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Christmas at Herodium

Text and Photos by Matt Churchill

Herod the Great spent his last days at pleasure palaces he had built in Jericho, taking trips to the Dead Sea spas in order to relieve his painful venereal disease, as his body and mind were rotting away. The historian Josephus says that Herod died in 4 BCE from "the putrification of his privy member." The funeral procession brought him back up to the edge of the desert, to a fortress-mausoleum he built six miles south of Jerusalem, called Herodium.

Who was this Herod? He descended from Idumean and Nabatean aristocracy who were converted to Judaism in the wake of the Hasmonean conquests (the Hanukkah story). Trained to lead, he received the backing of the Roman Senate to rule Judaea in 40 BCE and would go on to crush his real and imagined enemies while proving his loyalty to Rome and rebuilding the region on a scale hitherto unheard of.

His closest ally in Rome had been Mark Anthony, who was defeated by Octavian in 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, off the coast of Greece. Octavian was crowned sole emperor of Rome in 27 BCE, and took the title Augustus Caesar. When Herod traveled to Italy to pledge allegiance to Augustus, it is reported that Caesar said, "If you will be as loyal to me as you were to Anthony, I know you will be a true friend of Rome." Given a much more expansive territory to rule, Herod's massive building projects would truly begin.

The remains of Herod's mausoleum uncovered just a little over a decade ago, looking east to the desert.

At Caesarea on the Mediterranean, he laid foundations of a massive man-made harbor and erected entertainment complexes for blood spectacles and sports. In Samaria and the Golan Heights he built towering temples to Augustus Caesar and Roma. He rebuilt the Jerusalem's Temple as one of the largest sacred precincts of the Roman empire (140,000 square meters). Just as Augustus Caesar boasted of having repaved Rome in marble, so to Herod rebuilt Jerusalem to his patron's standards. All along the Judean wilderness and Dead Sea Rift, he erected desert fortresses and winter palaces.

Herodium is one such place on the edge of the desert. A site where he almost took his own life during one of his early battles, before being rallied by his best men and escaping to Masada. After he rose to power, he vowed to commission an eternal memorial to his fame that could be seen by his posterity from their inherited royal palace in the holy city. Indeed, even today, when driving out of Jerusalem to the south one can see the cone-shaped hill of Herodium perched above Bethlehem. Maybe Herod was overcompensating for something? After all, he couldn't claim Davidic ancestry as earlier Judaic kings had done, or even Maccabean pedigree. So he would try to prove his legitimate right to rule through his monumental building campaign.

"What does all this have to do with Christmas!?" Christian travelers often come to Herodium before their visit to Bethlehem for several reasons.

The Herodium was Herod's summer complex, complete with bathhouses, swimming pools, a hippodrome for races, and a 300-seat theater, whose exquisite frescoes and stucco have recently been restored and reopened to the public. The upper palace boasts enormous cisterns which were fed by aqueduct, double concentric walls protecting inner courtyards and dining rooms, and four towers that still provide the best panoramic views, even though they have fallen many meters below their original height. The large triclinium was turned into a synagogue and the underground cisterns were converted into guerrilla warfare tunnels by Jewish rebels during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 - 135 CE) which was tragically crushed by the Emperor Hadrian. The famous Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer (1934 - 2010) discovered Herod's fancy, smashed sarcophagus a couple of years before his death, having spent decades searching for Herod's grave at Herodium.

The inside of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem which is going through massive restorations.

So you may be asking yourself, "What does all this have to do with Christmas!?" Christian travelers often come to Herodium before their visit to Bethlehem for several reasons. First of all, from the top of the fortress you can look in all directions to get the whole warp and woof of salvation history as it has played out in the land of Israel. To the east one can see the mountains of Moab, from which Ruth, the great grandmother of King David came. To the south one looks at Mount Hebron, where the matriarchs and patriarchs were buried. To the west is the Shephelah, where numerous battles took places between the Israelites and the Philistines. To the north is the city of gold, Jerusalem, the navel of the earth.

Second of all, Herodium is a great place to get a bird's eye view of Bethlehem. You can practically point out Manger Square from the perch of the northern tower. For people of the Christian faith it gives reason to pause and consider the type of kingdom that Herod and the Romans were trying to impose upon the world and the type of kingdom that Jesus represented on this earth. And although Herod had some famous descendants for three or four more generations, millions of kind-hearted people until today have followed in the footsteps of this Jesus of Nazareth, who the gospels of Matthew and Luke say was born in the little town of Bethlehem, two miles northwest of Herodium.

A beautiful Christmas tree decorated for the processions at Manger Square, Bethlehem.

5 Things to do in Bethlehem:

1. Bethlehem Nativity Store: Bethlehem is one of the largest cities of the Palestinian Territories and its most important tourism hub. This is one of my favorite stops because of the olive wood souvenirs on display in the showroom. Just inside the checkpoint, it is a convenient place to rendezvous with your local tour guide before heading to the church.

2. The Walled Off Hotel: Jerusalem has the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, while Bethlehem has the "Walled Off Hotel." You get it. Getting into Bethlehem involves crossing an imposing and controversial security wall that was erected during the Second Intifada (2000 - 2005). The wall is covered with Banksy graffiti and the hotel is associated with that name. It is a great place for cup of coffee and has thought-provoking exhibitions and interior design.

3. The Church of the Nativity: They say, "It's always Christmas in Bethlehem!" Indeed, the heart of the old town is Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Believed to enshrine the humble cave or stableroom of an ancient house where Jesus was born, it is the oldest standing church in the holy land. The original church was built between 327 - 339 CE, by Queen Helena the mother of Constantine the Great. Although destroyed during the Samaritan Revolt in 529 CE, the basilica was rebuilt a few decades later by Emperor Justinian. When the Persians conquered Palestine in 614 CE, they spared the Church of the Nativity on account of a picture of the Magi of the East, which reminded them of their own sages.

4. Shepherds' Field: On the eastern edge of Bethlehem is a neighborhood called Beit Sahour whose terraced slopes are lined with caves that were used by shepherds long ago to keep their flocks safe and warm at night. Groups like to huddled up in some of these caves which have been expanded into chapels in order to sing a few Christmas carols. The Catholic site has a beautiful modern chapel built by the great Franciscan architect, Antonio Barluzzi (1884 - 1960).

5. The Tent Restaurant: If you came all the way to Shepherds' Field, you might as well have some lamb. Seriously though, there is a restaurant in Beit Sahour called Tent that has excellent Palestinian cuisine and views that look out on fields that probably belonged to Ruth and Boaz over 3,000 years ago. wishes you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!

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