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Rolling stones from the times of the Jewish revolt against the Romans Herodium National Park

Herodium National Park – Past Glory in Mid Desert


Gllaucium conrniculatum blooming at Heodium National Park
Gllaucium-conrniculatum, Herodium National Park

The Historical Sites

Past Glory in Deep Desert

Herodium National Park 

So close, so far; The views; The flora; The archaeological site

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Views from atop Herodion (Herodium) Mountain

Top: Al-Fureidis village and Tekoa settlement. Center: small settlement in mid-desert; Bottom: Nokdim settlement. 

Herodium National Park - So Close, So Far

As the corona crisis seemed to be easing, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority started to open the national parks and monuments incrementally. 

Seizing the opportunity and starved for more outdoors, I decided to try as many as I can feasibly visit, and to document my visits on this blog. 

So close,so far

Herodium National Park is only 20 minutes from my home driving, but worlds apart for two main reasons: 

  1. It is within the territory that used to be Jordanian until 67, and is surrounded by Area A villages.
  2. It is in extreme desert.

With regard to the first point, it would be a lie to say I was in my comfort zone driving there. I was heading out of my own free will straight into the “deep territories”, surrounded by large red signs warning Israelis not to turn right or left into Palestinian-controlled lands, designated as Area A. The signs actually said that you were not only endangering your life if you crossed, but also committing a felony. I, of course, did not diverge right or left except to take this photo…

Road sign warning israelis not to enter Area ASigns like this were posted along Road 398 to warn Israelis from entering the PA

With regard to the second point, I have always marvelled at the rapid climatic, floristic and cultural changes in this little country. A short drive, and you are in a different universe. This is due to the astounding effect of the Judean hills blocking the rain clouds coming in from the Mediterranean Sea.

Several years after 1967, a group of us young adults took to walk from somewhere in Jerusalem (can’t remember the starting point) to the famous artificial mountain of Herodion, as we called it. I remember only two things:

  1. It was extremely hot, and we were close to dehydration.
  2. We walked about 30 km, or so we were told (no cellphones, GPS or sporting apps existed these days).
  3. There was not too much to see once we got there, except for the marvellous views, of course.

Herodium and corona

Today, in contrast, there is a lot to see on the site. This is due to the extensive archeological exavations, carried out by Prof. Netzer, the restoration projects and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The two hours officially allotted to visitors due to the corona regulations do not really do justice to this marvellous and large site. In actuality, I stayed for almost twice as long. The site was (almost) completely empty, and nobody seemed to mind. I met only one other family on the grounds, a religious family who came all the way over here from Rehovot.

As to corona, well, yes, everything was very clean, people wore masks, even Arab workers working in the sun over Ramadan (I felt so sorry for them…). I did have to remind the person at the desk to put gloves on. Otherwise, everything was smooth.

And so much fresh desert air!

Herodium mountain viewed from roadHerodion (Herodium) – the artificially-cut mountain viewed from Road 398

It is impossible to miss Herodium even from afar, since Herod actually raised, then flattened, the mountain over which his tomb and fortress were to be built, sacrificing the natural contours for an artificial skyline.

Herodium National Park - The Views

It is worth coming to Herodium National Park just for the views. There is no other place I know where a 360° view opens up over the two holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and the expanse of settlements and villages bathing in olive groves. You almost feel like the Bible is still alive on those hills…

Arab villages, Jewish settlements

From this height, it all looked peaceful and tranquil.

I must admit that seen from above, the “problem” of the settlements apprears minute. There is enough space there to accomodate both the Arab villages and the Jewish settlements. The country is super mixed as it is, and the more I read of the history, the more I know it has always been.

Video clips taken from around the mountain top in various directions

Herodium National Park - The Flora

In every park and reserve I go to, I look out for the plants, even if the main park theme is historical. I am fascinated by the botanical variey in our little country.

This has been a luxurious winter. It rained heavily and repeatedly even in these areas on the desert border. As I walked on the barren trails and roads of Herodium National Park, I could still see many blooming flowers – some were typical desert plants, others were opportunists and pioneers from the greener parts of the country.

Plants in deserts always find their unique niches, where they can somehow save a drop of water, find a grain of nutritive soil. 

Click on any picture below to view the gallery in a lightbox .

And now to the “crux of the matter” – the incredible archaeological site.The Herodiam period was pivotal not only in Jewish history, but in the history of the world. This dig reveals the extent of Herod’s influence on the land.

Herodium National Park - The Archaeology

Herodium National Park is so rich in history and cultural interest, you can easily spend days just studying the historical background, context and signifiance of what is seen.

