Fortress and Palace - Magnificent Site, Royal Quarters, Pool and Colonnade

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King Herod the Great, as portrayed in the TV series 'Rome'

Herod the Great
Mad, bad, dangerous

The so-called 'Mona Lisa of Sepphoris'

Bible Archeaology Sepphoris

Diagram of the sections of an ancient tomb

Ancient tombs

Bible villains

Bible villains






A commanding site

The Fortress of Herodium from above

The Fortress of Herodium - a man-made hill built up layer by layer 
until it had sufficient height to dominate the surrounding landscape

HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: artist's reconstruction of Herodium with towers,living quarters and storage areas

 Reconstruction of Herodium, showing towers, living quarters and storage areas

Herod the Great built Herodium (or Herodion) circa 24 BC as both a palace and a fortress.  The Herodium sat on the flattened top of a hill that rises about 400 feet above the surrounding countryside. The roof and upper stories of the Herodium, where there once would have been the private apartments of the royal family, no longer exist. The remains of four towers, however, are still visible. 

Josephus describes the Herodium as follows, "The fortress...is naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast.  At intervals it has round towers....Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and ornament at the same time (Antiquities of the Jews 15.324).  

Also, according to Josephus, after Herod died in Jericho his body was taken to the Herodium and buried there "in a bier of solid gold studded with precious stones" (Antiquities 17.191-99; Wars of the Jews 1.656-73).  His royal status guaranteed a sumptuous burial. 

HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: map of the location of Herodium

Herodium was close enough to Jerusalem to make it easy to travel back and forth. 
Note that is was also close to Bethlehem. The meeting of Herod and the Wise Men probably took place at Herodium.



Royal living quarters


The central courtyard and reception area of King Herod's palace at Herodium

The central courtyard and reception area of Herodium


HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: central courtyard and atrium of Herodium

Central courtyard and atrium


HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Corinthian pillar from one of the columns in the central courtyard

A Corinthian pillar from one of the columns in the central courtyard


HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Remains of the central bathhouse

Remains of the central bathhouse

Vast water cisterns

Cisterns beneath the fortress, filled with rainwater which was channeled from above, assured its water supply. In addition, three very large cisterns were cut into the slope outside the fortress (near the entrance to the staircase) and rainwater was channeled into them from the hillside. Water was drawn from these cisterns by servants, who carried it to the cistern on the top of the hill, which was probably always kept full.

HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Stairway leading into one of the water storage areas

Stairway leading down into one of the water storage areas

HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: underground water cistern

A large water storage cistern at Herodium

Two underground water cisterns


Gardens, pool and colonnade

At the foot of the hill at Herodium stood another palace, its walls plastered and painted to imitate masonry. There was a pool with a tiny ornamental house in the middle, a surrounding portico and a luxurious bathhouse. This extravagant use of water in a fairly dry area was a statement of Herod's wealth and power.

This pleasure garden was well planned, the buildings and gardens placed on a north-south axis. The buildings were constructed around a large pool (70 x 46 m., and 3 m. deep), which was filled by water from the aqueduct especially built to carry water from the springs at Artas near Solomon's pools to the west.

The pool was plastered to prevent seepage and used as the main reservoir of Herodium, as well as for swimming. The foundations of a round building (15 m. in diameter) were found in the center of the pool. It once had a roof supported by a row of columns and was probably a pavilion for relaxation and entertaining. 

The lower pool at Herodium was once surrounded by extensive gardens

The pool was once surrounded by extensive gardens

The pool was surrounded by extensive gardens. Six metre-wide porticos, consisting of columns adorned with Ionic capitals surrounded the gardens on three sides, to a length of about 250 m. Halls, each measuring 110 x 10 m., were built along the eastern and the western sides of the pool. The eastern hall was built on a 13 m.-wide and extremely high terrace wall. The octagonal room at the center of the western hall had walls decorated with pilasters and frescos. It is assumed that this room served as a reception hall, or perhaps even as the king's throne room when he resided at Herodium.

