Finding King Herod’s Tomb
After a 35-year search, an Israeli archaeologist is certain he has solved the mystery of the biblical figure’s final resting place
Source: Barbara Kreiger in Smithsonian Magazine, 7-1-09
Shielding my eyes from the glare of the morning sun, I look toward the horizon and the small mountain that is my destination: Herodium, site of the fortified palace of King Herod the Great. I’m about seven miles south of Jerusalem, not far from the birthplace of the biblical prophet Amos, who declared: “Let justice stream forth like water.” Herod’s reign over Judea from 37 to 4 B.C. is not remembered for justice but for its indiscriminate cruelty. His most notorious act was the murder of all male infants in Bethlehem to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy heralding the birth of the Messiah. There is no record of the decree other than the Gospel of Matthew, and biblical scholars debate whether it actually took place, but the story is in keeping with a man who arranged the murders of, among others, three of his own sons and a beloved wife.
Long an object of scholarly as well as popular fascination, Herodium, also called Herodion, was first positively identified in 1838 by the American scholar Edward Robinson, who had a knack for locating biblical landmarks. After scaling the mountain and comparing his observations with those of the first century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Robinson concluded that “all these particulars…leave scarcely a doubt, that this was Herodium, where the [Judean] tyrant sought his last repose.” Robinson’s observation was confirmed later that century by Conrad Schick, the famous German architect and archaeologist who conducted extensive surveys of Jerusalem and its nearby sites.
But where precisely was the king entombed? At the summit of Herodium? At the base? Inside the mountain itself? Josephus didn’t say. By the late 1800s, Herod’s tomb had become one of biblical archaeology’s most sought-after prizes. And for more than a century archaeologists scoured the site. Finally, in 2007, Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University announced that after 35 years of archaeological work he had found Herod’s resting place. The news made headlines worldwide—”A New Discovery May Solve the Mystery of the Bible’s Bloodiest Tyrant,” trumpeted the London Daily Mail…