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Jerusalem exhibit reveres King Herod for Holy Land architecture

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 8:24 p.m.

Herod the Great may be best known among Christians as the cruel ruler who sought to kill infant Jesus and whose son bookended Jesus' earthly travails by mocking him en route to his Crucifixion.

The shrewd politician, appointed by Rome, left a far broader imprint on history, however.

From Corinthian columns to lavish frescoes, Herod etched the latest fashions of the Roman world into the Holy Land in rare and costly colors such as cinnabar. Even rabbinic literature of his day recognized Herod as the greatest builder of the land, though he was controversial among some Jewish subjects who doubted his Judaism and saw him as a puppet of Rome.

Among the monuments to Herod's terrific construction are the imposing mountain fortress of Masada, perched on a desert plateau with cliffs on all sides; Caesarea, the largest artificial port of its day, complete with an amphitheater for 10,000 spectators of chariot races; and Herodian, an artificial mountain that punctuates the skyline just south of Jerusalem, a palatial complex that Herod is believed to have built as his final resting place.

After decades of excavation at these sites by late Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer, The Israel Museum in Jerusalem recently started a nine-month exhibit, “Herod the Great: The King's Last Journey.”

The exhibit includes more than 30 tons of material— a massive undertaking that required the museum to shore up its foundations and heighten its ceilings.

Although packed with eager visitors during Passover last week, the Herod exhibit has received a fair amount of negative attention. Much of the material for the exhibit was taken from Herodian, which is in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank. Palestinians accuse Israel of using archaeology to expand its occupation.

Netzer's excavations and subsequent conclusions are not universally accepted. Herod's presumed sarcophagus, for example, has no inscription proving it was his. Many details of the exhibit have been pieced together based on the writings of 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

The exhibit is not controversial among Israelis themselves. But why would Jews seek to honor such a leader —who murdered his own wife and children and was seen by more than a few Jews as a Roman sellout?

“He was the last great Jewish king here,” said Ilya Burda, an employee at Herodian.

As for his more savage exploits, well, that was par for the course in his day, Burda suggested.

“He was a great builder, a great administrator and a great killer, and all these things came together,” he said.

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