JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An ancient staircase used in a royal funeral procession led an Israeli archaeologist to solve a 2,000-year-old mystery, the location of the tomb of the Roman-anointed “King of the Jews,” Herod the Great.
Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer said on Tuesday he had found the sarcophagus of the king, who ruled Judea from about 37 BC until his death in 4 BC, had been smashed, most likely by Jews who rebelled against Rome from 66 to 72 AD.
Speaking at a news conference a day after the university announced the discovery, Netzer said the monarch’s remains most likely disappeared when the rebels raided the tomb at Herodium, where Herod’s fortress palace once stood, near Jerusalem.
Herod has a special place in biblical history.
He rebuilt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the Gospel of Matthew says he ordered the “Massacre of the Innocents”, the killing of male infants in Jesus’s birthplace of Bethlehem out of fear of losing his throne to a new “king of the Jews”.
Netzer had searched for Herod’s tomb at Herodium for about 30 years. Herod, born in around 74 BC, had chosen to be buried at the desert fortress he built around 23 BC and which he used as a summer palace.
The burial site, in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was found more than a month ago at the end of an ancient staircase leading up to the hilltop, Netzer said.
“The monumental stairs were built specifically for the funeral,” Netzer said.
Ancient Jewish historian Falavius Josephus had written that Herod’s funeral procession began from the city of Jericho and was attended by hundreds of his guards and servants.
Earlier digs had focused on other parts of Herodium, including a “tomb estate”, remnants of two buildings and a large ritual bath, that originally had been chosen as a burial site.
Netzer and his team concluded the tomb they unearthed, estimated to have been about 2.5 meters (8 feet) long, was Herod’s because of its lavish design. One of the limestone remnants possessed a flower-like pattern. No bones were found.
“It was not a sarcophagus that rolled around on the streets, was common or which anyone could afford during the era,” Netzer said. “There are only one or two of its kind.”