Sometimes you read something in the newspaper and have to do a double take or ask yourself if you’ve lost track of time and it’s really April Fool’s Day. Today’s post was about one such occasion. It was a fortnight ago and I was reading a newspaper on-line over breakfast, when I spotted a headline which read “King Herod’s history of biblical massacres and bonsai trees”. That was weird enough but intriguing, so having finished the article I begun to investigate the story behind it by tracking down the researchers involved. The story gradually went from being jokily incredible to being absolutely fascinatingly incredible.
See what you think!
Of course it turns out that the story isn’t new news at all but the latest part of a long running series of investigations into the palaces and gardens of King Herod. It’s being led by Dr Dafna Langgut who is head of the team at the Laboratory of Archaeobotany & Ancient Environments at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Professor Katherine Gleason, professor of Landscape Architecture at Cornell University. Dr Langgut is reconstructing the botanical components of Herod’s various gardens using fossilised pollen as evidence. Pollen is extremely durable, and can survive for thousands of year in most conditions and thanks to modern archaeological techniques even be extracted from plaster on walls. This enables archeobotanists to reconstruct the contents of gardens in surprising detail.
I’m sure the first things most of us would think of in connection with King Herod would be the Massacre of the Innocents and his encounters with the Magi in the Nativity story. But there’s a lot more to him than that.
Herod’s rise to power is a long and complex story largely told by the historian Flavius Josephus, but he had visited Rome, and in 40BCE was recognized by the Roman Senate as “King of the Jews”. In fact Herod’s father was Nabatean [the civilisation that created Petra] and his mother Edomite [from what is now southern Jordan] who had both converted to Judaism. Herod was to rule Judea under Roman protection for nearly 40 years. [There is a good account of his reign in National Geographic’s History Magazine]
Herod was an ambitious builder, spending huge amounts on projects which included the construction of a new city and port at Caesarea Maritima, the Temple in Jerusalem, and a string of defensible fortress palaces most of which feature dramatically designed landscapes and gardens. Descriptions of his gardens form a small part of the Gardens of the Roman Empire project set up as part of the Summer Internship program by Institute for the Study of the Ancient World of New York State University. The research there forms the basis of this post.
Herod’s principal winter palace was close to Jericho which was known as the “City of Palms.” There was an existing palace complex used the country’s former rulers dramatically situated along a wadi [a dry river valley, usually very steep sided which only has water in the rainy season] which opens onto the floor of the Jordan Valley.
Herod originally built a small palace on the other side of the wadi, around a colonnaded courtyard [or peristyle] garden but when his predecessor’s was destroyed in an earthquake he built a new and more sophisticated complex on top of the ruins.
This included a large colonnaded swimming pool, as well another large peristyle courtyard where the central area was about a metre higher than the pathway around it, allowing those walking be much closer to the plants. Most of the planting was in containers. A triclinium or dining area overlooked the garden and there was also a balcony looking over the wadi.
Not content with just 2 palaces on the site Herod then proceeded to construct a third and even larger complex of buildings and gardens, complete with elaborate water channels to take better advantage of the heavy seasonal water flow down the wadi. It covered 7 acres and was built on both sides of the wadi with a bridge between the two sides. His visit to Rome must surely have influenced the design and the various features that were included.
On the north side was a complex of banqueting rooms, Roman style baths, reception rooms and colonnaded walks. There was also an peristyle courtyard built in a mix of local and Roman techniques, with Ionic columns and frescoes with floral motifs of unusually high quality, probably by Roman craftsmen. This courtyard with it central garden was first discovered in 1976 and it seems to have had a combination of planting pits cut into the rock which were filled with soil, and plants in a large number of ceramic pots regularly arranged in 7 rows which were sunk in beneath the surface.
Analysis of the soil showed it was well fertilised with domestic rubbish and manure. The pollen contained evidence of cypress, date palm, pine, and olive trees, but also plants which were not indigenous such as Cedar of Lebanon and Oriental Planes.
The pots were, however, rather unusual. They were made of local clay but in addition to the normal drainage hole in the base had three more around the side. This may have been for religious reasons since the Mishnah, the first major work of rabbinic literature, suggests that pots with holes in the bottom and sides allowed the plants to make contact with the ground. As a result they could be considered plants in the ground in most matters of agricultural law. Such pots were also used for layering trees and shrubs. [For more on this see Kathryn Gleason’s article in the Landscape Journal 1993]
Planting in pots obviously reduced the need to import soil into the garden area but also had the side effect of keeping the trees smaller. There is no way of knowing of course whether this was deliberate, although there is evidence in Roman writers like Pliny that this was quite a common technique and there are frescoes which show dwarf trees growing in pots.
Nevertheless, according to the Times article, this is ” the first botanical evidence for their existence in a classical garden.” Can this be seen, asks Dr Langgut as being the Mediterranean brother to the extreme dwarfism expressed in Japanese bonsai?” It was presumably done so “that human, mainly high-ranking, visitors would feel superior to nature — taller than the trees. It also expressed to visitors Herod’s power and affluence, not only in ruling his subjects but also in controlling natural forces: shaping the size of the trees as well as having a lavish garden at an extreme desert landscape.” It all “symbolised Herod’s secure hegemony and affluence, at home and within the Roman world.”
