Inside the Herodion

This view is from the outer wall of the upper fortress of the Herodion. You can see the astonishing magnitude of this palace. Herod's workers began with a natural hill considerably higher than other hills in the area. They constructed double cyndrical walls nearly 220 feet in diameter, the inside of which can be seen here. The finished cylinder was more than 90 feet high.Between the two walls, seven stories contained apartments, chambers, and storage rooms. The top three stories have been destroyed over time, so you must imagine that the wall the picture was taken from was more than 40 feet higher.

On each of the compass points were defensive towers. Those on the south, north, and west extended outside the cylinder but not inside, so they are not visible in this photo. The massive eastern tower was 55 feet in diameter and more than 120 feet high. The view from the tower was spectacular. Inside the upper stories of this tower were the royal apartments of Herod and his family.

Since Herod was buried in the Herodion and his tomb has never been found, some have suggested he is buried in the base of the tower. Ehud Netzer, the archaeologist responsible for excavating this fortress-palace, believes that is unlikely because Jewish people were usually buried outside the places where they lived. He proposes a site near the lower palace, which has not yet been excavated.

Inside the cylinder were several magnificent structures. On the right side, next to the eastern tower, are the remains of the peristyle garden. Columns stood around the outside with a roof to the wall outside the garden. This left a large area in the center open to the sky for trees, vines, and bushes. On the far end of the peristyle was a semicircular niche where statues were placed. Just above it, on the right, was a doorway that led through a 200-foot tunnel, then down 300 stairs to the colonnaded terrace below. On the lower left are the remains of a large reception hall, called a triclinium, with benches around the outside. Originally, this room had a roof and its walls were covered with colored plaster. The floor was probably a mosaic.

During the First Jewish Revolt, well after Herod's death, the reception hall was turned into a synagogue by the religious zealots who defended it against the Romans. Beyond the ramp into the fortress (left behind by the archaeological team and not part of Herod's structure) is the bath complex. It included a vaulted caldarium (hot bath), a small, round tepidarium (warm bath), and a small frigidarium (cold bath). One can imagine Herod enjoying the luxurious warmth of his bath while Jesus was born in a cold stable nearby.

In the distance, in the top center of the photo, looking northeast, is the city of Bethlehem. Today it is a large town of more than 25,000 people. In Jesus' day it was a small town of, at most, a few hundred. The proximity between the massive fortress of Herod and the place where the Messiah was born is a graphic picture of the way the lives of these two Jewish kings were both intertwined and in stark contrast.