Herod The Great – Let’s Take Five: A New Series

In the next few blog posts, I will be doing something a bit different than I have in the past. Rather than addressing a Scriptural question about geography as I typically have, my aim will be to introduce you to a series of five sites that are interconnected thematically. I call this series Let’s Take Five. The themes linking each series of five sites will be varied. For example, I will chose sites that have some central element – be it chronological, regional, functional or visual – in common. This week, I would like to show you five sites that are connected chronologically. Namely, they all were built in the final decades of the first century BCE, just a few years before the birth of Jesus. Even more specifically, they are all connected to a single individual: the infamous Roman appointed king of Judea, Herod the Great. This list will be familiar to many of you, as Herod was responsible for building some of the most famous sites in Israel. Let’s go!

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The third terrace of Herod’s northern palace at Masada, used as a dining room. The frescoes have been restored.

First a bit of background about the life of Herod the Great. The Land of Israel was conquered by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE and would effectively remain under the imperial control of the Romans for the next six centuries. At first, things went quite smoothly. For the first few decades of their rule, the Romans did not have any pressing interest in governing Judaea directly. Unlike the province of Syria to its north, Judaea was not highly valued. It was a remote province on the eastern frontier of the empire whose main function was to remain a solid barrier between the territory of Rome and its mighty neighbor to the east: the Parthians.

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Moreover, the Romans did not want to become mired in the complicated religious disputes among the Jews. So instead of sending their own governor to rule, they appointed a series of local client kings to keep the peace and collect taxes. Antipater, a prominent chieftain from the region of Idumaea (the biblical region of Edom, that is, the northern Negev region), became one of these kings in 47 BCE. He was assassinated in 43 BCE and six years later, after a civil war, his son Herod became his successor. Like his father, Herod was extremely loyal to the Romans; he had gone as far as traveling to Rome in 40 BCE to curry favor with Augustus and Mark Antony and was crowned “King of the Jews” by the Senate.

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A crucifix on the Charles Bridge in Prague bearing the Latin INRI as well as the Hebrew words “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Hosts”

Interesting aside: It is quite probable that the famous INRI (Latin: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”) placard placed above Jesus’ cross is derived from the well-known royal title that was attached to Herod. Because this Herodian title was so famous, the Roman soldiers could easily use it to mock Jesus. What could be more ludicrous than depicting an inert Jesus as the ruthless Herod? This would mean that both at the hour of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1-23) and his death (John 19:19), the influence of Herod the Great was inescapably present. This is hardly surprising given the indelible mark Herod left on the Land.

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James Tissot’s 19th century depiction of Herod the Great is based on the artist’s imagination more than historical evidence.

During the three decades of his tyrannical rule (37-4 BCE), Herod accomplished a great deal, but he is best known today for his magnificent building projects. Herod oversaw dozens of large-scale architectural projects, many of which were designed to curry favor with his Roman patron, the Emperor Augustus. In doing so, Herod revolutionized the facade of many Judean cities, in effect setting the foundations of numerous sites in the Holy Land for the next two millennia. Let’s have a look at some of these:

1. Masada

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Masada is one of the most visited tourist sites in Israel, attracting over 700,000 visitors annually. Today it is fairly easy to reach this desert fortress, taking only about an hour by car from Jerusalem. But in antiquity, this site was very isolated. It is located on the summit of a steep tabletop mountain, on the shores of the forbidding Dead Sea, far from any sources of drinking water, about three days by foot from Jerusalem. To reach it, one had to hike through the dangerous Judean Desert which was rife with brigands and wild animals. Herod went to great lengths to build a lavish palace in this remote location and likely only visited it a handful of times. He kept it in case of danger. During his lifetime it was used as a resort for high-profile guests of the king, who would spend long hours in the swimming pool and bathhouse in this most unlikely location.

2. The Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron

Contrary to his mountain-top refuge at Masada, Herod did not create the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron “from scratch”. This underground chamber in the center of Hebron is the burial cave of the three biblical patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and three of the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah; Rachel is buried near Bethlehem) according to the Book of Genesis. It had been a venerated site for hundreds of years prior to Herod. But its current form – the massive stone structure seen above – was designed and executed under Herod. Although the site has changed hands many times over the last 2000 years (church, mosque, church, mosque, synagogue) it is still fundamentally Herodian. Importantly, we see a Herodian precedent here. Herod devised the ingenious concept of covering an uneven hill with a large stone platform upon which monumental Roman architecture could be erected. Here in Hebron he did so on a relatively small scale. In Jerusalem (see #5 below), he used the same technique on a much grander scale. The minarets in the photo above are of course later additions.

