Located 12 km south of Jerusalem, in the Judean desert, Herodium looks like an extinct volcano, but it really is a fort built by King Herod the Great between 23 and 15 BC. King Herod’s palace and fortress was built atop a natural hill, raised to a greater height by heaping earth around the walls, creating a cone-shaped mountain. The complex was surrounded by double walls seven stories high, within which Herod built a palace that included halls, courtyards and opulent bathhouses. At the base of the fortress was an impressive royal compound with magnificent gardens. A special aqueduct brought water to the desert from the area of Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem. Being the highest peak in the Judean desert, Herodium commanded a breath taking view, overlooking the desert with the mountains of Moab to the east, and the Judean Hills to the west.
According to the Roman Jewish historian Josephus, Herodium was built on the spot where Herod won a victory over his Hasmonean and Parthian enemies in 40 BC. To commemorate the event, the king built a fortress and a palace there, which he named after himself. He also built, in the plain below the hill, an administrative center for the region. The importance of Herodium to the king is clear from the fact that it is the only monument he constructed to which he gave his name. Since the site had little strategic value to warrant the construction of a fort, it’s believed that Herodium’s sole purpose was to provide a place for the king to live out his last years.
After Herod’s death in 4 BC, Herodium became part of the kingdom of his son Archelaus, who ruled for about 10 years. The Roman procurators then held the place until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 AD. During this revolt, rebels entrenched themselves at Herodium until the Romans defeated them in 71 AD. The fortified mountain palace served as an important center for the rebels during the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the 2nd century. As part of their defense measures, the rebels dug secret tunnels around the cisterns, and hid there. These tunnels can still be explored today.
The site remained deserted until the 5th, when a large community of monks took residence in the area and constructed four churches at the base of the hill. The settlement at Lower Herodium continued to exist until the 8th century, after which Herodium lay abandoned. It was only in the 1970s, that archaeologists began exploring the site. As the excavation progressed, extensive restoration was carried out on the structures of Herodium. Today it is possible to walk on a comfortable path to the top of the fortress, to climb its walls and to enjoy, as in the past, the view of the surrounding region.
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