King Herod's most ambitious project was Herodium, a fortified palace on top of a hill in the Judean desert. Honeycombed with passages and chambers, it also became his mausoleum. Now, archaeologists have found a resplendent, 65-foot corridor to provide the royal entourage direct entry into the palace courtyard.
According to a statement issued by Hebrew University archaeologists Roi Porat, Yakov Kalman and Rachel Chachy, "The corridor was built as part of Herod's plan to turn Herodium into a massive artificial volcano-shaped hill, a vast and impressive monument designed to commemorate the architect-King."
Between 23 BC and 15 BC, Herod transformed the cone-shaped mound into the largest palace complex in the Roman world. Located 7.5 miles south of Jerusalem—a four-hour trip by horseback—and possessing no strategic value, it seems an odd place for the king to build such an elaborate structure. But, Herod was bound by an oath that he had made years earlier. As an article in Smithsonian magazine explains:
[Herod] was the governor of Galilee when, in 40 B.C., the Parthian Empire conquered Judea (then under Roman control) and named a new king, Mattathias Antigonus. Herod, probably more shrewd than loyal, declared allegiance to Rome and fled Jerusalem with as many as 5,000 people—his family and a contingent of fighting men—under cover of night.
Surging over rocky terrain, the wagon in which Herod's mother was riding overturned. Herod drew his sword and was on the verge of suicide when he saw she had survived. He returned to the battle and fought "not like one that was in distress...but like one that was excellently prepared for war," the first century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote. In tribute to his victory and his mother's survival, he vowed to be buried there.
"Herodium was built to solve the problem he himself created by making a commitment to be buried in the desert," said archaeologist Ehud Netzer, [who passed away one year after this interview.] "The solution was to build a large palace, a country club—a place of enjoyment and pleasure." The summit palace could be seen by Herod's subjects in Jerusalem, while the tallest of the four towers offered the king pleasant breezes and a gripping view of his domain.
Herod sought to make his palace impregnable by raising the hill to enclose and shield it. Workers lopped off the top of a neighboring hill and carted it up to Herodium's peak, pouring it all around and giving it its distinctive shape.
According to the archaeologists who discovered Heordium's royal entryway, it is "an impressive corridor with a complex system of arches spanning its width on three separate levels." The entrance led to a vestibule covered with elaborate, painted frescoes, while the arches buttressed the corridor's massive sidewalls, permitting King Herod and his entourage direct passage into the palace's courtyard. The 65-foot-long and 20-foot wide corridor has been preserved to a height of 65 feet by the entryway's supporting arches. Also, the archaeologists note:
"Surprisingly, during the course of the excavations, it became evident that the arched corridor was never actually in use, as prior to its completion it became redundant.
This appears to have happened when Herod, aware of his impending death, decided to convert the whole hilltop complex into a massive memorial mound —a royal burial monument on an epic scale. Whatever the case, the corridor was back-filled during the construction of the massive artificial hill at the end of Herod's reign."
After a 35-year search, archaeologists finally found Herod's resting place in April 2007. In a chamber they discovered an elaborate sarcophagus that had been deliberately smashed apart. Based on coins and other artifacts nearby, the archaeologists surmised that the desecration of the hated monarch's tomb occurred sometime during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, from 66 AD to 73 AD.
Indeed, the Hebrew University archaeologists found coins and crude temporary structures in the newly discovered entryway, suggesting it also had been occupied by rebels during the revolt. Further excavations in the arched corridor also turned up compelling evidence from the Bar-Kochba Revolt period (132 AD to 135 AD), including hidden tunnels dug on the site by the rebels as part of the guerrilla warfare they waged against the Romans.
"Supported in part by wooden beams, these tunnels exited from the hilltop fortress by way of the corridor's walls, through openings hidden in the corridor," the archaeologists say. "One of the tunnels revealed the well-preserved construction of 20 or so cypress-wood branches, arranged in a cross-weave pattern to support the tunnel's roof."
When the excavation is completed, visitors to Herodium will be able to enter the palace by way of the corridor that Herod had planned for himself, 2,000 years ago.