3. Caesarea-Maritima

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Herod was quick to recognize that one of the major flaws of the Land of Israel is a lack of quality deep ports along its long coast. This made it difficult to attract the large Roman shipping boats that crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea. Herod understood that in order for Judea to be truly linked to Rome, it would need an impressive modern port. Only then could Herod truly refer to the sea using the same Latin term that the Romans used: Mare Nostrum (“our sea”). The result was the massive harbor city of Caesarea-Maritima. It took him twelve years (22-10 BCE) to built it, and he named it after Caesar Augustus. In order to overcome the shallow sand-filled coastline, Herod build an artificial harbor in the deeper water offshore using hydraulic cement. This was cutting edge technology in the first century. Unfortunately, little of the harbor has survived due to the destructive power of the waves and looters.

4. Herodium

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According to the first century historian Josephus, Herod was a tyrant and a megalomaniac. He was also a control freak and left nothing to chance. He was therefore sure to make plans for a lasting eternal memorial to himself long before he actually died. His burial site is known as Herodium and and is the only site he named after himself. It is located about 7 miles south of Jerusalem and was used as a fortress and pleasure palace during his lifetime (like Masada). He built it by covering a prominent hill with huge quantities of soil, thereby creating a perfect half-dome which could be viewed by the residents of Jerusalem. The actual tomb of Herod was a large mausoleum placed on the side of this artificial hill. The tomb was mostly destroyed by anti-Roman rebels in the year 70 CE, but remains were discovered by archaeologists in 2007.

5. The Temple Mount, Jerusalem


The most impressive of all of Herod’s building projects was certainly the renovation of the Jerusalem Temple. According to the biblical book of Ezra (ch. 6-7) the Second Temple which was built in the late 6th century BCE by the returned Babylonian exiles was a much smaller structure than the First Temple built by Solomon. Five hundred years after its construction, the Second Temple was really in need of work. Herod wanted to overhaul the site, making it a world-famous temple, but could not disrupt the daily sacrifices and worship that took place within the sanctuary. As he did in Hebron, Herod expanded the surface area of Mount Moriah by building a series of retaining walls around the hill. This effectively hid the mountain beneath a box which served as a platform for massive new structures including covered porticoes. Ingeniously, the construction of this box did not tamper with the epicenter of the hill, the “Foundation Stone” upon which the inner sanctum of the Temple (the “Holy of Holies”) was built. Although the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and never rebuilt, the Herodian platform is still in place today, as seen in the photo above. It serves as the foundation for numerous Muslim buildings including Al Aqsa mosque (grey dome) and the Dome of the Rock (gold dome).

I hope you have enjoyed visiting this first set of five sites. Join me next week for another fascinating group of five!

Visit these websites for further reading:

Bible History Daily – Tour Showcase Remains of Herod’s Jerusalem Palace – Possible Site of the Trial of Jesus

Bible Walks – Masada

Biblical Geographic – Herodium, Israel

Bible Places – Caesarea Martima

Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel Course


About the author

Jonathan LipnickJonathan Lipnick believes that a truly comprehensive understanding of Scripture must be capable of penetrating beneath the printed words to reveal the authentic world of the Bible: the landscapes, smells and sounds of ancient Israel. He is the dean of the faculty of Holy Land Studies at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and is the author of the course "Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel"

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Join the conversation (38 comments)

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  1. Cherstin Lindberg

    Interesting! I know about four of them belonging to Herod but I learn that even Hebron is among his buildings. Fascinating that they could stand that way during ages without beeing more destroyed. That is good quality!

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Yes, definitely well built. Even the Romans were impressed by the massive size of some of the stones used by Herod.

  2. Peter K. O


  3. Gustavo Perera

    Very informative and it complements the Biblical context in one of the courses I did…Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel. Nice!

  4. Heather Abramson

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for those insights and the photographs. How I wish that the Jews of the first century CE had been wise enough to accomodate the Romans. The beautiful Herodian Second Temple may still be standing. The Hebrews of the time took on the most powerful army the world had ever known. It was so stupid. I read a book called :
    God’s Gold: A Quest for the Lost Temple Treasures of Jerusalem by Sean Kingsley.
    He claims that the Romans built the Colosseum with the gold they took from the Temple in Jerusalem. The Colosseum was finished 9 years after the Temple was destroyed. The Colosseum was a temple to brutality, and it still stands.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Heather, yes that is true the Colosseum in Rome was largely built by Jewish slaves using the spoils from the destruction of Jerusalem. While I agree with you that it would be fascinating to see the Temple standing today, who knows what would have happened if the Jews had not rebelled against Rome? Perhaps they would have simply been absorbed into the majority pagan culture of the Empire which eventually converted to Christianity. It might have been the longing for the Temple that preserved Judaism over the past 2000 years! It is always hazardous to play the “what if” game when considering history.

