Herodium: ‘Mountain of the Little Paradise’

Aerial view of the acropolis of Herodium / Photo by Asaf T., Wikimedia Commons

Herodion, the palace fortress and highest peak in the Judaean Desert, is the only site that is named after King Herod the Great.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Herodium (Latin), Herodeion (Ancient Greek: Ἡρώδειον), best known in Israel as Herodion (Hebrew: הרודיון‬) and in Arabic as Jabal al-Fureidis (Arabic: هيروديون‎, lit. “Mountain of the Little Paradise”); also Har Hordos is a truncated-cone-shaped hill, 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of Jerusalem and 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) southeast of Bethlehem, in the Judaean Desert, West Bank. Herod the Great built a palace fortress and a small town at Herodium, between 23 and 15 BCE, and is believed to have been buried there.[2] Herodium is 758 meters (2,487 ft) above sea level,[3] the highest peak in the Judaean Desert.[4] Today, the site is controlled[5][6] by the Israel National Parks Authority and is a designated national park. Israel asserts that it is entitled to work the area under the Oslo Accords, but Palestinian authorities say Israel has no right to undertake digs there or remove artifacts to Israel discovered in excavations there.[7]


Herodion is the only site that is named after King Herod the Great. It was known by the Crusaders as the “Mountain of Franks”. Arab locals call it Jabal al-Fourdis (“Mountain of Paradise”).[8] The Modern Hebrew name, Herodion (Hebrew: הרודיון‬), is actually a transliteration of the Greek spelling. However, modern Israeli archaeologists have confirmed that the site’s original Hebrew name was Herodis (Hebrew: הרודיס‬), just as this name is inscribed in one of the Bar Kokhba letters recovered from the Muraba’at Caves in the Judaean desert.[9]


Shown within the Palestinian territories / Image by NordNordWest, Wikimedia Commons


In 40 BCE, after the Parthian conquest of Syria, Herod fled to Masada. On the way, at the location of Herodion, Herod clashed with the Parthians and emerged victorious. According to the Roman Jewish historian Josephus, he “built a town on that spot in commemoration of his victory, and enhanced it with wonderful palaces… and he called it Herodion after himself” (The Wars of the Jews I, Chapter 13).[10]

Josephus describes Herodium as follows:

“This fortress, which is some sixty stadia[11] 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.” (The Jewish War I, 21, 10; Antiquities of the Jews XIV, chapter 13.9).


Archaeologists believe that the palace was built by slaves, paid workers (contractors), and architects. Herod was considered one of the greatest builders of his time and was not daunted by geography—his palace was built on the edge of the desert and was situated atop an artificial hill.[12] The largest of the four towers was built on a stone base 18 meters in diameter. This was most likely where Herod lived; he decorated his rooms with mosaic floors and elaborate frescoes. The other three towers, which consisted of living spaces and storage, were 16 meters in diameter. Outside, several cisterns were built to collect water that was channeled into the palace.

Roman Siege

Great Revolt

Herodium was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE.

Bar Kokhba’s Revolt

At the beginning of the Bar Kokhba revolt sixty years later, Simon bar Kokhba declared Herodium as his secondary headquarters. Archaeological evidence for the revolt was found all over the site, from the outside buildings to the water system under the mountain. Inside the water system, supporting walls built by the rebels were discovered, and another system of caves was found. Inside one of the caves, burned wood was found which was dated to the time of the revolt. The fortress was commanded by Yeshua ben Galgula, who was likely Bar Kokhba’s second in command.



