Shards of a Reputation...Herod the Great Mar 27, 2013 10:53:23 GMT -5
Post by shira on Mar 27, 2013 10:53:23 GMT -5
Shards of a Reputation
By AMOTZ ASA-EL
Herod the Great: The King's Final Journey
Through Oct. 5
King Herod (73 B.C.-4 B.C.), the last great king of the Jews, has no airport, train station or even cul-de-sac named after him anywhere in what is now Israel, the land where, in ancient times, he reigned for 33 years of peace and prosperity. Instead, he's been reviled as a tyrant, murderer and collaborator who "cast a dark shadow upon the Jewish nation," as Heinrich Graetz, the father of modern Jewish historiography, saw it.
"Herod the Great: The King's Final Journey," at the Israel Museum here through Oct. 5, does not ignore this record. "It is better to be Herod's pig than his son," reads a quote from the Roman philosopher Macrobius splashed across a wall in the exhibition's central space, an allusion to the police state of a paranoiac who executed the most beloved of his 10 wives, their two sons, another wife's son, a high priest and prominent sages while crushing any real or imagined threat to his authority. Even so, this celebration of archaeological effort and historical exploration crowns a 53-year-old scholarly endeavor to temper Graetz's damning verdict.
The exhibition, of more than 30 tons of excavated rock and 250 unearthed artifacts, starts by evoking the Jericho palace where Herod died and ends at the long-lost—and now partially re-created—mausoleum where his plan to be buried in a way that would immortalize him collapsed along with his legacy. In between, we pass through three spaces, each dedicated to one of Herod's main legacies: as builder, leader of the Jews and ally of Rome.
Entering through a panorama of the Judean Desert where Herod wintered, we turn left into the restored throne room where he was laid out on a golden bier, crown on head and scepter at hand, as his funeral began. After walking past fresco fragments and slivers of paintings, visitors reach a video reconstruction of Jericho's royal retreat. As pillars, domes, pools and aqueducts spring from today's ruins, we learn that the throne room was tucked in a vast complex of three palaces.
A glimpse of the luxury that surrounded Herod is afforded across the floor, where his bathtub stands near his spa's black-and-pink inlaid tile. While such regal trappings meant nothing to the ordinary person, this cannot be said of Herod's projects in Caesarea and Jerusalem.
In Caesarea, as seen in a dedicated video space, Herod built from scratch a harbor and a city that became Judea's maritime gateway and commercial heartbeat. In Jerusalem, he used 10,000 workers to construct the Roman world's largest religious center, the renovated Second Temple, a campus whose great size is vividly conveyed through a mural that depicts its main plaza's depth and its colonnades' height, dwarfing the people under them.
A massive Ionic capital hanging from the hall's ceiling and a chunk of limestone on the floor—a typical Herodian "brick" the size of a small refrigerator—explain why Herod was called "the great." An ossuary's Hebrew carving that reads "Simon the builder," a Greek inscription honoring a donation for a temple pavement, a Hebrew road-sign pointing "To the Place of Trumpeting," and slivers from the Temple's ceiling and entrance all evoke the commotion that filled Herod's Temple.
A collection of imports on display—including apple jars, wine vessels, an amphora for fish sauce and a sliver of ceramic reading "Property of Herod King of Judea"—attests to lively culinary traffic between Rome and Judea. A headless statue from Samaria believed to be Augustus' and a beautiful marble basin apparently presented by him to Herod hint at Herod's diplomatic success.
Herod's political skill in transferring his loyalty from the dead Mark Antony to his archrival, and later securing Rome's defense for embattled diaspora Jews, calls into question his reputed insanity. "There was no one after Agrippa [Augustus' Number Two] whom Caesar held in greater esteem than Herod," reads a quote from historian Josephus Flavius.
The harmony with Rome stretched Herodian Judea's borders into current-day Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Judaism was practiced freely, the borders were safe and the construction frenzy boosted employment. Then again, Herod's Roman orientation was also cultural. Hippodromes, pagan temples and foreign advisers abounded, as did amphitheaters where beasts were unleashed at convicts—"a barefaced impiety," wrote Josephus. Cultural tension boiled over when Herod planted Rome's golden eagle atop the Temple's entrance, an abomination to Judaism that made people tear it down—only to be caught and burned alive.
It was in this conflicted setting that Herod turned to his last project, a mausoleum that would be visible from afar and last for ages. The site, the flattened conical mound called Herodium between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea, was always known. What vanished was the tomb.
In 2007, following 40 years of digging, archaeologist Ehud Netzer unearthed the foundations of an elaborate mausoleum, and then the fragments of three sarcophagi. In a bizarre twist of fate, Netzer later fell to his death there, at age 76. The exhibition is dedicated to his memory.
Thanks to Netzer's research we now know that the mausoleum was an 82-foot tower. The bottom level entombed two unidentified people, while Herod lay in the story above surrounded by a circle of columns. A 1,150-foot stairway climbed from under the hill to the tower.
An amphitheater had earlier stood on the site, along with a royal lounge where Herod and his guests enjoyed private shows. Frescoes found there, one depicting a naval battle and the other a sacred landscape, have been reconstructed and are displayed within their restored walls in the exhibition's last station. The amphitheater was preserved because Herod buried it under tons of earth so the mausoleum would sprout from a smooth slope.
Entering the exhibition's final room, visitors pass through the amphitheater's seven pillars and reach the mausoleum's partially reconstructed ring of massive, decorated stones resting on pillars, within which lies the restored sarcophagus. If there is a monument to archaeological imagination and resolve, this is it.
By A.D. 70, the mausoleum had been razed. The sarcophagus was found so splintered that it must have been deliberately shattered, co-curator David Mevorah said. And so, between the Temple's torching by Roman troops and the mausoleum's defacement by Jewish rebels, Herod's legacy came tumbling down.
One Herod biographer, Hebrew University's Abraham Schalit, wrote in 1960 that the king's successors "were weaklings," and that the spiritual elite, the Pharisees, "were too introverted to appreciate all that was useful about the great king's legacy." And the university's current authority on this era, Daniel Schwartz, says Herod's "balancing act" between Rome and Judea reflected his belief that Rome was "here to stay," and that it fostered peace, tolerance and prosperity. That is why Herod built both Jerusalem and Caesarea, "in effect giving the country two capitals and positing a separation of religion from state," Mr. Schwartz said.
Yes, none of this justifies Herod's violence. But, then again, confronting Rome brought even more violence.
For its part, the Israel Museum avoids judging Herod. "Our role is merely to look at history through artifacts," says Director James Snyder. Thanks to this well-crafted exhibition, judging Herod's place in history becomes even more challenging than it already was.
Mr. Asa-El, the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
A version of this article appeared March 27, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Shards of a Reputation.