The “client king”

To get a better idea about Herod, I read the relevant chapter in the History of The Land of Israel series in Hebrew, and, yes – it was fascinating. We actually learned in high school about all the murders, plots and intrigues, and I was familiar with both the widespread criticism and the hard-to-admit-to admiration. Still, I needed a refresher…

Well, yes.

Herod was, and still is, a controversial figure, and his life was entangled in conflicts of all sorts and variety. Jews still wonder “how Jewish” he was:

There is one aspect of this colorful king on which all commentators agree: Flattered, cajoled, and used by Rome, Herod the Great was never able to completely win the hearts and minds of all his Jewish subjects. Rome, on the other hand, needed Herod as much as Herod needed Rome, whose culture and language the Jewish king had closely identified with all his life (National Geographic).

Christians, on their part, blame Herod for an alleged “massacre of the innocents“, the killing of all baby boys following the birth of Jesus.

According to Antonio Pinero’s article on Herod in the National Geographic, his achievements as an administrator and builder were astounding, and his reign was largely a time of peace and prosperity for Judea. He even saved his people from famine in the mid-20s BCE. Nonetheless, he was often treated with deep suspicion by his subjects. 

“An exquisite balancing act”

Antonio Pinero sees Herod’s rule as “an exquisite balancing act between appeasing his Roman masters and serving the needs of the Judaean people“. He believes that “the strain of this effort, plus the toxic environment of court intrigue, might have led Herod to become increasingly paranoid, cruel, and erratic toward the end of his life”

Herod’s son, Antipas, was also maligned by the Christians since he was the king during Jesus’ period:

Herod the Great and his son became the New Testament’s symbol of corrupt earthly authority precisely because of their vital importance in the geopolitics of the day”.

The Herodian magnificence

Even those who hated him with all their might, could not deny Herod’s incredible achievements. Once he got himself secured in his position, and as the pax romana prevailed around the Mediterranean, he started a construction project unprecedented in the history of The Land. As a client king, this was typical, to be expected, and in the spirit of the times. Still, he outdid most. Some of his projects took place in cities outside his own kingdom, and he even contributed to other imperial ventures, like the Greek Olympics…

His building projects included palaces, towers and fortresses, entertainment establishments like theatres, hypodromes, amphitheatres and gymnasiums, water projects, ports, basilica, bath houses, granaries, gardens – and whole cities. Notorious and world renown are the construction of the city of Cesarea and its port, Sebastia in Samaria, and the pinnacle – the Jerusalem Temple, of which we have the one famous remnant – the Western Wall.

The desert fortresses , including Massada, Jericho and Lower and Upper Herodium, occupy a special place among Herod’s multiple projects. 

Herodium – Immortalizing Herod

In the spirit of Roman emperors and kings, Herod built himself a mausoleum while still alive. Herodium was a multiple-purpose project meant to supply him with opportunity to relax and be alone, and a palace-fortress overseeing Jerusalem and strategic roads.

Water was brought from afar, and four large water cisterns were built underneath the palace.

The lower part of Herodium, which is not yet opened to the public, included an entertainment area, administrative center and Herod’s funeral complex. There was the tomb itself, with a royal staircase, now under excavation, and a small theatre for his enjoyment. The complex was built in the middle of the hill, half way between Lower and Upper Herodium.

The hill itself, notoriously, was built and raised artificially for this project. 

The proof that Herod succeeded in immortalizing himself is that dozens of archaeologists made their careers digging up his tomb and palaces, and that we keep coming to visit them 2000 years later…

Post-Herod Herodium

Herod died in the year 4 BCE and was buried in Herodium. The place was then controlled by his son, and then by various Roman governers until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE. During the Revolt, the Jewish rebels entrenched themselves in Herodium. They turned the reception hall into a synagogue and built ritual baths. They were defeated in 71 CE, a year after the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

The mountain fortress was also key during the later Bar Kochva Revolt of 132-135 CE. Some of the tunnels seen now were built during these two revolts for military purposes and to ensure water supply for the rebels.

During the Byzantine period, three churches and a village were built over the remains of the Herodian structures in the lower city.

The site was abandoned in the 9th century, and stood in its desolation until the 19th century when excavations started. In particular, Prof. Netzer from the Hebrew University excavated the mountain extensively. He discovered the underground tunnels, the remains of Lower Herodium, Herod’s tomb, the coffins and the royal theatre. He also excavated other Herodian sites, and initiated the national park project.

Click on any picture below to view the gallery in a lightbox.

Cautionary note and Takeaway:

The past does not seem that remote or exotic when we pay attention to the news today. As democracy is being eroded here and elsewhere, it is of paramount importance that we learn from the past, for good and for bad, and make sure we avoid our ancestors’ mistakes.. 

This post belongs in a post series about Israeli Nature Reserves and Parks, under the general category of  Israel’s Best at Planet’s Daughter Website.

This is an ongoing project currently under construction. 

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