Herodion excavations / Wikimedia Commons

The archaeological excavation of Herodium was begun in 1962 by Virgilio Canio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda, from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem, and it continued until 1967: they discovered the upper citadel, at the top of the hill.[13]

In 1968–1969 during excavations, directed by archaeologist Gideon Foerster, at a section of Herod’s burial tomb and palace hundreds of artifacts found, including a copper alloy ring. The ring was overlooked but in 2018 it given a thorough laboratory cleaning and scholarly examination. At the center of the ring is an engraved krater, which is encircled by “partly deformed” Greek letters spelling out “of Pilates.” Although scientists were not sure about who is the “Pilates” mentioned on the ring, media published that it could possible belong to the Pontius Pilate. Archaeologist Roi Porat told that all explanations are equally possible for who was the owner of the ring: “It was important to publish a careful scientific article,” “But in practice we have a ring inscribed with the name Pilate and the personal connection just cries out,”[14][15][16]

From 1972, excavations were carried out by Ehud Netzer, working on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and they were intermittent until the archaeologist’s death in 2010. Netzer excavated mostly the lower palace, at the base of the hill.

Herod’s Palace

Section of mosaic floor unearthed at Herodion / Photo by yoav dothan, Wikimedia Commons

Herod the Great built a palace within the fortress of Herodium. Herod himself commissioned a lavish palace to be built between 23 and 15 BCE atop Herodium for all to see. The palace itself consisted of four towers of seven stories, a bathhouse, courtyards, a Roman theatre, banquet rooms, a large walkway (“the course”), as well as extravagant living quarters for himself and guests. Once Herod died and the Great Revolt started, Herodium was abandoned. The Jews eventually had a base at Herodium where they built a synagogue which can still be seen today, unlike much of Herod’s Palace.[17]


Archaeological excavations of Herod’s palace – the Round Tower / Photo by Amit A., Wikimedia Commons

The Roman bathhouse consisted of three areas, the caldarium, the tepidarium, and the frigidarium. It also had a very impressive dome which is still in good condition today despite thousands of years of earthquakes and wars. The caldarium had vaulted ceilings, raised floors, and channels in the walls to conduct heat. The tepidarium had mosaic floors and frescoes just like the living quarters of the palace. The frigidarium, the last stop in the bathhouse, was where guests would cool off in a large pool.


Northern Palace Lobby / Wikimedia Commons

Netzer discovered the Roman Theatre just before his death in late 2010. A loggia, or a theatre box, was discovered. This means that when Herod or other notable officials went to see a play, they would receive luxury treatment. The rest of the audience would be seated below on benches that could accommodate about 650 people. What is quite unique about this find is that frescoes of landscapes were discovered. This suggests that the painters were well traveled; they depict scenes of Italy and even the Nile River in Egypt. It is also assumed that the painters were on loan to Herod from Caesar in Rome.[18][19]


A pre-year-70 synagogue at Herodium is of the Galilean-type, featuring stone benches built along the walls and aisles formed by columns that supported the roof. It is one of the oldest synagogues in the Levant.[20][21]

Tomb of Herod

Hebrew University professor Ehud Netzer reported on 8 May 2007 that he had discovered the tomb of Herod, above tunnels and water pools at a flattened site halfway up the hill to Herodium, 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of Jerusalem.[22] Later excavations strengthened the idea that this site is Herod’s mausoleum.[23] The base of the tomb has now been uncovered and is visible to visitors to the site.

Panoramic view of Herodion / Photo by Eitan Ya’aran, Wikimedia Commons

The 2009–2010 excavations uncovered near the tomb base a small 450-seat capacity theater with an elaborately decorated royal theater box.[24]

Netzer died in October 2010 from injuries sustained from a fall at the site,[2] and access to the mausoleum was subsequently blocked to the public pending review of the site’s safety.

