Herod: The Life and Death of the King of Judea


The idea to publish a special album on the discovery of Herod’s grand mausoleum at Herodium by professor Ehud Netzer was born when the curators of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, started to discuss plans for an exhibition on the discovery with Netzer. Since then, Netzer died in a tragic accident at the site and the exhibition grew to become the largest archaeological exhibition ever mounted in Israel. As we put together this album, the connection became obvious: Herod, Netzer, and the exhibition – one led into the other and all three are intertwined.

As we documented the preservation and reconstruction work in the Israel Museum’s laboratory, in preparation for the exhibition, we set out to interview the people who had worked with Netzer in his quest for the missing tomb. We conducted dozens of interviews, in Israel and abroad. Netzer was a brilliant archaeologist of outstanding skills as well as a very modest man. For everyone who worked with him, he was a teacher, mentor, and friend. Many of his students form the backbone of Israeli archaeology today. For them, he was always Ehud, never professor Netzer.

This special album is not about history and archaeology. It is about people, their lives and heritage. It describes the extraordinary character of Herod, the only commoner the Romans ever appointed king. It is about Netzer, the architect turned archaeologist, as well as the students and scholars who followed in his footsteps. Finally, it also is about the people at the Israel Museum, the curators and especially the laboratory staff, who spent three years painstakingly reconstructing the marvels of the Herodian court.

The Judaism that is practiced today was first formed during the waning years of the Hasmonean kingdom, a time when two central factions developed in the Jewish people: Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducee faction was the party of the priestly, royal, and noble families of Judea. For them, genealogy was paramount (a priest can only be the son of a priest, he had to be born into it) together with the Temple (a divinely ordained sacred precinct to which only priests had full access). On the other hand, the Pharisees, the spiritual forefathers of the Jewish sages of the Talmud, were ready to let anybody who had the skill and aptitude become a teacher, leader, or rabbi. For them, the central place was the synagogue, a place created by the community without divine intervention. These two worldviews were developing while all the kingdoms around Judea were being conquered and immediately fully incorporated into the Roman Empire. The Jewish kingdom was the only one to remain autonomous, that is, ruled by its own kings, upholding and developing its own culture and heritage.

Herod was the one who made this Jewish kingdom possible. Due to him, Judea was not transformed into a Roman province and Judaism received another century or so to evolve. Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai was able to smuggle himself out of besieged Jerusalem and recreate Judaism in Yavne, the Judaism of the Pharisees, without the Temple.

To his enemies, Herod was a cruel foe. He ruled his kingdom ruthlessly and with an iron fist. Even so, the Jewish kingdom prospered under Herod like it had never prospered before. A record-breaking 32 years of peace, the construction of new cities together with the rebuilding of those that had been devastated in over 100 years of constant warfare, the building of the Temple, expanding the areas under cultivation, especially in the desert, the creation of the second-largest port in the Roman Empire, and economic prosperity together with a rise in the standards of living – all these were also part of Herod’s reign.

For four decades, Netzer studied Herod. He brought him back into our consciousness, made him tangible and especially relevant for the Jewish people and the modern State of Israel. Herod was the king who saw the key to survival not only in accepting the new global world that the Romans had created, but also in becoming an integral part of that world. In his dusty kingdom, on the edge of the desert, he created a land of technological innovation, architectural excellence, and economic development. Facing the choice between Sadducees and Pharisees, he chose the latter, preferring the viability of life to the pedigree of birth or the divinity of place. The exhibition at the Israel Museum is about these very contemporary issues – a choice that must be made by every generation, in those days as in these times.

Yadin Roman


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