On the second weekend of the Shiloh excavation, I teamed up with four others for an exploration of the region south of Jerusalem. We piled into my car and headed for our first stop: Herodion.
Herodion lies seven miles south of Jerusalem. It is a distinctive cone-shaped hill that Herod the Great fortified during his lifetime. Herod was a renowned builder, as evidenced by the fact that many of his building projects still survive to this day. He was also paranoid, and historians record that he had his wife and sons put to death when he feared that they were conspiring against him.
Herodion is a testimony to both Herod’s building prowess and his paranoia. The lower city of Herodion features a lavish bathhouse and a massive pool with an island gazebo in the center. The upper city of Herodion, built into the center of the mountain, was a veritable fortress.
Archaeological excavations have uncovered a long staircase leading up one side of the mountain to a gateway that tunneled through the side of the mountain into upper city. The gate is one of the most impressive ancient gateways that I have ever seen. It it three stories high with tiers of arches stretching high overhead. When archaeologists excavated the gate, they discovered that it was in pristine condition, as if it had never been used. The rubble filling the gateway had not accumulated over time. Instead, someone purposely filled in the gateway shortly after its construction. Perhaps Herod had the gateway constructed, and then, in his paranoia, feared that it would make the city too easily accessible, and had it blocked up.
When Herod’s death drew near, he chose Herodion as his burial place. The cone-shaped mountain became his mausoleum. A monument was constructed on the side of the mountain, marking the place of his grave. Herod was buried in an elaborately-decorated sarcophagus.
After thoroughly exploring Herodion, we headed to the nearby town of Tekoa. Some dirt roads brought us to Khirbet Khuretun, a Byzantine-era monastery and settlement on the edge of a deep wadi. A trail ran along the edge of the wadi. Regularly-spaced doorways led into the remains of small homes built into the hillside.
Based on our research beforehand, we understood that there was a particularly long cave somewhere in the vicinity, and after some exploring, we found it. Two of our team members decided not to risk the steep trail leading to the cave, so only three of us entered the cave. It featured many tunnels and chambers. At first, I thought we might get lost in this underground labyrinth, but we quickly figured out how to navigate it. One of our teammates did not care to go very deep into the cave, but two of us continued further.
We followed a tunnel deep into the earth. It gradually grew smaller and smaller, and finally we found ourselves at a point where the tunnel became too small even to crawl through. I decided to check it out and see what it looked like. If it widened out again quickly, we would proceed. I lay on my belly and wiggled through the opening. I proceeded this way for about 6 feet before the tunnel opened out into a small chamber and then became narrow again. I wiggled on just far enough to see that there was no sign of the tunnel widening out at any point soon. I backed into the wide spot and turned around to rejoin my teammate waiting for my report. We decided that we had explored as far as we cared to go. We navigated the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers leading to the fresh air and sunlight awaiting us outside.
We headed back toward Jerusalem, but we still had a couple of stops planned. We pulled into a gas station along the road leading up to Jerusalem and piled out of the car to visit the Kathisma church. Today, only the foundation and mosaic tiled floors remain. This church commemorates the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. It is an octagonal church with a large rock at the center. According to tradition, Mary stopped and rested on this rock. The octagonal shape of the structure surrounding a stone reminds me very much of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
We explored the site quickly since there was not too much to see there. We noted that archaeological excavations were occurring at part of the site, but nobody was working there that day. We piled back into the car and headed to our next and final stop, which was directly up the hill from the Kathisma Church.
Just a few miles from Jerusalem, Ramat Rachel became an important administrative center toward the end of the period of the kings of Judah. A large palace stood there in the 6th century BC. It was apparently quite lavish, and archaeobotanical analyses suggest that a wide variety of plant types grew in the gardens there. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the Babylonians, Ramat Rachel became an administrative center for the Persian empire.
We explored the archaeological ruins at the site, but we were not familiar enough with the layout to understand all of what we were seeing. In some places, modern sculptures marked the corners of ancient structures. The signs labelled them as “hypothetical ruins,” which struck us as quite humorous. We decided that any time that we don’t find what we expect at our excavations, we can simply label it as hypothetical ruins.
This was our last stop of the day, and we headed back to Jerusalem in time for dinner.