  5. Dorothy Healy

    What absolutely extraordinary building accomplishments – shows the real far-sightedness of Herod to embark on such feats.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for reading!

  6. Stephen Dollar

    I am a student of history and the Bible. I love to read article where the author has placed known sites and historical events in the context of their time and peoples. Thank you for these 5 sites and I look forward to reading more in the future.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Stephen, many thanks for the kind words and for your willingness to read the blog. Happy studies!

  7. Jolita

    It is fascinating how they have built such ‘architectural giants’ with technologies that are so ‘primitive’ compared with 21st century’s technologies. And all these sites, all these buildings are still there 🙂 thank you for your insights.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Thank you!

  8. Anthony Taylor

    Tremendous insight to the Herodian history. This will add a lot to my upcoming travels.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Anthony, I wish you an enjoyable and enriching trip to Israel.

  9. Annette Campbell

    Thank you! This gives me great insight to what I can see with my eyes when looking at pictures or seeing these places on tv. It helped me understand the original intent of those places and why there may be tension about certain places today, such as #5. It is also interesting to know that what we can see was built over places noted in the bible!

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Thank you, Annette for your generous comment. Great to see that people like you are benefiting from the blog. Keep checking in for future posts.

  10. Jo Ann Abreu

    I have enjoyed reading about these five sites and am looking forward to the next five sites. Thank you for the information on the sites.

    1. Jonathan Lipnick

      Jo Ann, I am so happy that you found this post informative. I look forward to hearing your feedback on the next set of five (which should be up soon!). Blessings, Jonathan

    2. Phutoli

      It was presented well. Excellent information in a nutshell. Great work !! Thank you

      1. Jonathan Lipnick

        Thanks! Did you know that the phrase “in a nutshell” was first used just a few years after the death of Herod? It first appears in a Latin text by Pliny from 77 CE called the Natural History.

        1. Elizabeth (Lisa) Seibel-Ross

          Oh, this is fun and beautiful and very interesting. So neat to know about “in a nutshell.” Thanks for the reference!

          It’s amazing how Herod was able to use the ‘cutting edge’ of the technologies of his day to accomplish his purposes, and how they have survived to this day (which might speak to God’s purposes.) Truly amazing in an earthquake zone, and in an area of the world surviving the tsunamis of so many conflicts over all this time.

          Poor Jacob and Rachel – their remains physically separated from each other geographically.

          The placard INRI mocking “the king of the Jews” – I know the Jewish leadership of the Temple (Sadduncees) at that time wanted it removed because in their view it would have been blasphamous, and I can even see Roman soldiers view of it as mocking Herod (in light of what I’ve learned here from you), but I remember reading Pontius Pilate nixing the idea of removing it – what he said stood, and what I’m wondering is, why would he have wanted to aggravate Herod if the main purpose of Rome was to use him to serve their higher purposes? Maybe a flexing of his/Roman authority?

          Enjoyed! Thank you.

          1. Jonathan Lipnick

            Thanks for reading this blog post and for your excellent question. Regarding the INRI placard, the incident that you describe is found only in John’s Gospel 19:17-23. This version is different from the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) because according to John, the sign is written in three languages (Greek, Latin and Hebrew/Aramaic) and because of Pilate’s refusal to change the wording even after the chief priests protest (“what I have written, I have written”). No, I don’t think that the phrase “King of the Jews” was mocking Herod; it was referencing Herod as a way of mocking Jesus. The Romans loved Herod because he adopted their culture, he was loyal and he prevented civil war among the Judeans by ruling with an iron fist. Herod’s strong authority meant the emperor did not need to send his own soldiers to Judea. The Romans’ intention was therefore to display Jesus’ lack of power by using the very phrase which Herod – a bona fide King of the Jews – once had used to refer to himself. In any case, Pilate did not have to worry about offending Herod, since by the time Pilate ruled as prefect (26-36 CE) Herod had been dead for many years (died 4 BCE). John’s gospel is also the most favorably disposed towards Pilate, who is strongly opposed to executing Jesus.

        2. Anita

          Appreciate the historical background provided … and the tidbit about “in a nutshell” dating that far back : )

    3. Dorothy Finlay

      Very interesting background to the five sites associated with King Herod; Masada, Herodian, Tomb of the Patriachs, Caesarea on the Mediterranean and the crowning glory the Temple in Jerusalem. He was an expert builder and wanted to leave a name for himself. Amazingly the Jewish Antiquities discovered his tomb in Herodian, where he built his own mausoleum.