King Herod the Great ruled ancient Israel from 74-4 BCE. He was known for many things but sadly he is best known today as a king-turned-madman who murdered his entire family and a number of religious leaders. The upside to his story, however, is the fact that he built many colossal structures and interesting landmarks, one of which is Jerusalem’s Herodion.
Also called Herodium, Herodion is one of Herod’s three magnificent projects that were ahead of their time. The other two are Caesarea and the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Although both Christians and Jews hated King Herod, there’s no denying that he was a genius builder and a visionary leader. He is one of the world’s earliest and most daring engineers.
Herodium is a breathtaking desert fortress about 12 kilometers or a 20-minute drive from the Holy City, near Bethlehem to the east. It is Jerusalem’s pyramid, so to speak. Herod literally built an artificial volcano-like hill on a desert area. On top of the hill and overlooking the city, the king built an advanced water system and a lavish palace that could have easily been the most beautiful structure in its time. The sophisticated water system in a desert was used to water and maintain magnificent gardens. The king built an aqueduct that ran all the way from Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem. Herodion stands at the edge of the Judean Desert.
Herod’s fortress was so magnificent that it earned the admiration of Josephus, the historian. He described it as being “rounded off in the shape of a breast” with “a steep ascent formed of two hundred steps of hewn stone”. One can still see these stone steps today, but what is now just a part of the pages of history are the “costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament” and “pleasure grounds built in such a way as to be worth seeing”. The historian then penned the most appropriate description of Herod’s fortress: “an acropolis”.
Herod’s palace was set on top of the artificial hill for all Jerusalem to see. The king personally oversaw the construction of his palace from 23 to 15 BCE. It used to have magnificent courtyards, banquet rooms, a Roman theater, four seven-storey towers, beautiful living quarters, a bathhouse, a wide walkway, and a collection of pools that was like an ancient country club. It used to have a protective double-wall that was seven stories high and 63 meters long. Nothing could have compared with it. In fact, the site of the fortress-palace ruins on top of the artificial cone-hill fortress is still quite majestic today.
Today, not much of the palace is left for the Jews to enjoy and it is recommended that tourists get a guided tour to understand what the remains are all about and how they fit the bigger picture. After Herod died, the palace and Herodium itself were left for nothing. The Jews took control of the hill and built a synagogue, which still stands today.
In the 2nd century, Bar Kochba rebels used the hill and its network of tunnels to raise a rebellion against Rome. They expanded the tunnels and fortified the hill. It was a perfect headquarter for military and arms purposes since it overlooks the entire city. Many of the tunnels constructed during the rebellion are now lit and open to welcome tourists.
Quite clearly, Herodion was King Herod’s most loved project since it’s the only one that bore his name. He took pride in it. It was also here where Herod’s tomb was unearthed.