Studium Theologicum Salesianum
Salesian Pontifical University : Faculty of Theology - Jerusalem Campus



2 March 2017  -  STS - Jerusalem
BUDNY Jaroslaw


Here at STS, we are already fully immersed into the second semester and another archaeological excursion took place on March 2nd 2017. This time we managed to visit three sites located in Judea. Interestingly, all these places are connected to one person, significant for the history of this land – King Herod the Great. For us, Christians, he is the one who ordered the killing of the infants after the birth of Jesus and this is all we generally know about him. Visiting different sites in the land of Israel one can realize that he was a very skilful, though cruel political leader. He was the king of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC and was one of the greatest builders in the ancient history of this area.

Here we have a city with its fortress that was named after Herod. This already suggests that for this Idumean born king of Judea, it was a very important place. The fortress was located not accidentally on the highest peak of the Judean desert (759 m.) 15 kilometres south from Jerusalem. Herod's desire was to make it possible to see the city of Jerusalem from the top of his new construction. In order to make that happen, some say that the hill size was artificially expanded. At the beginning the seven-story fortress stood on the top of the hill and could be well seen from afar. However, later the walls were covered with earth and so hidden behind this extra layer. Because of this and thanks to its circular shape it resembles a volcano. Some part of the fortress is therefore underground. The fortress was the place of Herod's private castle, with courtyards, rooms, hall for visitors and a bathhouse. It was also connected by a staircase with the lower part of the city, where palace and offices were located. Also in the lower city there were bathhouses, a large Roman garden and an artificial lake where even small boats could be sailed. The water for the lower city was supplied by aqueducts from the pools near Bethlehem. For the fortress, Herod created a net of cisterns that could collect rain water. Also on the north-east side of a slope the Roman theatre was built with a magnificently ornamented royal chamber – where Herod could enjoy plays. This site of the hill is also the burial place of Herod. He did not want to be buried inside the city, because it would make it unclean, therefore a massive monument was constructed on a slope near the staircase. In order to build this, Herod ordered destruction of some storerooms and parts of the theatre. However, today we cannot view this construction, since it was possibly destroyed by his opponents, who did not like his subordination to Romans. Also the sarcophagus found on the spot, once possibly containing his body was demolished along with two other sarcophagi.  The location of the Herodium was very strategic, with it’s difficult to conquer fortress and vicinity of the desert road, and its symbolic significance.

During the Great Revolt the fortress was taken by the zealots who were fighting the Romans. They spent four years there: 66-70 AD and eventually surrendered to the Romans. During their stay they changed the visitor’s hall into a synagogue and constructed two Mikveh for ritual baths, giving some religious character to the site. Also later, during the Bar Kochba Revolt 132-135 AD, the fortress was a stronghold of the Jews fighting Romans. During this time they used the water system with its tunnels and additional hewn passages in order to surprise the Romans. After the failure of the uprising, the site was abandoned and inhabited only in the 5th century by the monks who constructed four churches in the area. One of them was a small chapel beside the synagogue of the Zealots. In the 7th century, after the Arab conquest, Herodium became an uninhabited ruin.

The site was discovered by Franciscan Fr. Vigelio Corbo as a result of the excavations in the 60's, in the 20th century. Later, the works were taken on by professor Ehud Netzer who spent thirty eight years excavating the site. In 2007, he found the place of the tomb of Herod, but unfortunately in 2010 he died tragically on the site during his work as a result of a fall from the height near to Herod's grave. Some people still believe that it is the result of Herod's curse.


Here we saw a complex of three ancient pools connected to each other that were the source of water supply for many years. It is located south of Bethlehem on the way to Hebron. There is also a network of aqueducts connected to the pools that bring the water from nearby springs and rain water from the area around. The three pools are constructed on three different levels, so when one was full, the water would flow into the other. Although the complex was constructed in the Hasmonean period, the pools were in use until the 20th century, therefore some changes in the constructions were required.

The significance of the complex was greater when, during Herod's reign, it supplied water to the temple in Jerusalem and the nearby Herodium. There is no need to add that long lines of aqueducts were constructed by this king. Later some modifications were added by Pilate. Although the pools were constructed during the Hasmonean period, they were named after King Solomon who lived many years before. It is so because of the passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes 2:6, ‘ I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.’ Also Josephus Flavius added something to the story claiming that King Solomon enjoyed the rich waters of Etham that was one of the springs feeding the pools. This, together with the legend, that for all of his 1000 wives, Solomon built a pool, resulted in the fact that the name of Solomon was given to the pools.


