Middle East

Modern politics overshadows Israel’s historic Herod exhibit

Visitors examine sarcophagi and what is believed to be the burial place of Herod brought from Herodium
Image caption The Israel Museum has rebuilt what is believed to be Herod's burial place

He's best known as a great tyrant. King Herod is said to have killed his wife and sons as well as all the baby boys of Bethlehem.

But the first major exhibition on the Biblical ruler at the Israel Museum sets out to prove that he also had positive qualities that make him more deserving of the title "Herod the Great".

"We tried to show that he was not only the cruel person described by [the Jewish historian] Josephus and the New Testament but he was also a ruler who managed to keep this country in peace for 33 years," says curator Silvia Rosenburg.

"It was probably very difficult being a local ruler caught between the Roman Empire and the different exigencies of Judaism, but he did it very well. In his time there was prosperity and work for everyone."

A main reason why there was mass employment was because of the ambitious building projects ordered by Herod when he ruled between 37 and 4 BC.

Some of the artefacts on display at the museum come from the Second Temple complex in Jerusalem, which he expanded. It was later destroyed but Jews still pray at its Western Wall.

He also erected splendid palaces in the desert including several in what is now the occupied West Bank: at Jericho, ancient Cypros and Herodium. Fragments of frescoes and mosaics from the sites have been pieced together at the museum.

Relics removed

The highlight of the exhibit is a partial reconstruction of what is believed to be the King's burial place at Herodium. It was discovered in 2007, by the Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer.

Some 30 tonnes of material were brought from Herodium including masonry and the sarcophagus thought to have contained Herod's body.

Image caption Herodium is at the centre of a row between Israel and the Palestinians over cultural heritage

"The material that's never been seen before is the material that's been excavated at Herodium just within recent years," says museum director James Snyder.

"For the museum it's been a kind of privilege because we've been able to bring this material here, give it quality restoration and put it on view for the exhibition."

However, Palestinian officials say they will make a formal complaint to the museum for removing relics from the West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of a future state.

"This is against international law," says Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism and antiquities minister.

"Herodium is on land that was occupied in 1967. This is Palestinian land and the Israelis have no right for excavations there. They don't have any right or authority there in Herodium and they don't have the right to take any antiquities."

Ms Maayah says Israeli authorities did not consult her department about the exhibition even though it involves joint cultural heritage. "Actually we only heard about it from the media," she says.

'Controlling history'

The Israel Museum says the material from Herodium - and other West Bank locations - is on loan and will be returned to the sites, in better condition than before, after the exhibition closes in nine months.

Image caption Israel Museum staff have carried out extensive conservation work on the artefacts

But the controversy serves as a powerful reminder of how modern politics is tied up with the history of the Holy Land.

"There is no respect for Palestinian history. Herod is not just important for Jews. He is important to Christians and Muslims as well," says Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the PLO Negotiations Unit.

"Archaeology and tourism are being used as tools to justify the occupation."

The Israeli government lists Herodium, a hilltop fortress-palace close to Bethlehem, as a national heritage site and has opened a visitor attraction there.

It is in Area C, part of the 62% of the West Bank that has been kept under full Israeli control since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians, who were granted full membership of the United Nations' cultural body UNESCO in 2010, say they plan to nominate Herodium and monasteries nearby for recognition as a world heritage site.

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