the surrounding communities. From the south and west are the communities of Tekoa and Mahale Amos.


 

Water reservoir in Herodion / Herodium

Adjacent to the Herodion from the north and east, at the foot of the mountain, we can see a green hill that was flattened in order to provide dust to wrap the mountain, and this was also intended to emphasize the uniqueness of the Herodion.

From the upper northern corner of the mountain, we can see the entrance gate into the fort and the remains of the compound’s four towers, one in each corner. From the eastern tower, which is the largest of all of them, we can observe the mountain complex and the eastern direction, which is the direction of the Dead Sea.

The Herodian Palace was built, strange as it sounds, as a place of protection for Herod during the time of a rebellion, while the Herodium underneath, which we will get to, served as a summer vacation city for the king and his guests.

If we look to the north, we will see the ridge of the Mount of Olives, on which there are three towers – the German hospital Augusta Victoria, the Church of the Ascension, and the tower of the Hebrew University.

Let’s go into the remains of the Roman bathhouse. On the external side of the place, we will see many stone pillars standing close together. This is the heating room (caldarium), on the pillars of which a floor was built in the past, and the hot air that lay between the pillars served as a kind of heater, or in other words, a sauna.

Unfortunately the dome of the room did not survive, and the roof was also destroyed over the years. However, in the warm room, or tepidarium, the impressive, complete dome, which is thought to be the oldest stone dome in Israel, is easily seen.

The cold room (or frigidarium), which is entered from the warm room, is closed to the public today. However, opposite it and under the skies are the remains of the dressing room, where many important business deals were conducted and the juiciest gossip from the entire Jerusalem region of that time was heard.

The Parlor (Saloon) That Became a Synagogue

If we move on the southwestern side of the Herodium, we will see on the right what once served as a parlor, a luxurious hospitality salon, even though the sign explains that we are inside a synagogue.

As mentioned earlier, Herod built the Herodion compound several years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, in other words before the Common Era. Jewish rebels during the period of the great revolt against the Romans (66-70 C.E.) came here and entrenched themselves here exactly in the same way as at the famous fort of Masada.

This is how the parlor, where Herod may have hosted none other than Marcus Agrippa, deputy to Augustus Caesar, became a synagogue, which was used at a time when the Holy Temple was still standing in Jerusalem as a gathering place and for study, rather than as a place of prayer in the way that synagogues are used today.


 

Undergrounf tunnels in Herodion

Let’s return to the bathhouse, slightly in front of the large eastern tower. Underneath, we will see a ritual bath built by the rebels. The ritual bath is strictly kosher and holds at least 40 cubits – around 750 liters.

The water in the ritual bath is not pumped, as is customary with ritual baths. Close to the ritual bath, we see a round wellspring, known as the otzar, treasury. The function of the otzar is very simple – it is the reservoir for storing the rainwater that is used for making the ritual bath kosher.

When there is a need to fill and make the actual bath kosher, the interconnecting aperture between the two pools is opened and the otzar essentially fills and purifies the waters of the ritual bath.

Is This the Tomb of the Famous King?

When the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 C.E., the Jewish rebels remained in the Herodion, entrenching themselves in several places, similar to Masada. Here, the rebels remained strong until the year 71.


 

King Herod’s tomb in Herdium

The impressive tunnels in the area were dug at a slightly later date, during an interesting period at the Herodian Fort between the years 132-135 C.E. This was at the time of Bar Cochba’s Revolt. The tunnels are lit and have been made suitable for tourists, and the walk is extremely comfortable and easy. This is a very exciting experience.

At the end of the tunnels, we exit from an actual opening close to the area of Herod’s grave, which was discovered in 2007 after more than thirty years of exploration by the late archeologist Professor Ehud Netzer.

The site is undergoing excavations even today, and it is especially impressive. The beautiful hewn stones of Herod’s mausoleum are exactly as they are described by Josephus Flavius in his writings. Here, the remains of a sarcophagus were discovered in 2007, a magnificent casket made from stone, but unfortunately, no inscriptions have yet been discovered to prove finally that this is indeed the king’s burial place.

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