Herodium and Self-Preservation

This is the twentieth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

After being turned away at the Temple Mount and then visiting the Mount of Olives on the morning of our first full day in Jerusalem, our group traveled south to an ancient site called Herodium, which is today in the West Bank. This was one of several palace fortresses built by Herod the Great. Out of all of them he decided that he wanted to be buried here, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1.673). The archaeologist Ehud Netser found what is likely Herod’s tomb in 2007. When it was found, the ossuary (bone box) in the tomb had been smashed. It may be that a generation after Herod’s death, during the Jewish revolt from AD 66–70, the Zealots rebelling against Rome took hammers to what was left of Herod.


Herodium is an impressive spot, built into the top of a flat-topped hill. From this hill you get panoramic views: to the northwest you can see Bethlehem, and even Jerusalem a bit farther away due north. To the southeast you can see the wilderness sloping down toward the Dead Sea. And though Herodium is in the Judean desert, you get a nice breeze at the top of the hill. Maybe that’s why Herod liked it so much.


The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say where the magi met with Herod to speak with him about the birth of Jesus, though it does say they went to Jerusalem initially (Matt 2:1–12). Since Herod loved this spot, it’s not impossible that they met him here. In any case, when standing on top of the hill, it’s not hard to imagine the wise men (however many of them there were) coming out of the wilderness to the east. And with Bethlehem so close by, it’s also not hard to imagine jealous old Herod looking down on it and fretting about this new king who was entering the world right under his nose.

He did all he could to preserve himself and hang on to what he’d worked for—including killing opposition leaders, young children, and members of his own family—and it was still taken from him. It’s hard to submit, hard to let go of control, but in the end we will all be forced to do so whether we want it or not.


After enjoying the views and hearing about the history of the place, we went down into the tunnel system built into the hill, where we took a pause in the coolness, prayed, and sang. Then we continued through the tunnels out of the fortress and drove into Bethlehem.


In Bethlehem we had lunch and browsed around one of the few souvenir shops we visited on the trip. I bought a miniature olive-wood nativity scene, because how can you not when you’re in Bethlehem? I also bought a small icon magnet of St. Nicholas that now adorns our refrigerator. Of course, St. Nicholas has nothing to do with Bethlehem, but he’s come to have a lot to do with Christmas.

On the way back in to Jerusalem, we got stuck in traffic and one of us (this is the internet, so I’ll never say who) had to go to the bathroom and ended up going by the side of the road, shielded by umbrellas. Whenever our group of travelers gathers again, it seems that moment always comes up in conversation.