Inside the Desert Fortress

Herodion is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, an eerie half-mountain, half-artifact looming over the Judean desert. It is a large, round hill that, partway up and for no obvious reason, suddenly assumes the shape of a steep-sided cone, as if someone rested a gigantic cooking pot upside down on the slope.

That someone was Herod the Great, rebuilder of the Temple in Jerusalem, villain of the Nativity story, and architectural megalomaniac. There is no reason to build out here: Herodion commands no trade routes, secures no kingdom, guards no oasis. But here he built his desert safe house all the same, a fortress palace so special to him that he had himself buried here in 4 B.C. Two generations later, during the Great Revolt, Jewish rebels hid from Roman legions here. And 60 years after that, in the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135 A.D., another Jewish guerrilla army holed up in Herodion and turned it into a virtually impregnable fortress, holding it for three years against Rome’s best soldiers. Needless to say, Herodion is a place of pride for Israel, a symbol of Jewish military prowess.

Herod and the Bar Kochba rebels burrowed out the mountain, building water cisterns and escape tunnels that are still solid today. So my friend Aryeh, our guide Gady, and I climb the fortress from the inside. After a labyrinthine trip through the tunnels, we emerge into a magical bowl, the ruins of Herod’s palace. The crumbled shell of a 13-story circular tower stands in one corner. The round towers on the other three corners—each was seven stories high—have collapsed nearly to the foundations. Gady points to a clear space in the middle of the ruin. It’s the oldest operating synagogue in the world, he says, drawing 5,000 people to a recent holiday service. We look over the battlements to the valley floor, where Gady points out a rectangular ruin as big as a football field. It was Herod’s swimming pool, which gives a sense of his insane ambition, since there is not a drop of water or a spot of green to be seen. A circular stone structure still stands in the middle of the pool. They kept food and drink on that, Gady says—the world’s first floating bar!

At this point I should observe that Gady, Aryeh, and I are the only people at Herodion. Even though we are falafel-chucking distance from a Jerusalem packed with tourists, we are all alone at one of the most remarkable places I have ever seen, a fortress that would be the most beautiful spot in 99 countries out of 100. The obvious reason for this is that we’re not actually in Israel. We’re in the West Bank.

If you’re the boss of the Israel Tourist Board, one of your biggest problems is that much of ancient Israel is not in Israel. The heartland of the Bible—towns like Hebron, Bethel, Bethlehem, and most of Jerusalem—lies in the occupied territories captured from Jordan in 1967. Modern Israel occupies the coastal plain that was inhabited by Israel’s enemies during biblical times, while the land that was ancient Israel, the Judean hills, is populated by Palestinians. This is an anomaly with enormous political consequences, since there are a large number of religious Israeli Jews who believe it’s their duty to reclaim that biblical land of Israel. Many of them have moved into settlements near Herodion, and there is huge tension between the local Palestinian population and the theologically inspired settlers.

Which starts to explain why Herodion gets very few visitors. It’s deep in the West Bank, accessible only by roads that have been occasionally rock-bombed by Palestinians since the second intifada broke out seven years ago. Herodion is considered too unsafe for Israeli schoolchildren, so they don’t take field trips here. Most Israeli tourists avoid it, too, and as for Americans and other foreigners—forget it! What tour operator is going to risk having his bus stoned? The general attitude about Herodion, says my friend Aryeh, is: “You’re going there? Are you nuts?” Local Palestinians don’t visit the site, either, perhaps deterred by the Israeli army base guarding the only access road or by the Zionist symbolism of the place. The only visitors tend to be the occasional intrepid tourist and folks, such as Gady and Aryeh, who live in nearby Israeli settlements.

Herodion itself testifies to how archaeology and politics can mix in tragic and long-lasting ways. In 1982, David Rosenfeld, an American-born Israeli settler who ran the Herodion museum and tourist site, was murdered by two of his Palestinian employees. The day after his funeral, settlers from the nearby settlement of Tekoa set up a new outpost on the hill closest to Herodion. They called the outpost El-David, and it was an explicit “screw-you” to Palestinians. According to the town’s Web site, the new settlement “was deemed an appropriate Jewish and Zionist response to Arab terror. Instead of panic and fear on the part of Jews, the Arabs got a new settlement and new settlers.” Eventually, El-David grew into a permanent settlement. Today it has 150 families, including those of Gady, Aryeh, and Israel’s most famous right-wing politician, Avigdor Lieberman. It is now called Nokdim. That name makes a conscious biblical claim on the land: The prophet Amos, who preached in this area, is said to have come from a place called Nokdim.

As I explore Herodion, I find myself puzzling over the different Jewish and Arab relationships to this biblical heritage. For Jews, particularly Israeli Jews, the Bible is a source of pride, a tool of nationalism, a subject of historical fascination and study, and an economic boon. It’s a way for us to mark this land as ours. It’s also a way for Israel to rake billions of shekels in tourist revenue. But for the Arab Muslims who occupy much of the Bible lands—whether around the City of David or at Herodion—this heritage is a much more troublesome. All this Bible exploration brings more Jewish and Christian tourists and more claims by Jews that the biblical lands really belong to them. On the other hand, it pays the bills. Palestinian laborers do much of the spadework at archaeological sites. (At Herodion, we walk by a team of Palestinians who are excavating the newly discovered tomb of Herod.)

And then there is the trade in Bible loot. A day earlier, while walking in the Old City of Jerusalem, I stuck my head into a couple of antiquities shops. There must be a dozen or more of these small shops around the Via Dolorosa, all (I think) run by Arabs and catering to foreigners. At the first store I stopped in, I asked about a little pottery vessel. “It’s a jug from the time of Abraham,” the owner told me. I spotted a beautiful—$6,800 worth of beautiful—pottery bull in the display case: “It’s 3,200 years old. It’s from the time of Judges.” He and the other merchants I spoke to were very canny in their language. They know they’re selling to religious-minded tourists, so whenever they told me how old an object was, they said the date and then the Bible hook—it’s from the time of Jesus or Moses or Solomon—connecting the most mundane object to biblical events.

When I asked them where they got their artifacts, the merchants offered a variety of not-quite-believable explanations. These were family collections. They were licensed by the Rockefeller Museum. They were licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Every object was certified. They were found near Nablus, or Bethlehem, or Hebron. I ran these lines by David Ilan, who directs the archaeology program at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He scoffed, saying that the objects were almost certainly plundered from active digs or taken illegally from unexcavated caves.

I certainly understand how such looting disrupts research. One Israeli archaeologist complained to me that two coins that could revolutionize understanding of his subject had appeared on the antiquities market, apparently the result of looting. Since he couldn’t confirm where the coins came from, he didn’t know whether they were genuine.

Even so, I appreciate the psychic longing to own a piece of the Bible, perhaps because I already do. When we got married 10 years ago, my wife’s then-boss, Marty Peretz, gave us a gorgeous Book-of-Kings-era pitcher. I have no idea if it was looted—it comes from a very reputable Jerusalem store—but I find it hard to care too much. I love looking at the pitcher, wondering if any of my ancestors drank from it, and marveling that it has come all the way down through history to us. And then I rationalize it: As any archaeologist will tell you, the Israeli government and Israeli museums have warehouses stacked roof-high with ancient pottery vessels and coins, objects that no one needs to study anymore but that can’t be sold, because they’re national treasures. So, I confess that I sympathize a bit with the Arab looters and antiquities dealers. Everyone else in Israel is getting something out of the Bible: Why can’t they?