The south side of the third palace near Jericho was even more spectacular. It had a much larger ‘sunken garden’ which was nearly 40m wide and over 110m long. The back wall of the surrounding structure was built into the hillside and had a series of niches for potted plants, [statues being forbidden under Jewish law] which included a hemicycle, or tiered theatre-like area, with benches for more plants. Evidence was found too for an irrigation system. Despite some early excavations in the 1950s and again in the late 1970s it remains largely unexplored.
There was only one drawback with the third palace. It sat at a lower elevation than the other two on the site and so had much less impressive views. Not to be beaten Herod had an artificial mound or tel constructed. His workmen built a 20m square stone frame of high walls in a grid, creating nine hollow spaces inside, which were then filled with earth and stones. Earth was then heaped around this to form a steep slope. This was reached by a grand staircase and surmounted by a large pavilion where he could sit and take in the views.
Even more impressive views could be seen from Masada, a precipitously sided outcrop in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. The fortress there is synonymous with the last stand of the Zealots during the Jewish Revolt which ended in 74AD but it has a much longer history. For Herod it served as a refuge during the struggles that led him to power. Once Herod consolidated his rule, he turned this now barren desert mountaintop into a luxurious oasis palace.
Human and plant life was made possible because of the heavy seasonal rainfall which was captured by an elaborate water management system. This also allowed crops to be grown on the plateau, although wind erosion has by now removed any trace of soil making that hard to believe.
It was here, in the most spectacular setting imaginable, that Herod created an engineering and architectural masterpiece. The Northern Palace literally hangs off the side of the mountain. A series of platforms were created by alternately building retaining walls and carving into the near-vertical face of the mountain. On these platforms, he built a series of pavilions for dining and entertaining as well as baths and guest rooms. These were luxuriously decorated in stark contact to the landscape outside and gaveHerod a reputation for defying nature.
In 2017 Dafna Langgut and her colleague Guy Steibel led a team investigating part of the Northern Palace site, including a semi-circular terrace which has a spectacular view towards the Dead Sea, the Moab mountains, and an oasis. Their findings suggests this small promontory was a viridarium [or pleasure garden] containing grapevines grown in large pots to create a shady sitting area.
Elsewhere on the other side of Masada’s plateau they also revealed the extent of Herod’s irrigated gardens with reservoirs and a large vineyard.
The final site I want to cover is Herod’s principle residence and burial place, some 12km from Jerusalem, It was built from scratch from around c. 23-20 BC and perhaps unsurprisingly is known as Herodium. It has two main residential areas: the fortified palace on top of a natural hill that was then further artificially raised and an unfortified palace in the valley below.
The lower palace which is largely still unexplored was centred around a large pool which contained an island with a circular pavilion. This sat at the end of a 6km long aqueduct, and was set into a huge garden terrace 120 X 110 m. in size. Around it ran an elevated colonnade.
Limited excavations in 1985 did not reveal planting pits, but instead showed there was decent garden soil which allowed direct planting.
But while the palace was impressive, rising high above all this is the even more spectacular hilltop fortress.
Long thought to contain Herod’s burial place it was only in 2007 that Professor Ehud Netzter discovered the precise site of what is generally supposed to be his tomb. It was however empty, with just fragments of the sarcophagus left scattered about.
It was not inside the fortress as you might have expected but on the hillside leading up to it, cut into a stone terrace.
The choice of site must have been very deliberate. Herodium sits in the desert with little or no natural vegetation, yet the areas to the side and in front of the tomb site were found to be covered with a layer of imported good quality soil. Nearby were the remains of a pool with lead piping indicating an irrigation system. Pollen evidence identified in addition to trees such as cypress, date palm, pine, and olive, more ornamental plants including sage, brassicas and and roses. In other words it looks as if Herod was buried in a garden.
But of course there was slightly more to it than that. Herod was after all Herod the builder. The archaeologists found some pilasters (columns partially built into the walls), which allowed them to estimate that Herod was buried in a mausoleum built of a whitish limestone called meleke (Arabic for “royal”) that was also used for other royal tombs. It was about 30ft square and stood some 80 feet high. [For more on the finding of the tomb see Barbara Kreiger’s article in The Smithsonian Magazine, Aug 2009] Also the 2011 account by Professor Ehud Netzer himself.
The visual effect of all this must have been impressive especially from a distance. The stark brown slope of the hill with its fortress on top and then on the side a tall white monument standing above a slice of green in striking contrast. Yaniv Korman who worked on the project drew these artist’s impressions.
As Leiah Jaffe noted “Herod is not only king over men, he also rules over nature itself by creating this island of green in the middle of the desert.”
Herod’s great garden projects were largely short-lived, most being abandoned within a century of his death, but as Professor Gleason, commented: “When you look at any of Herod’s palaces he builds them in the most extreme locations and does breathtakingly fantastic siting of the architecture. These locations are equally demanding of the plants as well as the human life.” The gardens must have been magnificent in the extreme as well.
So perhaps instead of thinking of Herod merely as a Biblical baddy he should be credited for his abilities in innovative landscape and garden design.