This was the last stop of our archaeological excursion. The City of Hebron is possibly the highest among the biblical places, since is located 900 meters above sea level. The history of the city in the Bible starts very early: Late Bronze (1550-1200 BC). It was the time of the Canaanites and the Patriarchs. In Genesis 13, Abraham comes to Canaan given to him by God and settles in the plain of Mamrewhich is today’s Hebron. Here is also the first piece of land that Abraham bought with money for the burial place of his wife (Gn 23). After this, Abraham (Gn 25) and his sons with their wives who all lived in Hebron were buried in the Machpelah cave (Gn 35) for which Abraham had paid 400 shekels of silver.

During the Iron Age I (1200-1000 BC) the Israelites conquered this land after returning from Egypt.  In Num. 13 we read that the spies sent by Moses, reported back that the land of Hebron was inhabited by giants. Eventually the city was conquered by Joshua (Joshua 10-13) after defeating five kings in the battle of Gibeon and slaughtering everyone in Hebron. The city was allotted to the tribe of Judah and was one of the refugee’s cities, where murderers could escape (Joshua 20).
The city of Hebron was an important place in the Kingdom of Israel (Iron Age II (1000-586 BC), because for seven years and six months King David resided there before moving to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 2). There was a growth in the settlement activity in this area in the 8th century BC that was stopped by two invasions: Babylonian and Assyrian. The Assyrian King Sennacheryb came in 701 BC and conquered forty six cities, among them Hebron; however with God's help King Hezekiah defeated him in Jerusalem and he returned back (2 Chro. 31-32; 2Kgs 19). However, in 587 BC the final destruction of Judea came by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon who also completely destroyed Hebron. The area was inhabited by Idumeans who had been driven out of their country by Nabateans.

During the Hasmonean and Hellenistic period, Idumeans supported Seleucids and so the Hasmoneans attacked the area of Hebron and forced them to circumcision. In this way the number of the army of John Hyrcanus was increased. Possibly nobody expected that as a result of these political and religious changes the Idumean, Herod, would become the King of Judea.

The reign of Herod was very important for Hebron. He is the one who built a monumental structure over the cave of the Patriarchs and therefore established a pilgrimage site that has been used unceasingly for 2000 years. During the Byzantine period eastern part of the structure was converted into a church. After the Arab conquest, the site became a mosque and pilgrimage site, since Abraham and his sons are also venerated by Muslims. For a while during the Crusaders period there was a Church and then when Muslims regained the city it became a mosque; however some features of the church are still visible.

After the Mamlukes conquered the city (1267) they added minarets to the structure and also applied some other changes. They also forbid Jews and Christians from entering the compound; they could only go as far as the seventh step of the staircase. This rule lasted for 700 years (1267-1967).

Until 1929, the Arabs and Jewish minority lived next to each other, but then as a result of propaganda the tragedy happened. Sixty seven Jews were killed by their neighbours as a result. So the Jewish community was no longer present in Hebron. They tried to come back in 1931, but again because of the violence it was impossible. Only as a result of the Six days war did Israel resettle Jews and the new community was founded in 1971, in the neighbourhood called Kiryat Arba – which is the biblical name for Hebron (lit. it means the town of the four; maybe it refers to the four giants, that the spies sent by Joshua were afraid of). The Jewish presence in the heart of Hebron however can be dated back to 1980, when the first settlers arrived to Beit Hadassah. A place where in the past was a hospital, thus a beginning for a new community.

Our visit to Hebron started in Beit Hadassah and in the museum located there, we learnt something about the history of the place, about the excavations of the ancient Hebron and the significance of the city for Jews. After this we moved to the most important place we were about to visit that day – the Tombs of the Patriarchs. Firstly we went to the Jewish zone with its five synagogues where we could see the symbolic tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Isaac and Rebecca.

Afterwards we visited the mosque which is technically in the same building, however because of the political situation, is completely separated. There we could see another symbolic tomb, and that is very important, as Jews and Muslims share one site, which is the tomb of Abraham. We call all the tombs symbolic, because the bodies were placed in the deep caves that nobody can access therefore, so called cenotaphs were set up for the pilgrims to see and venerate.
What is very interesting, there is an entrance that could lead to the caves, but however it is blocked out of respect. However, there is just one hole nearby the cenotaph of Abraham that allows Muslims to put down a candle each day.

The visit to all these places was very enriching and we were not only able to follow the footsteps of the great builder of the ancient Israel, but also to meet the people who continue to live in the context of a very difficult past. This, particularly in Hebron, where we could meet people of the both sides of the conflict and where tension could be sensed in the air.  We need to trust that as human beings we may one day be able to learn from our past mistakes and history that is often is full of bloodshed, so that we may all live together in peace.





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