Biblical Archaeology Review 9:3, May/June 1983

Herod’s Family Tomb in Jerusalem

Archaeological clues suggest monumental structure resembles Augustus’s tomb in Rome

By Ehud Netzer

We have not found Herod’s tomb, but we have examined a structure that may be Herod’s family tomb. It is not at Herodium but is in Jerusalem itself opposite the Damascus Gate, the most elaborate entrance to the Old City.

As with Herodium, my interest in the Jerusalem structure at first had nothing to do with any interest in the burial of Herod or his family. The Jerusalem structure was intriguing because it contained some rare stonework called opus reticulatum. Opus reticulatum is part of a Roman wall-building technique used mainly in the period from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. It was widely employed in Italy at this time but is unusual in the Near East. Opus reticulatum has been found, however, in Herod’s major winter palace in Jericho,a at Baniasb in northern Israel, and in the structure opposite the Damascus gate.

The technique involved laying uniformly cut small stones in diagonal rows; we call this patterned structure opus reticulatum. Behind this lattice pattern of cut stones, concrete was poured as the strong core of the wall. Plaster was then applied to the outer surface of the wall, completely covering the opus reticulatum. This plaster was some times decorated with colored frescoes. The lovely stone pattern of the opus reticulatum, which the archaeologist sees today because the covering of plaster has disintegrated, was meant by Roman engineers to be only a useful and invisible internal form establishing the smooth contour of the final plastered surface.

I did not discover the opus reticulatum wall opposite the Damascus Gate. It was discovered more than 100 years ago by Conrad Schick, the famous Swiss architect and archaeologist who discovered so much of ancient Jerusalem’s remains.

In a way, however, I rediscovered the wall opposite the Damascus Gate. Not only was its original discovery neglected by most later scholars (it is hardly mentioned in the literature), but today the wall itself is completely covered. It is hidden under and between some houses. I successfully relocated the site, and in November 1977, Sarah Ben-Arieh and I excavated several deep sections adjacent to the opus reticulatum wall.

These excavations confirmed that the wall was part of a round structure, as Schick observed. But our investigation also revealed that there were two concentric circles of walls. Schick had seen only the outer one.

Originally, the structure must have been an imposing monument. The outer circular wall of the structure is about 110 feet in diameter. The opus reticulatum is on the inner face of this outer wall. The inner circular wall of the tower is about 40 feet in diameter.

In addition to the delicate opus reticulatum, a few decorated ashlarc blocks in Herodian style were found—some by Schick and the others by us. These stones barely hint at what must have been the original beauty and magnificence of the structure.

This structure may well have been Herod the Great’s funerary monument in Jerusalem and the place where Herod’s family was buried.

The structure is located on a knoll or ridge just opposite a major entrance to the city—surely prime real estate for many centuries. Although the present Damascus gate was built only in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent, archaeologists have discovered beneath it the remains of an older but equally imposing gate from the Roman and Herodian period. So in Herod’s time the round structure must also have been located opposite a main entrance to the city.

Even more important than the location of the structure is its plan. It is strikingly similar to the plans of many round tomb-monuments in the Roman world. Indeed, this plan was a favorite of eminent figures in the Roman world, as the tombs of Augustus and Hadrian in Rome witness. Augustus’s tomb is of special significance because it is contemporaneous with this Jerusalem monument. Emphasizing this significance is the fact that our Jerusalem structure surely dates from the Herodian period, as indicated not only by the decorated ashlars but also by the pottery uncovered in our soundings at the site.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived a generation or two after Herod, twice mentions “Herod’s Monument” in Jerusalem (The Jewish War, V, 108, and V, 507). Unfortunately, Josephus gives no description of this monument. Scholars have long interpreted these references as indicating that Herod’s family members were buried in this monument, because Herod himself was buried at Herodium.

It is therefore my belief that this structure was originally a magnificent edifice that was Herod’s Monument in Jerusalem, referred to by Josephus, and that also served as a mausoleum for Herod’s family.

For those thousands of Jerusalem tourists who have been shown “Herod’s Family Tomb” about 200 feet south of the King David Hotel, I should perhaps say a few words about this contender. This tomb, discovered in 1892, consists of five underground rooms in the shape of a cross. Although the rooms are carved out of the rock, parts of the walls are built of beautiful Herodian-style ashlars. At the time of its discovery, the tomb contained two outstanding sarcophagi. The entrance to the tomb is protected by a large rolling stone.

There is no doubt that this tomb was indeed the final resting place of an important Jerusalem family. But there were many such families in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is crowded with ancient tombs that are not round towers.

Given the certain Herodian date of the round structure outside Damascus Gate, the similarity of its plan to Augustus’s tomb in Rome, and the use of the unusual opus reticulatum construction, it is far more likely that this ancient tower was built by Herod as his family tomb and as his own funerary monument in Jerusalem.