With a rich history dating back thousands of years, its pretty incredible that some of the Holy Land’s most renowned sites can be traced to the lifetime of one individual, King Herod the Great, who reigned over the land over 2,000 years ago. Lifetime over 2,000 years ago! The 40-year building spree that defined Herod produced magnificent structures, many of which still stand today.
Examples of King Herod’s fortresses, palaces or water systems can be found throughout the region.
THE DEAD SEA AREA
Built between 37 and 31 BCE, Herod built Masada as a refuge from his enemies. Sitting 1300 feet above sea level, Herod chose this natural horst plateau, once occupied by the Hasmonean king Alexander Janneus to build his home away from home. Remains of the majestic Masada, with its vast array of water cisterns, storerooms, palaces, soldiers’ quarters, bathhouses and the magnificent Northern three-tiered palace that was once carved into the massive bedrock can still be explored. If you’re looking for a physical challenge, climb the 1,300 feet high path leading up to the fortress compound. As you climb the ancient “Snake Path” whose serpentine trail leads you to the mountain fortress, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the Dead Sea and the surrounding sandstone mountains. If you’d like to save your energy for all of the antiquities waiting for you at the top, take the cable car for a dramatic ride which still affords the great views of the Dead Sea to the east and the jutting s mountains that surround you.
But Masada wasn’t only important during the time of Herod. Little more than 70 years later, Masada would serve as the stage to one of the most dramatic battles in history. After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, a community of Jews fled to Masada. For three years they lived in Herod’s old palaces, built a synagogue and ritual baths and survived a months-long siege by the Roman army’s illustrious 10th legion. In the end, however, the 966 Jewish residents of Masada opted for a mass suicide rather than succumb to Roman slavery. You can still see the “lots room” where archaeologists found pottery shards inscribed with “ben Yair”, the name of the leader of the Jewish rebels.
Masada’s history continued however, as a community of monks would make this hilltop there hideaway during the Byzantine era in the 4th and 5th centuries. You can still see remains of their church and its mosaics and frescos.
With its rich history, elaborate Herodian water system and well-preserve ruins, it’s no surprise that Masada became a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the most visited spots in all of Israel.
Herod was a master politician. Even when he initially backed the loser, he changed his allegiance so quickly that he was usually rewarded for his “longstanding” support. That’s how he was awarded control over the oldest city in the world; Jericho. This city, located more than 1000 feet below sea level, is the same location where the Biblical prophet Joshua gave the command to blow the trumpets that would allow the Israelites to conquer this city. One thousand years later, this site would become home to a Hasmonean fortress, and then expanded again by Herod. Wandering along ruins one marvels at the vast mountain landscape. Remains of ancient burial chambers carved into the surrounding bedrock make for intriguing exploration. You can see vestiges of the expansive water system that filled the swimming pool that was the sight of the dramatic assassination of the high priest Aristobulus III by Herod’s mother-in-law as well as magnificent ancient mosaics near the sunken gardens.
JERUSALEM AND ENVIRONS
Just 10 miles south of Jerusalem and even closer to Bethlehem, King Herod built the Herodium fortress after his victory against the Parthians. This unique site is the only Herodian complex that was built in a spot that prior to construction was completely desolate. Masada had once been occupied by the Hasmoneans. Caesarea had once been a Phoenician port, and Jerusalem had already been the Jewish capital for 1,000 years when Herod expanded the Temple mount. But Herodium was pure, unadulterated Herod. Its unique landscape can be seen miles away with its volcano-like shape. This hill is man-made and is a result of Herod’s workmen shoring up the double walls which ran over 200 feet in diameter! Ascending to the top one finds the remains of Herod’s fortress, the lookout tower, the opulent bathhouses and cisterns. Equally fascinating are the remains of an ancient synagogue used by Jews who defended themselves from the Romans during the Great Revolt in 70 CE and later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE.
After you’ve explored the fortress area, escape the heat by descending into the tunnels below. Built by the Bar Kochba fighters thee tunnels connected to Herod’s massive water cisterns enabling the fighters to hide from the approaching Roman army. And as you look out over the base of Herodium, you’ll see the remains of an ancient country club where Mark Antony as well as Herod’s other royal guests were treated to lavish pool parties complete with musical entertainment and the best imported wine served pool side. Because this was Herod’s favorite spot and commanded an uninterrupted view of his beloved Jerusalem, he demanded to be buried on this magnificent site. In 2007, Ehud Netzer discovered Herod‘s tomb after 40 years of searching.