The pool complex was surrounded by buildings of various sorts. In the north was a large structure that included storage areas and servants' quarters. In the northwest a warehouse was uncovered and fragments of dozens of ceramic storage jars were found among the debris. 


Lower Herodium, showing foundations of the pool and central pavilion

Lower Herodium, showing foundations of the pool and central pavilion


Columns of the portico surrounding the pool and garden

HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Stairs leading from the colonnade

Stairs leading from the colonnade down into the garden and pool area

In the southwest a large bathhouse was excavated, which probably served the royal entourage and the king's guests. It comprised a number of rooms and pools, a caldarium (hot room) heated by the hypocaust system (the floor was raised on supports, allowing hot air to circulate below the floor, thus heating the room). The bathhouse walls were decorated in painted square patterns and in imitation marble. The floors were paved with colored mosaics in geometric and floral patterns, as well as with pomegranates, grapevines and grape clusters.'  (Quoted from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs web page: Herodium, King Herod's Palace - Fortress)


HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Remains of the bathhouse in lower Herodium

Remains of the bathhouse in lower Herodium

HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: mosaic from the bathhouse floor

Mural discovered in a small theatre area at Herodium Above: a mosaic from the bathhouse floor. Herod was careful to avoid representations of living creatures, forbidden by Jewish law, even though these were fashionable at the time - see the 'Mona Lisa of Sepphoris' in the Greek-influenced northern city of Sepphoris: Bible Archeaology: Sepphoris

But the private theatre at Herodium, recently excavated, shows that Herod may sometimes have broken this rule (see the image at right).


HERODIUM:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: bathhouse, with a large open pool

The bathhouse, with a circular open pool beside it; the columns surrounding 
this pool suggest that it may have been covered by a roof


About Herodium...

'Some 12 km. south of Jerusalem, on a hill shaped like a truncated cone that rises 758meters above sea level, stood Herodium, the palace-fortress built by King Herod. It had a breathtaking view, overlooking the Judean Desert and the mountains of Moab to the east, and the Judean Hills to the west.

Herodium is described in great detail by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius:  This fortress, which is some sixty stadia distant from Jerusalem, is naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, for reasonably nearby is a hill, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast. At intervals it has round towers, and it has a steep ascent formed of two hundred steps of hewn stone. Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament at the same time. At the base of the hill there are pleasure grounds built in such a way as to be worth seeing, among other things because of the way in which water, which is lacking in that place, is brought in from a distance and at great expense. The surrounding plain was built up as a city second to none, with the hill serving as an acropolis for the other dwellings.
(War I, 31, 10; Antiquities XIV, 323-325)

According to Josephus, Herodium was built on the spot where Herod won a victory over his Hasmonean and Parthian enemies in 40 BC. (Antiquities XIV, 352-360) 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, which had not been previously settled. Here, at Herodium, he also had a royal tomb built for himself; Josephus describes (War I, 33, 8; Antiquities XVII, 196-199) the king's funeral procession and burial at Herodium.

Herodium, together with Machaerus and Masada near the Dead Sea, were the last three fortresses held by Jewish fighters after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Herodium was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 71AD. (War VII, 6, 1)

Herodium was built in two separate areas, each with a distinct function: a circular fortress, including an elaborate palace, surrounded by a wall with towers on top of the hill; and Lower Herodium, in the plain to the north, with a group of royal buildings around a large pool.

The palace-fortress

The combination of fortress and palace is unique to King Herod. He repeated it on several other sites, including Masada. At Herodium, a circular palace-fortress was constructed on top of a hill, which rises 60 m. above its surroundings. The fortifications consist of two concentric walls with a 2.5 m. space between them. the outer walls measure 62 m. in diameter. The fortification was originally about 30 m. high, with seven stories. Two of these stories were underground foundations, strengthened with barrel-vaulted ceilings, and the superstructure of five stories was considerably higher than the palace courtyard. Wooden ceilings separated the stories, which were used for storage and as quarters for soldiers and servants. Huge towers projected from the walls on all four sides. The eastern tower - the largest - was a massive round tower on a solid stone base and measured 18 m. in diameter. It had several upper stories with elaborate rooms, probably for the use of the royal entourage. This eastern tower rose above the entire fortress, its roof commanding a panoramic view.

