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Reconsidering Herod's Family Tomb

In its survey and documentation work in the field, the Ancient Art Section's researchers are not always forced to venture to remote sites in search of ancient ruins and relics. Inner-city Jerusalem in particular, is scattered with small ancient sites tucked away in public parks and gardens or even nestled between houses and apartment blocks. Some of these small sites are now neglected, others have become such a familiar part of the landscape as to be now virtually invisible.

One such "forgotten" site which has recently raised the interest of the Ancient Art Section can be found in a public garden next to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, west of the Old City. The site which lies on land of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was first discovered at the end of the 19th century. It is a well-preserved underground burial complex and, for our purposes, an excellent example of ancient burial art.

Since the discovery of the site, various scholars, among them Conrad Schick (a Swiss archeologist who discovered much of the remains of ancient Jerusalem), identified the complex as the burial place of Herod's family built around the 1st century B.C.E., during the Second Temple period. The identification of the site as a royal monument was based on historical references and the impressive architecture of the site. However, as no inscriptions have been found on the site, the identification as Herod's family tomb is problematic.

The earliest reference to the tomb can be found in the work of Josephus Flavius, the first century historian of Jewish history. In his book The Jewish Wars, he mentions the monument of Herod as a topographical landmark of the siege of Titus on Jerusalem (in the year 70 C.E.). It is interesting to note that he refers to it in one place as "monuments" (V 108), and in another place as a "monument" (V 507).

Since Josephus refers elsewhere to Herod's burial place in Herodion, near Bethlehem (The Jewish Wars, V 670-673), scholars concluded that it was Herod's sons or, according to Schick, his wives who were buried in the tomb.

The subterranean burial site is a well-formed and rich architectural complex. The tomb comprises five chambers: a central room with a barrel vaulted ceiling and four burial chambers branching off from it. The walls of these rock-cut chambers were faced with Herodian-style ashlar stones and the workmanship is excellent.  The entrance to the monument is approached from a courtyard in the north, which was sealed by a massive rolling stone (approx. 1.8 m. diameter). Two hard limestone sarcophagi were found in the southern room. One of them is richly ornamented with floral patterns of acanthus leaves and rosettes in bas-relief. Both sarcophagi are now located in the museum of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the old city of Jerusalem.

Remains of a large square structure are positioned before the courtyard in such a way as to make entry to the tomb difficult. The main part of this structure is a massive rock enclosed by heavy ashlar stones on the south and east which form an L shape. Together these stones may have formed the base of a monument which once stood there.  A small part of the western side was also uncovered but the northern side has not been found. Only two courses of these stones have been preserved.

Scholars of the 19th-20th centuries believed that this structure served as a base for a very large Nefesh (a memorial stela or monument erected above or beside a tomb, as in Abshalom's Tomb in the Kidron Valley). Architectural elements such as column bases, capitals and cornice fragments found near the tomb, were considered to be part of the upper section of the structure. During their preliminary inspection of the site, researchers of the Center's Ancient Art Section found some of these architectural elements tucked away in the terrace of the modern park.

The Greek term mnemeion  ("monument") used by Josephus to define the site is unclear, and we do not know whether it refers to a tomb or a Nefesh. He also uses this term in his description of the Tomb of Queen Helena (the so-called 'Tomb of the Kings').

Prof. Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University rejects the identification of the burial complex as the tomb of Herod's family. Instead he suggests that their monument is located on a hill near the modern Damascus Gate that was first revealed by Schick. During further excavations conducted by Netzer in 1977, the remains of a round structure with an opus reticulatum wall (a Roman wall-building technique used in some Herodian monuments) were rediscovered. The round monumental structure which resembles the form of a Roman mausoleum, the fine masonry, and the location of the site, led Netzer to conclude that this site- and not the one next to the King David Hotel- was the monument of Herod's family.

The questions raised here regarding the impressive complex by the King David Hotel have still not been resolved. There is no doubt that it belonged to one of Jerusalem's aristocratic families during the time of the Second Temple - the fine architecture, the sarcophagi and the large structure nearby lead unequivocally to this conclusion. However, all these details still do not constitute sufficient evidence for concluding that it belonged to Herod's family, and a proper excavation of the site may help to shed more light on this question. Meanwhile we shall continue to use the popular name "Herod's Family Tomb," although, with reserve.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate recently locked the tomb's heavy metal door which was originally erected by the Patriarchate during the Ottoman Empire.  The researchers of the Ancient Art Section are now in contact with the Patriarchate which has been very willing to provide assistance, and they hope to re-enter the tomb and continue working on this intriguing site.


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Last Updated: 21 October, 2014
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