Israel’s national museum opened what it calls the world’s first exhibition devoted to the architectural legacy of biblical King Herod the Great, the Jewish proxy monarch who ruled Jerusalem and the Holy Land under Roman occupation two millennia ago.
The display includes what curators say is the reconstructed tomb and sarcophagus of one of antiquity’s most notable and despised figures.
“He was a great king, he was a great builder, and he had a very bad reputation,” said David Mevorah, the exhibition curator.
“He’s mainly remembered in history as the slaughterer of the children in Bethlehem; he is remembered as the man who killed his wife and executed three of his children,”
About 30 tons of artifacts – including hundreds of tiny shattered shards pieced back together as close to its former state as possible – are now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in a nine-month exhibition.
“Herod the Great” is the museum’s largest and most expensive archaeological project to date.
Herod was vilified in the New Testament as a bloodthirsty tyrant, yet he was also revered for his ambitious building projects, including his lavish desert palaces and an expansion of the Second Jewish Temple complex in Jerusalem. The Western Wall, today the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray, was a retaining wall for the compound.
Herod’s final grandiose project was to prepare for death. Curators believe Herod constructed an extravagant, 25-metre-high (80-foot-high) tomb.
Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer spent 35 years of his career searching for it.
In 2007, Netzer drew international attention when he announced he had found what he believed was the tomb at Herodium, the ruler’s winter palace, located on a cone-like hill that still today juts out prominently in the barren landscape of the Judean Desert, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
In 2008, the archaeologist approached the Israel Museum about creating an exhibit that would display artifacts from one of the greatest finds of his career.
While surveying the Herodium site with museum staff, Netzer fell to his death. Still, museum staff pushed forward with planning the exhibit.
In 2011, the museum used a crane to remove dozens of half-ton columns and the roof of what Netzer identified as the top floor of Herod’s tomb, which he thought held his sarcophagus. Each stone was affixed with an electronic chip so it could be more easily be put back together at the Israel Museum.
Three sarcophagi were found at the site, and curators believe one was Herod’s. Though it bears no inscription, it is made of a special reddish stone, found smashed into hundreds of pieces.
The Jewish zealots who took over Herodium after Herod’s death likely smashed the sarcophagus to pieces, destroying the symbol of a man who worked with the empire they were rebelling against, curators said.
Modern day politics are intruding into this ancient find. Palestinians object to the showing of artifacts found in the West Bank. The Israeli museum insists it will return the finds once the exhibit closes.
The museum’s exhibit is almost entirely made up of finds from the West Bank – a point of contention with the Palestinians, who have said the excavation and exhibit were not coordinated with Palestinian officials.
Palestinian officials have said excavating archaeological objects from the West Bank without Palestinian permission is in violation of an international convention which governs antiquities in occupied territories.
Museum director James Snyder said he had not received complaints from the Palestinian Authority.
“The material that is here from Herodium of course comes from the West Bank, the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinian authority provides that Israel is responsible for the care and custodianship of archaeology in the West Bank until there is a final agreement,” said museum director James Snyder.
The museum exhibit also features a reconstructed throne room from one of Herod’s palaces in Jericho, and a full-sized replica of Herod’s theatre viewing room at Herodium, incorporating detailed fresco wall paintings and other decorative elements that museum staff collected on site.
There are still pieces of the puzzle left to assemble. Workers were still rushing to fit together all the small stucco wall lining pieces found to display in the exhibit. One fresco wall painting, found in tiny fragments, has taken 2 and a half years to reassemble.
Other items include the paint jars used for Herod’s frescos and plump jugs of wine imported from southern Italy labelled in Latin characters – “Herod King of Judea.”
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