King Herod’s most famous building project was the expansion of the Temple Mount in which he expanded the Temple and more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount area. Then, to insure the physical security safety of this holiest of sites, he planned a retaining wall. The western side of this wall, known in Hebrew as The Kotel, or the Western Wall, is the holiest site in Judaism today. When viewing today’s Western wall I one sees the top 28 layers, however, another 17 layers remain underground! Built of limestone quarried from the nearby Zedekiah’s Cave situated just outside the Muslim Quarter, by today’s Damascus Gate, the stones at eye-level represent the typical Herodian design with beautifully chiseled edges. But gazing upwards, note how the stone style changes, evidence of later additions built by Umayyad Muslims and later still, by the Ottomans. You don’t have to be Jewish to participate in the tradition of writing a personal prayer on a small piece of paper and sticking it into the cracks of these well-worn stones.
The Dome of El Aqsa and the Mosque of Omar are located on the Temple Mount.
If you’re planning a visit to Israel anytime up to mid- fall 2013, include a trip to the Herod exhibit currently at the Israel Museum for a thorough history as well as artifacts from one of the most controversial kings in the history of the Holy Land.
The city of Hebron is most notable for the Cave of Machpelah, which is the traditional burial site of biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham and his wife Sarah, their son Isaac and grandson Jacob, and their wives Rebecca and Leah, as well as Jacob’s son Joseph. (Gen. 23:17-20)
The massive edifice built over the cave, which we can see today, is the result of multiple transformations and renovations since the construction of the huge outer enclosure (65 x 35 m) by the architectural mastermind Herod the Great. The thick walls, built of massive stone blocks with the characteristic recessed margins, reach around 16 m high. The exact location of the orginal entrance is hard to identify.
The place is undoubtedly holy for the tree monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are assumptions that during the Byzantine times a church was built inside the enclosure, which was replaced by a mosque during the Ummayad period around the beginning of the 8th century. In the 11th century, after the Crusader conquest, the mosque was changed into a church built in a Gothic style and dedicated to St. Abraham. The main structure of the church can be seen till this day. The site became again a mosque after Saladin’s conquest in 1187. In 1967 the sanctuary was shared to create inside it also a place for a synagogue for Jewish believers.
Apollonia National Park
Apollonia National Park is one of Israel’s smaller national treasures and not nearly as known as other archaeological sites. Nevertheless, set atop the cliffs just north of Herzliah Pituach overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Appollonia is home to amazing antiquities dating back to the Phoenicians who settled this coastal town about 500 years before King Herod. Though the Roman villa here may actually date to a few years after his death, with its Crusader-era the site is a worthy visit. Two walking paths snake their way through Apollonia’s ruins; one which descends partway down the cliffs is designed for more experienced hikers while the upper one is relatively flat and suitable for people in wheelchairs or pushing strollers. Only 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv, Apollonia is a perfect site for those long on interest in antiquities but short on time!
Despite his thirst for power, no one knew how to say “thank-you” better than Herod. Herod would show his gratitude by building fortresses in honor of Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who granted Herod the province of Judea to rule. But Herod realized that in order to impress the Romans they needed beauty was key. In 22 BCE, one year after his workers started building the Herodion Fortress, Herod embarked on one of his most ambitious building projects, Caesarea. He enlarged the natural port at what was formerly called Stratton’s Tower, renamed it Caesarea in honor of the emperor and create a harbor to rival the magnificent port of Alexandria. Located on the coast one hour north of Tel Aviv, Caesarea is home to a Roman-era amphitheater which even today offer some of the best acoustics. An impressive Hippodrome once that welcomed 10,000 spectators to the fight-to-the death lion tamers and chariot races, is reminiscent of a Charlton Heston’s nail-biting portrayal of a charioteer in the famous movie, Ben Hur.