The other three towers were semi-circular, 16 m. in diameter, and their upper stories served as storage spaces and living areas. After construction of the fortification around the hill, an earth rampart of considerable height was laid against the outer foundations of the fortification, artificially raising the hill and giving it a conical shape. The entry-gate to the fortress, in the northeast, was reached via a straight, steep staircase within a corridor built into the earthen rampart.

Herod's private palace, of modest dimensions, stood within the fortification. It was splendidly appointed, with floors of colored tiles, mosaics and wall paintings and included every imaginable feature for comfort. The eastern part of the palace was a garden, in a 41 x 18 m. atrium surrounded on three sides by porticos, its columns adorned with Corinthian capitals. The western portion of the palace had two stories. Its ground floor included:

  • a dining hall (triclinium), with a roof supported by four columns (stone benches were added on three sides by Jewish fighters during the Jewish Revolt against Rome [66-70 CE], who converted it into a synagogue)

  • a cruciform courtyard with rooms at its corners

  • a small bathhouse (the preserved domed roof in one of its rooms is the earliest example of a dome found to date in Israel).


The theatre at Herodium

THE AUSTRALIAN, Friday November 21, 2008

Find suggests Herod was a theatre fan

Herod the Great, the Roman-era Jewish king infamous for the biblical massacre of the innocents, had a taste for theatre, new excavations of his vast palace complex south of Jerusalem have found.

Archaeologists have uncovered a small amphitheatre with an attached VIP room lavishly decorated with well-preserved wall paintings of a design previously seen only in Italy, at sites in Rome and Pompeii.

The excavation team, led by Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believe Herod brought in Italian craftsmen to produce the exquisite landscape scenes at the Herodium palace complex to which he gave his name, and which was the largest in the Roman world at the time.

"The room was obviously a loggia of sorts to be used by the king and his friends during shows," said Professor Netzer, who has been working at the site for three decades.

"It seems reasonable to assume that the construction of the theatre might be linked to the visit of (leading Roman politician and general) Marcus Agrippa in 15BC," he told a news conference called to announce the finds.

So far, only one complete painting has been uncovered. The others will remain protected by a mound of rubble until the archaeologists have put in place the measure required to preserve them after their excavation.

The apinting shows a hillside scene with a deer, a barking dog and a demi-god by an altar, and is of a sort known as window paintings because they are supposed to give the illusion of a real landscape outside.

Dig surveyor Rachel Chachy-Laureys, who has been working with Professor Netzer for 13 years, said the style of the painting gave a precise date of between 15 and 10BC for the 750-seat theatre complex.

She said it was the only known example in the Holy Land of figurative art from the period.

Ms Chachy-Laureys said the team was hopeful more paintings might be unearthed in the theatre's orchestra pit. AFP



Built by Herod the Great. By the time Herodium was built Herod had already strangled his beautiful wife Mariamme and killed her mother and father, but not his two sons by Mariamme - that came later. BIBLE PEOPLE: HEROD  


Herod built a double-walled palace/fortress with an outer diameter of 200ft.  There were seven stories in the cylinder-shaped construction, including two/three at the top.  His builders placed a massive fill of earth and gravel against the cylinder.  Within the walls were a garden, a large dining room and a suite of baths.


Herodium is 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem and 8 miles south of Jerusalem.  Its summit is 2460ft. above sea level.


Built in about 24BC by Herod the Great, and conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 71AD.


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Bible Architecture: Housing in Old and New Testament times - Architecture of the Bible; Bible Study Resource
Herodium, Fortress and Palace - Bible Study Resource: The Site, Central Area, Pool and Colonnade, Water System; archaeology

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Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher