Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Archeology



"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of        
Herod the king, behold wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
Saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?                  
…Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately
                   MATTHEW 2                                 

Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Let's find Herod's Tomb at Herodion

To which of Herod’s palaces did he summon the Magi from the east for a private conference?  Was it in the heart of Jerusalem, next to today’s Jaffa Gate in the palace I dub “Herod’s Hilton,” for it had up to 100 rooms for his family and favored cronies?  Or was it to Herodion, his luxurious and isolated palace out in the Judean wilderness, close to Bethlehem, which he meticulously designed as his future mausoleum?

We can’t know for sure.  But if it was to Herodion where the wise men were summoned, they couldn’t help but compare Herod's palace with its eastern tower an equivalent of nine-stories high, its state-of-the-art bath-room and elegant colonnaded dining hall, to the humble surroundings in which the Savior was born.

Had Herod been analyzed on Freud’s couch, we might know the answer to why Herod, after meeting the wise men, launched a vicious campaign to kill all the male children under two years old in the entire Bethlehem region. (Matthew 2:16)

View of Herodion, the conical-shaped mount where Herod was buried

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View of Herodion, the conical-shaped mountain where King Herod was buried

A careful reading of first century AD historian Josephus Flavius provides a number of clues to Herod’s character.  I’d be happy to share these insights with you and your group on site at Herodion.  Once we hear even a small selection of the “Herod horror stories,” we’ll understand why the emperor himself, Augustus Caesar, reportedly offered this dubious compliment about Herod: “It’s better to be Herod’s pig than his son!” (It's a pun in Greek!)

Another of Herod’s contemporary detractors had this to say about him: “He came to power like a fox, ruled like a tiger and died like a dog!”  Josephus vividly enumerates Herod’s debilitating diseases:  he had swollen feet, inflammation of the abdomen, worms in his genitals, difficulty in breathing, spasms in all his limbs and uncontrollable itching.  Josephus then describes the elaborate funeral cortege which carried Herod's body lying on a solid gold bier adorned with precious stones and draped with deep purple, from Jericho 24 miles to Herodion where Herod was buried.

View of Herodion from the Lower Palace, the largest country club in the ancient world

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View of Herodion from the colonnaded swimming pool

But where was Herod’s tomb? The search went on for over 150 years until May 2007 when Professor Ehud Netzer of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University publicly announced the discovery of Herod’s tomb.

When I first visited Herodion with Professor Netzer in 1981, the location of Herod’s tomb was a tantalizing riddle.  There were at least seven theories of where it could be.  Professor Netzer at that time was concentrating on Lower Herodion with its monumental palace and spacious swimming pool.  Nearby, Netzer discovered a large route, 350 yards long and 30 yards wide, which had been especially prepared for the funeral procession.  During that tour, Netzer showed us exactly where he expected to find the tomb. But no luck. Nada.

Herodion swimming pool and Lower Palace

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Netzer originally thought Herod was buried near the lower palace (foreground)

Now, 26 years later, in the middle of the artificially raised cone-shaped mountain, Professor Netzer found the mausoleum.  It was almost totally dismantled in ancient times, most certainly by the zealots fighting Rome, who considered Herod a vicious Roman lackey.  The intricately crafted sarcophagus itself was broken into hundreds of pieces.  Originally it had been made of Jerusalem red-tinted limestone and decorated with rosettes.  Archeologists at the site have unfortunately not found an inscription. But two additional sarcophagi have been discovered.

Gila sitting on the podium of Herod's mausoleum in June 2007

Photo:  Barbara Kreiger

Sitting on the podium of Herod's mausoleum in June 2007


View of Herod's Mausoleum at Herodion, September 2008

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

More of Herod's mausoleum exposed at Herodion in September 2008

Since the discovery I have visited Herodion ten times, and in my mind, there’s no doubt about it: it is Herod’s tomb!  This is a very exciting discovery, mostly because of the inordinately long search.  Professor Ehud Netzer and his team are still on site, hunting for more evidence.

Ehud Netzer at the excavation site of Herod's Mausoleum

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Professor Ehud Netzer (figure on left) at the excavation of Herod's mausoleum


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In November 2008, I attended a press conference where Herod’s sarcophagus was exhibited along with other impressive fragments of urns, which had once adorned Herod’s first century (4 BC) tomb.  Professor Netzer showed us drawings of terraced gardens which had once surrounded the ornate tomb monument.

Ehud Netzer by King Herod's sarcophagus, November 2008

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ehud Netzer posing by what he presumes to be King Herod's sarcophagus


Second white polished limestone sarcophagus with lid, found at Herodion

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Sarcophagus found at Herodion, possibly of Herod's 6th wife, mother of Archelaus

Another surprise was the discovery to the west of the mausoleum of an intimate theater seating 300 spectators along with a loggia, a royal box where Herod could watch performances with his closest cronies.  (If he had any, that is!) This VIP viewing and hospitality room was decorated with brightly colored wall paintings and plaster moldings in a style never seen before in the holy land.

On your next pilgrimage, come with me to Herodion which has it all: stunningly stark desert vistas, a just-solved archeological riddle, cistern-tunnels for the adventurers to explore, and a link to the birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew.
March 2021 UPDATE
During the pandemic when there were no tourists in the land, I returned to Herodion just after the loggia, the "royal box" was opened to the public.  The theater had been restored and the steps mentioned by Josephus Flavius which once led up to the Upper Palace had been reconstructed.
I will contrast some of my earlier photos taken after the discovery of the tomb and the previously unknown theater with my 2021 photos.

Newly excavated theater at Herodion in 2009

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Newly excavated theater at Herodion in 2009


Ongoing theater excavations of the Royal Room in 2009

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Shed covering the ongoing theater excavations of the Royal Room in 2009


Reconstructed royal box above the theater with the hill of the Upper Palace behind

Photo:  Gila Yudkin 2021

Reconstructed "royal box" above the theater with the hill of the Upper Palace behind


Archeologist Ehud Netzer displaying the ancient wall painting

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ehud Netzer showing a journalist friend and me the ancient wall paintings in 2009


Royal Room after restoration/conservation in 2021

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The same corner of the Royal Room after restoration/conservation in 2021


Fresco and stuccowork in the theater's Royal Room

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Restored decoration on the opposite wall of the Royal Room as seen in 2021

Note a fragment of the stuccowork frieze in the upper portion of the pilaster

The crocodile and palm tree symbolize Augustus' victory over Cleopatra

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Wall painting in the style of a "hanging window" with an Egyptian motif

The crocodile and palm tree symbolize Augustus' victory over Cleopatra


Original stairs leading from the theater to the Upper Palace were exposed in 2011

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The original stairs leading from the theater to the Upper Palace were exposed in 2011

"It [the fortress] has a steep ascent of 200 stairs of hewn stone," Josephus writes


One can ascend Herodion today via the 2,000 year old steps

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ascending to Herodion (safely!) via the ancient steps in 2021


Podium of Herod's Tomb with a model based upon a similarity to Absalom's Tomb

Photo:  Gila Yudkin 2021

Podium of Herod's Tomb with a model based upon a similarity to Absalom's Tomb


See "Let's revisit Herod's Mausoleum at Herodion" for my memories of Ehud Netzer after his tragic death in October 2010.


February 2023 photos

Podium of Herod's Tomb taken from the 2000-year-old steps in 2023

Photo:  Gila Yudkin 2023

Podium of Herod's Tomb taken from the 2000-year-old steps (facing east)


View of the podium of Herod's Tomb

Photo:  Gila Yudkin 2023

View of the podium of Herod's Tomb facing south-west

Gila Yudkin, who calls herself a Connecticut-born Yankee living now in King David's court, has been shepherding pilgrims in the Holy Land for over a quarter of a century. She hasn’t yet lost one stray – at least not permanently!  It’s recommended you contact Gila while you are planning your pilgrimage to ensure that your itinerary is feasible, inspiring and allows for biblical adventures.
If archeology enthralls you, consider reading “Shepherds, Scholars and Scrolls” about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

David, as a young boy, would certainly have practiced with his slingshot right below the hill later called Herodion as he was protecting his father’s sheep.  An ideal gift for someone who wants to slay his giants is the “Traditional Slingshot that Killed Goliath,” woven by a woman from Bethlehem.

Copyright 2008, 2009, 2013, 2021, 2023  Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.




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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin