Israel and the surrounding territories may be best known for religious and political reasons, but the area is also one of the world’s best destinations for historical travel. On a recent adventure to Israel, I was surprised by the number of amazing historic and archaeological sites that can be visited.
One of the most amazing sites is Herodium, the ancient citadel and palace of King Herod. King Herod (also known as Herod the Great and Herod I) was a real person, a Roman citizen born in Judea, raised as a Jew and later appointed by the Romans as king of Judea. This was during the Roman occupation so he’s considered a client or puppet king, as he took orders from Rome. He ruled from about 37 BC to 1 BC and during his reign built the Second Temple of Jerusalem along with the mountain fortress of Masada.
There are two parts to the Herodium site, a lower and upper area. The lower area includes a full Roman bath with multiple bathing areas (cold, warm and hot). There’s also a giant pool, surrounded by columns. At the top of a giant man-made hill, there is a hidden palace complex, which includes a theater, multiple rooms, storerooms and water cisterns. Like at Herod’s other construction sites, there is an intricate water flow and storage system. This would allow occupants to survive for long periods of time, even if surrounded or under siege.
The entire site can be explored on foot and it’s best done with an experienced guide. You walk up a large ramp to the top and then can explore the palace area. The palace has an extensive tunnel network and we walked through the tunnels and eventually made our way outside. We then walked back down the hill and explored the lower palace complex area, which reminded me of other ancient Roman sites I’ve visited.
The site is constantly being studied and is always under excavation, it’s believed to be the site of King Herod’s tomb which may have been discovered on the side of the mountain. While we were there, an artist was restoring some of the beautiful murals in a room used by the king to watch performances in his amphitheater.
The Herodium site is in the West Bank, considered by some to be part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It’s in what’s known as Zone C, an area under full Israeli civil and security control and can be safely visited by tourists. Herodium is about 30 minutes from Jerusalem and about ten minutes from Bethlehem. The site is surrounded by Arab villages and it was wonderful to hear the Islamic call to prayer while we explored the site. It reminded me how this ancient area continues to be the center of three of the world’s major religions.