Herod the Great, who ruled ancient Judea 2,000 years ago at the time of the birth of Christ, has suffered two millennia of bad press. Now he’s finally getting his due in an exhibition at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
Herod was condemned in the New Testament as a bloodthirsty tyrant who ordered the massacre of infants in Bethlehem to prevent the prophesied birth of a new king of the Jews. He was described by 1st-century historian Josephus Flavius as a paranoid despot who executed three of his male offspring for suspected plotting.
Even his friend and patron, the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, is said to have quipped -- in a reference to Herod’s observance of Jewish dietary laws forbidding pork -- “Better to be Herod’s pig than one of his sons.”
There is another side to Herod, though: that of the cosmopolitan master builder whose monumental projects, including Masada, the port city of Caesarea and Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, still shape the cultural landscape of Israel and the West Bank.
This Herod is the focus of what Israel Museum Director James Snyder calls the first exhibition exclusively devoted to the monarch, and the most ambitious archaeological show ever mounted at his institution.
“In just about everyone’s mind, there is a sense of who Herod is as a man,” Snyder said. “Our exhibition really tries very hard to be about Herod’s achievements as a regional imperial ruler.”
The undertaking is as much a tribute to Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer as it is to its subject. Netzer spent four decades excavating at Herodium, a palace-fortress built by Herod just south of Jerusalem, and it was his discovery of the ruler’s long-lost tomb there in 2007 that paved the way for the Israel Museum show.
Sadly, Netzer died in 2010 from injuries he sustained in a fall at Herodium: Faulty railing gave way on the first visit by the museum’s curatorial team -- which “could not be a stranger and, perhaps even more biblical story,” Snyder said.
The exhibition, titled “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey,” starts with the ruler’s death at his winter palace in Jericho in 4 B.C. The first room recreates his throne room and incorporates some of the actual colorful wall frescoes from the site, “built in what was then the latest Roman fashion,” according to curator David Mevorah.
The entire exhibition emphasizes how Herod served as a cultural bridge between the Jewish kingdom of Judea and the dominant imperial empire of Rome, which placed him on the throne as a vassal-ruler in 37 B.C.
Herod himself was of Idumaenan descent, a regional tribe that had converted to Judaism several generations earlier, and was viewed with distrust by his Jewish subjects, despite his many efforts to court them.
The most ambitious of these projects was his ground-up renovation of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, which rivaled and even surpassed the grandest of Rome’s religious structures until it was leveled by Roman troops in 70 A.D. during the Jewish rebellion.
The remaining Temple Mount and its retaining walls, which today houses the Muslim Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa mosque, may well be the world’s most disputed piece of real estate.
The exhibition includes the top of an Ionic column from the Temple Mount site, as well as a four-ton example of the massive “Herodian stones” used to construct its retaining walls.
About 30 tons of stone artifacts in total were taken from various Herodian sites for the show, which required a reinforcement of the museum’s floors.
That includes pieces from Herod’s tomb at Herodian put on display for the first tomb, including three stone sarcophagi from the king’s burial chamber.
Originally topped by a tower that could be seen from Jerusalem miles away, the tomb is believed by historians to have been vandalized by the Jewish Zealots during their rebellion against Rome six decades after Herod’s death, leading to its obscurity until Netzer’s rediscovery 20 centuries later.
Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, Herod constructed monumental projects that virtually command future generations to “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
His, however, had the good fortune not to end up buried under “lone and level sands.” They remain enduring tourist attractions and tributes to his ambition, ingenuity and arrogance.
“Herod has had some bad P.R.,” curator Mevorah said, with considerable understatement. “Our exhibition shows that he was also a multifaceted man of great achievements, and above, a great builder.”
“Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” opened yesterday and runs through Oct. 5 at Israel Museum on Ruppin Blvd., Jerusalem. Information: http://www.english.imjnet.org.il/HTMLs/Home.aspx
Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, Scott Reyburn on the art market and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.
(Calev Ben-David writes for Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)