King Herod's Palaces

Archaeology in Israel

Herod I (c. 72 – 4 or 1 BCE), also known as Herod the Great, was a Roman client king of Judea. Nowdays King Herod’s Palaces are popular destinations among tourists. For example Masada, Jerusalem; Jericho, Caesarea Maritima, and more. Moreover, he’s known as Herod the Builder for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of the Temple Mount towards its north the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron the construction of the Port at Caesarea Maritima the fortress at Masada, and Herodium. Vital details of his life are recorded in the works of the 1st century CE Roman–Jewish historian Josephus.

King Herod’s Palaces: Masada

So Masada was built by Herod as part of an entire line of fortifications on the eastern side of his kingdom. The big advantage is that it’s situated on top of an isolated rock plateau, akin to a mesa (geologically it’s a horst). It is located on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built two palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE.

The palaces on Masada are divided into four groups:

  • The Northern Palace – a villa, also known as the northern palace.
  • The ceremonial palace is also known as the Western Palace.
  • Small palaces adjacent to the western palace that were used by the royal family.
  • Magnificent buildings resembling small palaces, used by courtiers and administrative centers.

King Herod’s Palaces: The Northern Palace at Masada

The northern palace has three levels – the upper one, which was used as the king’s residence, was on top of the cliff, and the two lower steps were built below the summit level and were supported in some places by huge retaining walls. Visitors to the palace were able to enjoy the spectacular views from it, as well as a relative cool point at Masada, due to the high northern winds and the natural shade from the southern sun. Now the upper level at the Northern palace belonged to the king and his immediate circle. No one else was allowed in there apart from a few.

The top deck of the palace (where Herid stayed)has two separate parts; a semi-circular balcony with walls on which, according to the researchers’ hypothesis, stood columns in two rows. The second part was a living wing with two rooms to the east and west enclosing an open courtyard. The walls of the rooms were decorated with murals in geometric and floral patterns.

The tiles were built of black and white mosaic in interlocking geometric patterns. A roof supported by two columns of columns protected the inner parts of the inner courtyard, the column headings were of the ionic order type many of which were discovered lying in place. The entrance to the top floor and the entire palace was on the east side.

The Lower Level of the Northern Palace

The lower level was built below the middle level and 35 meters below the upper level and was the most magnificent of the levels. In addition, the center stood a square hall and its walls were tangent to the edge of the cliff and supported by retaining walls. Furthermore in the center stands a covered structure carried by pillars (portico). The inner wall was the cliff wall that was covered with a layer of cement and columns were attached to it (see photo). On all the pillars of the building were Corinthian capitals painted in gold!

The lower part of the portico is decorated with murals in the form of stone and marble slabs. The floor of the portico was built of wood and presumably, part of the building was covered in order to protect the murals. In the southeastern corner of the lower echelon, a small bathhouse (Thermae) was erected.

King Herod’s Palaces: The Western Palace at Masada

The Western Palace is a 4,000 square meter building adjacent to the center of the western fortification wall and near the Western Gate. In addition to being used as a residential building, the excavations indicated that it was a central administrative and ceremonial center in Masada with four main parts:

First The Royal Living Wing with suites built around a central courtyard. In the southern part of the courtyard was an entrance to a foyer, the walls of which were adorned with ornate plaster walls, and from which they entered the throne room. In this room were found 4 sockets that were used for a throne or for poles that supported the cladding above the throne. The bedrooms and dining area were built on the west side of the courtyard. Another room built along the entire length of the east side was a foyer on the east side of the throne room, with a magnificent mosaic floor with a combination of geometric shapes and images of fruit.

King Herod’s Palaces: Jerusalem

King Herod’s Palace at Jerusalem was built in the last quarter of the 1st century BCE by Herod I the Great, King of Judea from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. It was the second most important building in Jerusalem, after the Temple itself, in Herod’s day and was situated at the northwestern wall of the Upper City of Jerusalem (the Western Hill abandoned after the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem).

Moreover, Herod lived in it as a principal residence, but not permanently, as he owned other palace-fortresses, notably at Masada, Herodium, and Caesarea Maritima. Nothing remains of the Jerusalem Palace today except for portions of the surrounding wall-and-tower complex, much altered and generally known as “the Citadel” (Tower of David). The site of the former palace is now occupied by the Tower of David Museum, a police station, and a former Turkish barracks/prison known as the Kishle.

The Probable Location and associated structures

Herod’s palace-fortress in Jerusalem stood along the western city wall, in the area now taken by the Armenian Quarter, starting in the north at the Kishle building and ending at the present line of the modern (Ottoman period) wall west of Zion Gate. It consisted mainly of two palace wings placed north and south of a large garden.

Immediately north of the complex, in the area of today’s Citadel and Jaffa Gate, Herod erected three huge towers, as additional protection and last refuge in case of danger. These he called after people close to him – Hippicus after a friend, Phasael after his brother, and Mariamne after his favorite wife. These towers strengthened the northwest corner of the First Wall, the city wall built by the Hasmoneans sometime between 152 and 134 BCE.