Located in Samaria, the capital in the ancient northern Kingdom of Israel, Sebaste National Park is located about seven and a half miles north of Nablus. The Old Testament site of Samaria (it is mentioned 109 times in the Old Testament) was founded by Omri (ruled 885–874 BC) and it was once the capital city of the Northern Kingdom of Israel . Like most of other Herod buildings Sebaste was originally built by Ahab, the son of Omri and husband of Jezbeel. The Assyrians captured in in 723B.C, thereby ending the Israelite rule.
Sebaste contains a fortress and palace dating from the ninth-eighth centuries BCE when prophets such as Elijah warned people of what would happen if they did not follow the word of God. But Sebaste flourished during the Roman period as well. The Roman Emperor Augustus gave the city of Sebaste to Herod and he then rebuilt it in typically grand Herod style complete with an impressive, kilometer long cardo containing 600 columns to an impressive gate. He also built a forum, a Roman basilica, stadium, temple, hippodrome, houses, storeshouses and a theater surrounded by a wall and gates. Situated in the Samarian mountains, the site enjoys gentle mountain breezes . The ancient Roman theater and stadium were both built in honor of Augustus Caesar and the remains of a mosque built over a 7th century church dedicated to John the Baptist, who’s head was kept here (according to some traditions)
Banias National Park, located in the Golan Heights is one of the favorite spots in Israel for tourists and natives alike. The hike along striking springs and waterfalls offer a cool respite from the summer heat and the impressive antiquities, carved into the natural stone face, are not to be missed. The Greek king Antiochus III won an important battle here and, as a result, a Greek Temple dedicated to the god Pan (Pan = Ban and is how Banias got its name) was built. But Herod also recognized the beauty of this site. Situated along the Banias Springs, one of the sources of the Jordan River, Herod chose this spot as the perfect place to erect a temple in honor of his patron Augustus Caesar. Not long after his death, it was here that Simon Peter declared that, “You are the Christ, the son of the living G-d.” Then Jesus blessed Simon saying, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:16-19). Banias is filled with plane and poplars and spots abound for sitting and reflecting on the importance of this site in the life of Jesus.
While you may not be able to visit all of the destinations here, you can be assured that no matter where you visit in Israel, you’re not far from one of Herod’s great masterpieces.
Travelujah offers a new 7 day Herod in the Holy land tour for groups interested in studying Herod in depth. The tour includes site visits to several important Herod sites and museums throughout the Holy Land accompanied by an expert tour guide specializing in the second temple period, Herod and archaeology. For more information contact Travelujah.
Onnie Schiffmiller is a licensed Israeli tour guide.
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If you go:
For contact information:
- Masada – There is a one day Masada and Dead Sea tour that departs daily from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. For more information visit this site. Tel: 8-995-9333
- Jericho – There is a one day Jericho and Bethlehem tour that departs three times a week. For more details please visit this link.
- Hebron – Travelujah can help you to arrange a tour with a private guide. Abrahams Tours has regularly scheduled tour to Hebron every Wednesday. For more details check: here.
- Herodium can be visited in a specially arranged day tour by contacting Travelujah. For site information visit this link. Tel: 02–654-1255
- Western Wall – Open 24 hours a day.
- Apollonia – Although there are no one day tours that include Apollonia the site is easily accessible to those with their own transportation and is about a 25 minute drive time from Tel Aviv. For more information click here. Tel: 03-903-3130
- Caesarea– A group one day tour is offered three times weekly that includes Caesarea, Acre and Rosh Hanikra. For more information visit this link. Tel: 04-626-7080
- Sebastiya – Sebastiya is best visited with a private tour guide. Visits do need to be prearranged in advance through the parks authority director, Moti Fee, at 057-7762053 or by phoning 09-8841623. (Note Sebastiya is located within the Palestinian Authority areas)
- Banias – A guaranteed group tour to Banias is offered as part of the 3 day Golan and Galilee tour that is offered weekly. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 04-690-2577
Temple Mount Visit – Available visiting hours for non-Muslims are restricted and are as follows:
Summer: Sundays – Thursdays: 8:30 am – 11:30 am , 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm.
Winter: Sundays – Thursdays: 7:30 am – 10:30 am , 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm.
The Temple Mount is closed to tourists on Fridays and Saturdays.
It is recommended to call in advance to find out regarding changes. Tel: 02-622-6250