Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Herodion 2: Who was Herod?

We don't really know what Herod looked like, but we know he descended from Idumeans, the descendants of the biblical Edomites, traditional enemies of the Jews. But over the 1200 or so years between Joshua's conquest of the land of Israel and Roman rule, the Edomites had gradually moved into southern Judea, which the land of Israel was called at the time, and slowly assimilated the beliefs and practices of their Jewish neighbors. After the Jewish revolt in 3597 (136 BCE) overthrew the Seleucid Empire and replaced them with the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, the newly sovereign Jews weren't sure how to handle this minority. Finally, the Hasmonean kings simply converted them on mass. There are opinions that the conversion was forced, which, by halachah, would have made it invalid. Still, the Idumeans seem to have been absorbed into the Jewish people seamlessly and a few years later, when Judea was conquered by Rome, they did not return to their idolatrous roots but remained faithful to Judaism.

Then the Roman-appointed Idumean ethnarch (administrator) of occupied Judea passed away, his position passed to his son. Judea, being a border province, was subject, like all border provinces, to the occasional barbarian invasion. During one such assault, the Jews took advantage of apparent Roman weakness to try to revolt against the empire and reestablish a Jewish kingdom. Herod, following the advice of his late father, stuck with the romans, and so the Jews came after him. Fleeing on horseback, he, his family, and a contingent of loyal guards, made it about eight miles southeast of Jerusalem when his mother's carriage overturned.

Surrounded by the Jewish rebels, he decided, like a good Roman, that it was time to take his own life rather than be disgraced in capture. As he prepared to die, his mother told him she was not badly injured, to take heart, that he would yet survive. Regaining his will, he managed to fight his way out of the trap and escape to freedom.

Eventually, he made it all the way back to Rome and met with Emperor Octavian. To make a long story short, he managed to receive Octavian's blessing and an appointment as a proconsul-in-exile, and was dispatched with two Roman legions to recapture Judea for the Romans. He made short work of the Jewish revolt, and, in typical Roman style, began a period of mass executions, both of his military enemies, rabble-rousers, and his own political rivals within his family.

Territories ruled by Herod

Later in his life, with his rule firmly established, he began the construction of a massive palace on the exact spot where he had almost lost his life.

Today, the ruins of this palace, called the Herodion, stick out like a sore thumb from the surrounding Judean hills. For one thing, the mountain ruins of his fortress has an odd flattened top. The hill alongside it has also been shaved down a bit so there should be no competition. Herod spared no slave labor in the creation of his flashy palaces.

The Herodion as it must have looked.
While the Herodion was just as lavish as Herod's other building projects in the holy land, including his renovations of the Second Temple and construction of the Western Wall at which Jews pray to this very day, this project had one major difference. All of its opulence was hidden on the inside. Surrounding the palace was a sheer stone wall which sent a clear message to passers by. "What goes on behind these walls is none of your business."
A view taken from above, peering down into the Herodion itself, illustrates.
Photo not taken by me (our bus didn't fly.)
More tomorrow...

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