No doubt about it, King Herod has a bad name. Historians may doubt the passage in Matthew that has him ordering the slaughter of Bethlehem infants in hopes of eliminating the newborn Messiah, but as Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in his wonderful Jerusalem: The Biography, “It is ironic that this monster should be particularly remembered for the one crime he neglected to commit.” The undisputed record of Herod’s cruelty is, after all, not short: He executed one wife’s grandfather, her mother, than the wife herself, later in life killing both of their adult sons, plus another from an earlier marriage. The ancient historian Flavius Josephus details a good deal of torture along the way, as well as the relatively subtle elimination of a priestly brother-in-law “in a swimming accident.” He was held under by the king’s henchmen.
And yet, visitors to the Holy Land he governed for Rome cannot help but come away impressed with one surpassing quality about the despot: The man could really build. Those giant stone blocks that make up the Wailing Wall? Herodian. The Roman Empire’s man on the ground in Judea, a Jewish convert who played the Caesars like a lute, worked stone on a scale that 2,000 years later still knocks back even a jaded tourist. The mountaintop redoubt at Masada? That was his. Likewise the splendid harbor city Caesarea. Sure, the ruins of both include some of the stumpy columns and knee-high suggestions of what once were walls. But the frank pleasure of so much of Herod’s projects is that the marvel of them is still right there. By the time he reigned, the technology that built Egypt‘s pyramids had migrated to the Levant. Glance at the wall surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City and it’s clear to the least trained eye exactly where the fantastical Herodian blocks leave off and the earlier stonework begins. Everything else looks puny.
Which is why the entrance to the Israel Museum’s striking new exhibition, “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey,” comes as a surprise. The show starts in his throne room, reconstructed as it was found in a winter palace in Jericho, where the monarch hoped to reverse the disease that was causing his body to slowly putrefy even as he continued to take breath. With a square footage roughly that of a family rec room, the room is intimate, but also lush: The walls, transferred largely intact, are rectangular panels of color that transmit the feeling of being inside a Mark Rothko painting — blue, brown and the rusty red known as cinnabar, a dragon’s blood shade favored by high-ranking Romans and, made from mercury sulfide, nearly as toxic as it was beautiful. Herod loved it.
The exhibition, which opened Feb. 12 and will run for nine months, is massive yet not huge. That is, some 30 tons of stone were brought into the Jerusalem museum, then tucked into a handful of rooms lifted from Jericho, where he knew he was dying, and Herodium, his burial site just outside Bethlehem. (No mention is made of the Palestinian claims to the sites, both of which are on the West Bank.) The man-made mountain was excavated by the late Ehud Netzer, an Israeli archeologist who made Herod his life’s work, and after discovering the burial site, told the museum “it wants to be an exhibit.” He took curators and restorers there in 2010, and leaned on a railing, which gave way. “He fell to his death,” says James S. Snyder, the museum director, “which in a way could not be a stranger and more Biblical story in itself.”
There’s more than Herod here. The museum has borrowed a sexy figurine of Cleopatra and a bust of Marc Antony, the couple Herod backed against a peeved Rome, only to end up on the wrong side. But while the losing pair famously committed suicide – she by asp – Herod not only kept his job, but flourished under Caesar Augustus; some of the marble in his palaces was mined from the emperor’s private quarry. The episode offers more than a hint of Herod’s political skills. For the 33 years he governed Judea for Rome, Herod may have had trouble governing himself, but he was clearly mindful of the tensions between his subjects and their far-off masters, finding a balance that disappeared not long after he did: In 70 AD, after two of his successors – also known as Herod, further muddying the name – the Jewish rebellion against Rome ended with the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Second Temple that was his masterwork. The Western Wall is the last piece that still exists, a partial foundation for what had been the largest and grandest house of worship in the (pagan) Roman Empire. “This was Herod’s most serious attempt at winning the hearts of the Jews,” says David Mevorah, the exhibit’s co-curator. Born to a half-Arab, half-Jewish family (which had converted, at that), Herod was both half-caste and clearly drawn to Roman ways, not to mention the sensual pursuits they emulated from the Greeks. “The Jews don’t trust him,” Mevorah says. “He knows that.”
The curator spent three years on the exhibit, “the opportunity,” he says, “ to see other sides of Herod, besides his viciousness.” And? He is a bridge of culture between Rome and Judea,” Mevorah says. ”He’s a great builder. He is not an easy person.” Another pause. “I wouldn’t say you fall in love with him, but he certainly gets to you.”
The curator pointed out three stone sarcophagi recovered from the tomb at Herodium. Each was found empty, presumably looted by grave robbers long ago. Two are off-white, and it’s guesswork who was buried in them; maybe Herod’s first two murdered sons. But it’s a pretty good bet that the reddish one held the king. The decorations were one clue. Plus it was found in pieces, many many pieces. Even after painstaking reassembly, the eye is drawn to the nicks and dents of hammers blows that rained down on the thing.
“Someone,” says Mevorah, “ was very angry at whoever was buried in that sarcophagus.”