In October 2013, archaeologists Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas challenged the identification of the tomb as that of Herod.[25] According to Patrich and Arubas, the tomb is too modest to be Herod’s and has several unlikely features.[25][26] Roi Porat, who replaced Netzer as excavation leader after the latter’s death, stood by the identification.[25]


  1. Herodium (Herodion) National Park Archived 2016-04-04 at the Wayback Machine
  2. “Israeli archaeologist dies after fall at King Herod dig”BBC. 2010-10-29. Retrieved 2014-12-17.
  3. Isachar Canetti, Hedva; Isachar, Hanan; Hazel Arieli; Moshe Yanai (2004). Images of the Holy Land. Hanan Isachar Photography. p. 71.
  4. Herodion National Park Archived 2013-04-03 at Archive.today
  5. Jonathan Cook, ‘Herod exhibit digs up controversy,’ Al Jazeera 1 Mar 2013: ‘Both the archeological sites at Herodium and Jericho are regulated by the Civil Administration, a body of military officials who oversee Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Israel has justified its control of the sites on the grounds that they are located in Area C, the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank over which Israel was given control by the Oslo Accords until a peace deal with the Palestinians was agreed.
  6. Benny Ziffer, ‘Herodium Turns Into a Cultural Settlement,’ Haaretz 22 February 2013:’ Amid the general enthusiasm, one small technical detail was almost forgotten: that the excavation was conducted on Palestinian territory. Under international conventions, an occupying power may not conduct excavations in territories under its military control, with the exception of “rescue” digs carried out to preserve an archaelogical site unintentionally brought to the surface. In the case of Herodium, where the excavations have gone on for years, there was no way of considering them rescue digs. In a report aired on Israel’s Channel 2 at the time, it could be clearly seen how the excavations had disrupted the lives of residents of the Palestinian village surrounding Herodium, turning the mound into a kind of settlement – a cultural settlement – maintained by military force. The sight was shocking, because here brutality was ostensibly used for the purpose of promoting high culture, and for scientific and artistic reasons.’
  7. Robert Tait (19 December 2014). “Royal passageway to King Herod’s palace discovered”The Telegraph.
  8. Guérin, Victor. “Description de la Palestine (Description of Palestine)”. L’imprimerie Impériale: Paris 1869, pp. 125–132.
  9. Roland de Vaux, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, vol. 2, Oxford 1961, pp. 126, 130-131
  10. “Herodion”. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  11. 60 stadia is about 11.1 kilometres (6.9 mi). The actual distance is slightly more—12.5 kilometres (7.8 mi)
  12. Mueller, Tom (December 2008). “Herod: The Holy Land’s Visionary Builder”. National Geographic.
  13. Virginio Canio Corbo, Herodion. I: Gli edifici della reggia-fortezza, Jerusalem 1989
  14. “2,000-year-old ‘Pilate’ ring just might have belonged to notorious Jesus judge”timesofisrael.
  15. “Pontius Pilate’s Name Is Found on 2,000-Year-Old Ring”nytimes.
  16. “Pontius Pilate’s ring may have been discovered at ancient biblical fortress”foxnews.“Herodium – King Herod’s Palace-Fortress”. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Retrieved
  17. 17 November 2011.
  18. Milstein, Mati. “Luxury Box Seating”. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 17 November 2011.
  19. Magness, Jodi (2001). “Where Is Herod’s Tomb At Herodium?”. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research: 43.
  20. Jacqueline Schaalje. “Herodion”. Its date, of the first century CE, makes it one of the oldest synagogues in Israel
  21. “Archaeologist Netzer dies after fall during excavation”The Jerusalem Post – JPost.com. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  22. Kraft, Dina (May 9, 2007). “Archaeologist Says Remnants of King Herod’s Tomb Are Found”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-14.
  23. “New Excavations Strengthen Identification Of Herod’s Grave At Herodium”. ScienceDaily. 19 November 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-19.
  24. “Royal theater box at the Herodium”Ferrell’s Travel Blog. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  25. Nir Hasson (October 11, 2013). “Archaeological stunner: Not Herod’s Tomb after all?”Haaretz.
  26. Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas (2015). “Revisiting the Mausoleum at Herodium: Is it Herod’s Tomb?”. Palestine Exploration Quarterly. 147 (4): 299–315.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.19.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.