Israel’s controversial King Herod exhibition

A forthcoming exhibition in a Jerusalem museum proves even archaeology is a flashpoint in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

On Tuesday, Israel’s national museum announced the opening of the world’s first exhibition devoted to the archaeological legacy of King Herod, the biblical Roman-Jewish king who ruled Jerusalem from 37 to 4 BC. Israel Museum will debut the Herod the Great exhibition on 13 February despite protests from Palestinians who object to the excavation and display of artefacts found in the West Bank without permission of Palestinian authorities. The anticipated exhibition, which will run until October, will include what is believed to be Herod’s tomb and sarcophagus. This represents the museum’s largest and most expensive archaeological project to date.

In the New Testament, Herod, also known as King of Judea, is portrayed as a tyrant who butchered Bethlehem’s male children in an attempt to prevent the prophesized birth of Jesus. He was known as a ruthless ruler who murdered his own wives and members of his family, as well as a visionary respected for his ambitious building projects. Among his architectural achievements were lavish desert palaces, fortresses and temples, as well as the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, his most famous project.

Historians believe Herod constructed an extravagant, 25m-long tomb for himself before his death. It was this archaeological treasure that Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer spent his career searching for. In 2007, Netzer announced to the world that he had found what he believed was Herod’s tomb – a landmark moment in archaeology. The tomb was found at Herodium, the ruler’s winter palace in the Judean Desert near Bethlehem in the West Bank. As the Israel Museum was planning an exhibition featuring the prized find, however, Netzer fell to his death while surveying the site.

The museum moved ahead with its planned exhibition, excavating several floors of Herod’s tomb, including three sarcophagi, one of which is believed to be Herod’s. In addition to his tomb and sarcophagus, the Herod the Great exhibition will include a reconstructed throne room from Herod’s palace in the Palestinian city of Jericho, a full-sized replica of his theatre at the Herodium, as well as detailed frescos, decorative elements and other accoutrements found on site.

Even before it opens, however, the planned exhibition is drawing ire and controversy. The artefacts were discovered almost entirely in the Palestinian West Bank and their excavation and removal was done without Palestinian permission – a point of contention among Israel’s neighbours.

“The excavation is another example of utilisation of archaeology and history for ideological purposes… [which] will not serve to establish comprehensive peace between the two peoples, the Palestinian and Israeli peoples,” Hamdan Taha, assistant deputy minister in charge of antiquities in the Palestinian Authority, told the Associated Press. He added that excavating archaeological objects from the West Bank without Palestinian sanction was in violation of an international convention that governs antiquities in occupied territories.

The Israel Museum has countered that it is responsible for custodianship of archaeology in the West Bank and that it would return the artefacts to their original site when the exhibition closes.

The Israel Museum is located in Jerusalem on Ruppin Boulevard, near the Israeli Parliament, Knesset; entry to the museum costs 50 Israeli New Shekels for adults and 25 Israeli New Shekels for children and can be purchased at the museum or online.