The Better to Bury You, My Dear: The Story of Herodion

What’s in a Name?

Whether you call it “Herodion” in Hebrew or “Herodium,” using the Latin version of the site’s name, this is the place Herod chose to call after himself, as a final resting place and monument to his kingship. This incredible archeological treasure is comparable to Massada in grandeur, importance, and the story it tells, and a mere 10 minute drive from Jerusalem.

Who Was Herod

Herod the GreatHerod was King of Judea from roughly 34-4BCE. He was one of the most canny and successful politicians of the ancient world, who rose from relative obscurity to rub elbows with Julius and Augustus Caesar, Mark Antony and even Cleopatra. He ended the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea, the royal line of the Maccabees, and turned Judea into a Roman vassal state with himself as dictator.

As vicious as Herod could be, and as locally unpopular as he was, the Jewish nation flourished economically under his leadership. He built a series of monumental structures all over the country, most notably the greatly enlarged Temple complex in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. All of Herod’s building projects were on a grand, Roman scale, making use of the latest architectural techniques and including every luxury the ancient world had to offer.

Herod’s Palace and Burial Site

Herodion Upper Palace Rabbi Eitan Guiding
Rabbi Eitan guiding in the Upper Palace at Herodion

Herodion overlooks the site, near Tekoa, where Herod fought and won his most important battle, making him the uncontested ruler of Judea. Since the topography didn’t suit his taste, he had his engineers chop off the top of one hill by quarrying its stones, and use them to build up the neighboring hill to the height he wanted. A round palace jutted out the top of this ‘man-made volcano,’ flanked by one large and three small towers at each ‘corner.’ The upper palace includes rooms for Herod and his entourage, as well as a private bath house and what the archaeologists there claim to be the oldest standing, full dome in the world.

Not content with one palace and one bath house, another, larger complex was built at the foot of the hill with a larger bath house, a pleasure garden and pool where one can imagine Cleopatra lounging with her servants when she came to visit. Luckily for her she was too beloved to Herod’s patron Mark Antony for him to kill her.

Herodion Lower Palace
Lower Palace at Herodion (Pic: Wikimedia, Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The two fought over Mark Antony’s political affections, and over pieces of land bordering their two kingdoms, making them rivals. Herod had at least one of his own children drowned in the baths at his palace in Jericho when the boy was seen as a threat.

The huge water needs of the palaces were supplied with by a long and winding aqueduct bringing water from distant springs and feeding a series of cisterns. On a tour today we can walk down from the top through this water system.

When Herod felt he was approaching death he had most of the palace covered over with dirt and turned into a funeral mound and monument. A mausoleum was built on the slopes of the hill facing Jerusalem, the beautiful theater and bath houses covered up to make way for a monumental walkway to be used only one time.

Herodion as Rebel Base

But that wasn’t the end of Herodion’s part in history. The site was also used as a base by Jewish rebels in both the Great Revolt of 66-70CE and the Bar Kochva Revolt of 132-35CE. The Bar Kochva rebels added a mikvah, turned Herod’s throne room into a synagogue, and dug a series of underground tunnels connecting between the different parts of the water system and making secret exits they could use to ambush Roman soldiers.

Tours of Herodion

I live in Tekoa, a town at the foot of Herodion, and am happy to give tours there for as little as 2 hours. If you’re in Jerusalem and have a few hours to spare for an incredible site, please be in touch.

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