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Controversy surrounds ambitious new Israeli exhibition about King Herod

February 15, 2013
A stone sculpture of the Roman emperor Augustus, who ruled at the time of Herod the Great – part of the Israel Museum exhibition. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

A stone sculpture of the Roman emperor Augustus, who ruled at the time of Herod the Great – part of the Israel Museum exhibition. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

A new exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem about King Herod, whom the New York Times described as, “the lionized and demonized Rome-appointed king of Judea, who reigned from 37 to 4 B.C.E. and is among the most seminal and contentious figures in Jewish history”,features 250 artifacts weighing some 30 tons (requiring the museum to reinforce its foundation) … and plenty of controversy:

The Palestinian Authority says the exhibition is a violation of international law because much of its material was taken from near Bethlehem and Jericho, both in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. An Israeli group of archaeologists and activists complains that the museum, however unwittingly, is helping the Jewish settlement movement advance its contention that the West Bank should be part of Israel and not a Palestinian state.

The exhibition “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” includes a reconstruction of his tomb, with his sarcophagus, center. Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency.

The exhibition “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” includes a reconstruction of his tomb, with his sarcophagus, center. Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency.

King Herod's sarcophagus (?) fashioned in red lime stone and decorated with rosettes and palmettes. Photo © the Israel museum, Jerusalem / by Meidad Suchowolski

King Herod’s sarcophagus (?) fashioned in red lime stone and decorated with rosettes and palmettes. Photo © the Israel museum, Jerusalem / by Meidad Suchowolski

Of Herod, The Jerusalem Post noted:

He masterminded and engineered the Jerusalem Temple – among the most magnificent temples in the ancient world; the fortress-complex at Masada – the most-visited site in Israel; Caesarea – in its day, the largest all-weather harbor built in the open sea; imposing cities, aqueducts and, finally, Herodium – the most spacious palace known to us in the Greco-Roman world before the common era.

Model of Herod's Temple

Model of Herod’s Temple

He might have been a great builder, but he had his downside as the Guardian reports: “During his bloodthirsty tyranny, he executed at least one of his wives and three of his sons as well as countless rabbis, opponents and people who simply got in his way. According to Matthew’s gospel [in the Bible's New Testament], he ordered the killing of all newborn babies following the birth of Jesus, although some scholars say his son, also called Herod, was responsible for the butchery (and others dispute it happened at all).”

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images -  A museum worker does preparatory work before the opening of the "Herod the Great" exhibition, at the Israel Museum this week in Jerusalem.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images – A museum worker does preparatory work before the opening of the “Herod the Great” exhibition, at the Israel Museum this week in Jerusalem.

According to the Washington Post, the exhibition has been three years in the making:

[T]he exhibit was conceived by Ehud Netzer, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who directed excavations at Herodium. In 2007, after a ­decades-long search, he announced that he had found the tomb of Herod, the ruler of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C., whose colossal building projects included the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple.

Netzer wanted the finds exhibited at the Israel Museum, Snyder said. But while surveying the site with museum staffers in 2010, he fell to his death when a safety rail he was leaning on gave way. The exhibit is dedicated to his memory.

Handle of a footed marble basin decorated with Seilenoi heads, the 1st century BCE. It is possible that the basin was given to Herod as a gift from Emperor Augustus or his second in command Marcus Agrippa. On loan from SAOJS Photo © the Israel museum, Jerusalem / by Meidad Suchowolski

Handle of a footed marble basin decorated with Seilenoi heads, the 1st century BCE. It is possible that the basin was given to Herod as a gift from Emperor Augustus or his second in command Marcus Agrippa. On loan from SAOJS Photo © the Israel museum, Jerusalem / by Meidad Suchowolski

Of the controversy, the Guardian says:

Hamdan Taha, a [Palestinian Authority] official responsible for antiquities, said the Israel Museum had not consulted it on the excavation and exhibition. Herodium is located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control, and the site is administered by the Israeli Parks Authority.

The exhibition was an attempt to use “archaeology to justify Israel’s political claims on the land”, Taha said. The site, along with Jericho, was “an integral part of Palestinian cultural heritage”, he added.

The Israel Museum said that Israel was given temporary control over archaeological sites in the West Bank under the 1993 Oslo accords, and that the museum had co-ordinated with the Israeli Civil Administration, which governs Area C.

“We have this material on loan, and it will be returned to the site after the exhibition,” said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. “Everything is here on an authorised basis. If we had left [the artefacts] as they were, there was no way of understanding or interpreting them. We are not about politics or geopolitics; we are trying to do the best and the right thing for the long-term preservation of material cultural heritage.”

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