A magnificent mausoleum in which King Herod the Great, the biblical-era ruler of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, was laid to rest at the end of his 37-year reign of terror is the centerpiece of the most ambitious archeological exhibition ever mounted in Israel.
Herod’s burial chamber, discovered less than six years ago after a 40-year search, has been reconstructed within the Israel Museum in Jerusalem for the first ever exhibition to focus on the murderous king. Thirty tonnes of artifacts were excavated from the site of the tomb, the desert palace of Herodium, situated near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, for the eight-month show, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey.”
During his bloodthirsty tyranny, he executed at least one of his wives and three of his sons as well as countless rabbis, opponents and people who simply got in his way. According to the Gospel of Matthew, he ordered the killing of all newborn babies following the birth of Jesus, although some academics say his son, also called Herod, was responsible for the butchery (and others dispute it happened at all).
An ornate red flower-carved sarcophagus, believed to be Herod’s, which was discovered smashed into rubble, has been painstakingly pieced together for the exhibition. In total, about 250 archaeological finds are on display, alongside models and graphic displays of his palaces.
Herod’s death at the age of 70 followed an excruciating illness.
According British history writer Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Herod collapsed, suffering an agonizing and gruesome putrefaction: It started as an itching all over with a glowing sensation within his intestines, then developed into a swelling of his feet and belly, complicated by an ulceration of the colon. His body started to ooze clear fluid, he could scarcely breathe, a vile stench emanated from him, and his genitals swelled grotesquely until his penis and scrotum burst out in suppurating gangrene that then gave birth to a seething mass of worms.”
His body was taken from Jericho to Herodium to be entombed on his man-made mountain. The mausoleum was discovered in May 2007 by Ehud Netzer, an Israeli archeologist who had devoted his career to searching for it.
Three years later, during the first visit to the site by the Israel Museum’s curators and restorers, Netzer fell to his death after leaning on a barrier. The exhibition is dedicated to his memory.
The show has met with opposition from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which says Israel is in breach of international law by exhibiting artifacts excavated and removed from the West Bank. Hamdan Taha, a PA official responsible for antiquities, said the Israel Museum had not consulted it.