Herodion, which resembles an extinct volcano, has aroused the interest of travelers and scholars since the fifteenth century. It is situated on an artificial hill on the edge of the Judean Desert, twelve km south of Jerusalem and six km southeast of Bethlehem. It incorporates the ruins of a number of impressive palaces built by King Herod between 25 and 15 BCE. This enormous building venture was intended to commemorate not only Herod's name but his triumph over the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus 11 (Mattathias), and his men in 40 BCE. According to the famous historian Josephus, Herod was buried in Herodion, but his grave has not been discovered by archeologists, despite intensive excavations. Josephus' description of Herodion matches the archeological finds at the site:
"It was strong and fit for such a building. It is a sort of moderate hill raised to a farther height by the hand of man, till it was of the shape of a woman's breast. It is encompassed with circular towers, and hath a straight ascent up to it, which ascent is composed of steps of polished stones, in number two hundred. Within it are royal and very rich apartments, of a structure that provided both for security and beauty. About the bottom there are habitations of such a structure as are well worth seeing, both on other accounts, and also on account of the water which is brought thither from great wag off, and at vast expense; for the place itself is destitute of water. The plain that is about this citadel is full of edifices, not inferior to any city in largeness, and having the hill above it in the nature of a castle" (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 15, Chap. ix,4).
And in fact at the top of the hill there is a round structure, one of a kind and quite extraordinary not only in Israel but in all of the ancient world. Around this structure, with a circumference of 63 meters, the builders tossed down the debris which gave the hill its cone shape (like a breast), visible for miles. This complex served both as a strong fortress and a magnificent royal residence. Herod guaranteed a steady supply of water by means of a special aqueduct that began in the region of Solomon's Pools and Artas.
Herodion royal residence was six or seven stories high, surrounded by three semi-rounded towers and one immense circular tower with a periphery of about 18 meters, of which only the foundations, which are for the most part closed, remain today. Inside the structure stood Herod's amazing private villa, which included a large reception room, halls and living quarters, as well as a stunning bath house. At the base of the hill Herod built the lower city, which covered an area of 180,000 square meters and included a large palace, a large pool, an extensive monumental building and a path that was meant to be used for Herod's royal funeral.
The Herodion fortification, which watches out onto the desert but is within view of Jerusalem, became Herod's most magnificent royal residence, serving as his monument and last resting place. It ought to be noted that this was one of the fabulous palaces built at the time in the Roman Empire. After Herod's death the site was utilized twice, during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE) and the revolt of Bar Kokhba (132-135 CE), by the Jewish extremist fighters who defied the Romans. In the Christian Byzantine time it once more became an important center. The three churches that were built here were decorated with mosaic floors that have been revealed in archeological excavations.
Herodion was abandoned about the period of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century and remained this way until it was rediscovered in the fifteenth century. The first explorer to mention the site was a Dominican friar, Felix Faber (1483), who associated the remains he saw here to a story that was widespread in those days among Christians. It told of a group of frank knights (Crusaders), who fled to this spot after Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187. Hence Herodion was also known as the Mountain of the Franks. From the nineteenth century until the present, Herodion has become a focal point of archeological excavations and intensive research. As of late, an unexpected assault system from the Bar Kokhba period was found in Upper Herodion. It includes water cisterns, tunnels and hidden apertures for sneak attacks — all witness to the great ingenuity of its builders. In 1998 these impressive tunnels were opened to visitors. Extensive plans to develop the area have recently been drawn up. Should they be carried out, Herodion will become one of the most fascinating and interesting sites to visit on a trip to Israel.