At Herod's Site, New Hopes and Fears

By Samuel Sockol
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

HERODIUM, West Bank, May 8 -- Israeli archaeologists revealed more details Tuesday about their discovery of what they believe is the tomb of King Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea known in the Bible for ordering the killing of children in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus.

"The long search for Herod the Great's tomb has ended with the exposure of the remains of his grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum on Mount Herodium's northeastern slope," Prof. Ehud Netzer, of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced at a campus news conference.

The discovery dusted off the competing Israeli and Palestinian claims to the region between Bethlehem and the Judean desert. Israeli settler leaders said the reported find of the Jewish king's tomb supported their historic right to the area, while Palestinians expressed fears that it would be used as a pretext to increase Jewish settlement construction south of Jerusalem.

Herod, who ruled Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C., is renowned for monumental building projects, including the expansion of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the construction of the fortress at Masada and of temples and palaces in Caesarea. At Herodium he built a complex that served as a palace, sanctuary, administrative center and mausoleum.

Netzer said Herodium stands out among Herod's building projects because it is "the only site that carries his name and is the place where he chose to be buried and to memorialize himself."

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape Herod's Massacre of the Innocents. Herod later died in Jericho.

The main historical source of the time, Josephus Flavius, wrote that Herod's body was taken in royal procession for burial at Herodium. Netzer said that about 70 years later, during the Jewish revolt against the Romans, the rebels smashed the tomb of the king, who was despised by many of his subjects.

"This was not just an act of looting, this was an act of revenge," Netzer said. "The sarcophagus was smashed with a hammer. This reflects the anger toward Herod after his death."

The limestone fragments of the sarcophagus, decorated with floral motifs, do not include any inscription or contain any bones. Some archaeologists said doubts remain over whether the tomb is Herod's.

"It seems that they don't have enough evidence," said Wael Hamamreh, the Palestinian Authority's director of antiquities for the Jericho district. "There is no inscription on the sarcophagus or any other solid evidence for that matter. It could have been even the tomb of the architect of the place."

The three-decade search for Herod's tomb focused until the middle of last year on an area at the foot of this dusty man-made mountain on the western fringe of the Judean desert.

In August the excavations moved farther up the slope, at whose summit sits a complex comprising a palace, a fortress and a monument.

Netzer, who led the team, was not at the site when the sarcophagus was found last month. His colleague, Yaakov Kalman, said the sarcophagus, which measured about two feet wide and more than eight feet long, sat on a raised platform.

Among the other fragments discovered were ornamental urns similar to those found in Petra, Jordan. But there were no inscriptions on those, either.

"The structure is so fancy I can't believe it is something other then the tomb of King Herod," Kalman said. "We also know it was built during the construction of the palace. But can we say we are 100 percent sure it is his? The answer is no."

Shaul Goldstein, a leader of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem, told the Ynetnews Web site that "the discovery is further proof of Gush Etzion's direct link to the history of the Jewish people and Jerusalem."

Nabil Khatib, the Palestinian Authority's director of the Bethlehem district, said international law prohibits Israel from removing artifacts found in the occupied territories. "This is robbery of Palestinian artifacts," he said.

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