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Lois Michal Unger: Herod at the Israel Museum

JERUSALEM – The Herod Exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem gives the viewer a glimpse at a man of his time, Herod the Great and the milieu he lived in.

In 40 BCE Rome was ruled by a Triumvirate, Octavian Augustus, Mark Antony and Lepidus. With the backing of his friend Antony, Herod was appointed Roman ruler of Judea, then a Roman client kingdom.

He married Mariamne, a beautiful Jewish Hasmonean princess. Perhaps he made this marriage to show the Jewish people he ruled that he was the genuine article, one of them. Mariamne was the last princess of the Maccabean dynasty that had waged war and won against the Greeks who had invaded Judea. The Maccabean dynasty ruled Judea from 141 to 37 BCE.

Herod was interested in all that was fine and beautiful; his standard was Rome but he set out to magnify and beautify the land he ruled.

“Our palace resembles the palaces of Augustus and Livia in Rome,” he liked to say to his pretty bride about their winter palace in Jericho, where they went to escape the cold Jerusalem winters.

The historian Josephus places Cleopatra in Jerusalem during this period so I will take an imaginative leap to a visit by Mark Antony and Cleopatra to the palace in Jericho admiring the sculptured busts of Agrippa, Augustus and Herod, and the statuette of Cleopatra. And praising the mosaic floors and delicate paintings that adorned the walls. Herod was especially proud of the frescoes on the walls which were painted a reddish color made from an expensive pigment called cinnabar imported from Spain. The exhibit also includes glassware and silverware, beautiful and looking as if they could be used today.

Cleopatra liked the balsam perfume made only in Jericho and asked Antony to give her Jericho and also Ein Gedi. After sampling Jericho’s balsam perfume, perhaps Cleopatra and her entourage went to nearby Ein Gedi to sample the peach perfume made there. There is a mosaic floor in an ancient synagogue in Ein Gedi with a warning inscribed that it was forbidden to give out the formula for making their peach perfume.

Herod, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and Mariamne might have dined on fish with garam sauce. Traces of this sauce were found in tall pottery jars, called ‘cancan’ in Hebrew. Onions and apples were also found in the tall jars. Herod loved the area’s fine wine. I’ve seen the ancient gats where wine was made in Lahish, a reasonable distance from Jericho. So he might have chosen wine from the very wine press I saw.

They say Mark Antony took on Egyptian ways and gave up Roman ways. This was noted by the hierarchy in Rome. An event followed that changed the ancient world. The forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at the hands of Marcus Agrippa, Commander of the Roman forces, in the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide. The battle of Actium marked the end of the Roman Republic. Octavius Augustus became Emperor of Rome.

Herod went to Rome, removed the crown he wore and threw himself at Augustus’s feet. “Do with me what you will,” he said. Augustus told him to put his crown back on his head and gave him more land to rule.

Maybe Herod became unhinged by the battle of Actium. At any rate, he had Mariamne killed in 29 BC. He killed their two sons in 7 BC.

A few years earlier, leaving on a journey to Egypt, he left orders with Joseph, his sister Salome’s husband, to kill his wife and mother-in-law if anything happened to him. He reasoned that since Mariamne was so beautiful she would surely remarry if he died and he didn’t want that. Joseph revealed the plan to Mariamne. This led to his death and the beginning of Herod’s suspicions that his wife was unfaithful to him. On another trip, to Rhodes to meet Augustus, the same instructions were given to Sohemus, who also told her. Mariamne grew cold towards her husband. Herod’s paranoia was fed by his sister Salome, who insinuated that Mariamne was going to poison him. A eunuch, who was close to Mariamne, was tortured to reveal further information. The eunuch confessed that Sohemus had told her of the plan. Herod killed Sohemus and Mariamne was executed.

Talmudic sources say that after her death, Herod was so dismayed that he had her body put in a bathtub of honey for seven years.

What Herod is mostly remembered for are the architectural buildings he built, including an entire city on the Mediterranean coast, Cesarea.

The Temple of Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezer in 586 BC. The SecondTemple was rebuilt in 519. Herod enlarged the Temple Mount and beautified the Temple in the eighteenth year of his reign 20-19 BC, adding carved decorated stones which were painted gold, blue and red to the outside structure. He fastened a golden eagle on the TempleGate. Jews tore it down. All that remains of the SecondTemple is one wall. The Herod stones can be identified, the colors long gone.

If you travel south of Jerusalem and east of Rachel’s Tomb, you can see the hill of Herodium, where Herod built a palace compound that included his palace, a smaller palace for his staff, a swimming pool, so large that guests could go row boating on it, bath houses, a theatre, gardens. When he decided to have his tomb built on the very highest hill in the area, he brought in workers and sand to cover up the palaces and gardens.

The site was discovered by archaeologists in the 19th century but it’s only since 1960 that excavations were begun. Much of what we know about ancient sites are due to Josephus, a Jewish historian. He was a General in the war between Rome and Judea in 135 but he went over to the Roman side and spent the rest of his life in Rome where he wrote ‘The Wars of the Jews’ and ‘Jewish Antiquities”. In these books he spoke of Herodium and the fantastic palaces Herod built there.

Herod’s Tomb was discovered by HebrewUniversity archaeologist, Professor Ehud Netzer in 2007. The approach to the site was a staircase built into a hill. Professor Netzer had searched for this site for 35 years. Three years after his discovery, in 2010, he leaned against a railing he thought was secure at Herodium and fell 15 feet, later dying of his injuries.

Herod died in 4 BC. The tomb Netzer found and identified as Herod’s was broken into hundreds of pieces. According to archaeological evidence and the writings of Josephus, breaking his tomb into pieces occurred during the years 66-72 during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans.
(Lois Michal Unger)

From the Central bus station in Jerusalem visitors can take the #35 bus that goes to the Israel Museum. There is an internet site that can provide a virtual visit. Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey at the Israel Museum Jerusalem.

Typing Israel Museum Jerusalem will lead you to information about the museum – hours, newsletter, etc.


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