Of the three towers, only the massive lower part of the Hippicus Tower (or the Phasael Tower, according to some researchers) has survived. Remains of two older, Hasmonean towers (the Southern and Middle Towers) have been found in the present Citadel courtyard, which is unrelated to the missing Herodian towers.

During the Byzantine period, the tower, and by extension the Citadel as a whole, acquired its alternative name – the Tower of David – after the Byzantines, mistakenly identifying the hill as Mount Zion, presumed it to be David’s palace. This name is still in use today, although in the 19th century an Ottoman minaret erected between 1635 and 1665 over the southern wall of the Citadel took over the title of “Tower of David” so that the name can now refer to either the whole Citadel or the minaret alone.

King Herod’s Palaces: Herodium

Herod’s Palace is an archaeological site within the fortress of Herodium, south of Jerusalem. Herod the Great commissioned a lavish palace to be built between 23 and 15 BCE atop Herodium for all to see. The palace itself consisted of four towers of seven stories, a bathhouse, courtyards, a Roman theatre, banquet rooms, a large walkway (“the course”), as well as extravagant living quarters for himself and guests. Once Herod died and the Great Revolt started, Herodium was abandoned.

Archaeologists believe that the palace was built by slaves, paid workers (contractors), and architects. Herod was considered one of the greatest builders of his time, and geography did not daunt him—his palace was built on the edge of the desert and was situated atop an artificial hill. The largest of the four towers was built on a stone base 18 meters in diameter. This was most likely where Herod lived; he decorated his rooms with mosaic floors and elaborate frescoes. The other three towers, which consisted of living spaces and storage, were 16 meters in diameter. Outside, several cisterns were built to collect water that was channeled into the palace.

King Herod’s Palaces: Machaerus

Machaerus is a fortified hilltop palace located in Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. According to Flavius Josephus, it is the location of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. According to the chronology of the Bible (Mark 6:24; Matthew 14:8), this infamous execution took place in about 32 CE shortly before the Passover, following the imprisonment of two years. The site also provides the setting for four additional New Testament characters: Herod the Great; his son, Tetrarch Herod Antipas; his second wife, Princess Herodias, and her daughter, Princess Salome.

The fortress Machaerus was originally built by the Hasmonean king, Alexander Jannaeus (104 BCE-78 BCE) in about the year 90 BCE, serving an important strategic position. Its high, rocky vantage point was difficult to access, and invasions from the east could be easily spotted from there. It was also in the line of sight of other Hasmonean (and later Herodian) citadels, so other fortresses could be signaled if trouble appeared on the horizon. Nevertheless, it was destroyed by Pompey’s general Gabinius in 57 BCE. But later rebuilt by Herod the Great in 30 BC to be used as a military base to safeguard his territories east of the Jordan.

Upon the death of Herod the Great, the fortress was passed to his son, Herod Antipas, who ruled from 4 BCE until 39 CE. It was during this time, at the beginning of the first century CE, that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded at Machaerus.

King Herod’s Palaces: Jericho

The first palace was situated on the southern bank of Wadi Qelt, on land leased from Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, who received it as a gift from Mark Antony in 36 BCE. Meanwhile, in the north, the Hasmonean palace was still standing. The palace was a rectangular building. In the center was an open courtyard with perimeter columns and a central pool draining the rainwater. In the palace were a magnificent hall, a luxurious bathhouse, and a pair of deep pools, which were apparently ritual baths. The palace was exposed in 1951 by Pritchard, who thought it was a gymnasium. After excavation of the palace, it was covered over with sand.

The Archaeologist Ehud Netzer

The second palace was built in 31 BCE. Herod won the trust of Emperor Augustus and in return received the Jericho area he had previously lost to the by-then defunct Queen Cleopatra. After the earthquake of 31 BCE, Herod decided to build a second palace on the ruins of the Hasmonean palace. He combined the pools of the Hasmonean palace into one large pool. The second palace (north of Wadi Qelt), along with the first palace (south of Wadi Qelt), served Herod for residential and ceremonial purposes.

A unique feature of the second palace was its residential wing, which contained a designated recreation area. The villa was built on an artificial tell covering the Hasmonean palace: eight meters above the surroundings, providing a view of the estate’s orchards and the surroundings. The second palace was full of gardens. In the pleasure wing were the big pool and a bathhouse, which has been well preserved.

The third palace was the most magnificent of the palaces. It was established on both sides of Wadi Qelt. Ehud Netzer, the editor of excavations at the site, believes that palace residents could see water flowing in the riverbed for up to two months a year, letting the viewers feel like they were on the edge of an actual river. The builders, who apparently were from Italy, used construction methods that were common in their homeland such as:

Opus reticulatum – small stones, 10 cm by 10 cm, placed in diagonal rows. In Jericho, they were anointed with white or colored plaster.
Opus Koodroas – rectangular stones.
Local mud bricks were also layered on top of stone construction. After being covered with plaster, there was no difference between them and the models from Italy.


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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