King Herod's impressive construction project
Archaeologists are no longer primarily dependent on descriptions from the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus for understanding what Herod’s Royal Portico (also known as Herod’s Royal Stoa) looked like. Architectural fragments retrieved from debris during excavations of the Temple Mount now may allow for an accurate, detailed reconstruction.
In her article, “Reimagining Herod’s Royal Portico,” from the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Orit Peleg-Barkat examines what we know today about the portico King Herod had built along the southern flank of the Temple Mount. She starts the article by pointing out the importance of the portico, as Josephus emphasized: “It is deserving of mention more than any other under the sun.” She also points out the enormity of the undertaking: Herod dedicated many years and substantial resources to the project, which–according to the evidence of recent excavations–was not completed until many years after King Herod’s death.
The undertaking itself involved building beyond the topological boundaries of the Temple Mount. Massive retaining walls were constructed to hold the fill dirt needed to create the surface on which to build the Royal Portico. Recent excavations of this area revealed the ritual baths of houses that must have been dismantled in order to expand the Temple Mount for the project.
None of the masonry of the Royal Portico survived in place, which made it very difficult for modern archaeologists to know what it looked like. Yet, architectural fragments that had fallen to the foot of the southern enclosure wall, after the severe damage from the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., have been found via archaeological excavations led by Benjamin Mazar, Ronny Reich, Yuval Baruch, Yaakov Billig, and others.
To date, more than 500 architectural decoration fragments dated to the Herodian period have been unearthed. These include column bases, column drums, column capitals, architraves, friezes, cornices, ceiling coffering, and doorframes. Many of the extensive decorative elements are reflected in modern Jerusalem, but some show a unique combination of eastern and western influences.
Along with Josephus’ descriptions, our knowledge of othe architecture of the time period, and the tantalizing clues provided by modern finds, the structures that remain lead to a fuller understanding of Herod’s Royal Portico. Robinson’s Arch, a surviving remnant on the southern part of the Western wall, provides an important architectural clue. Thanks to analysis of this element, and its interaction with the gate once situated above Robinson’s Arch, it is possible to conclude that the width of the Royal Portico was 127 feet. The column drums found in the destruction debris had a diameter of about 3 feet. Given that Corinthian columns of that width, in the Hellenistic architecture of the first century, would customarily be 26-33 feet high, Josephus’ description of the Herodian construction as having 27 foot tall columns was probably accurate. There is much more analysis in a similar vein throughout the article.
Peleg-Barkat concludes that King Herod’s Royal Portico seems to be one of the earliest examples of a building combining features of a Greek stoa and a Roman basilica. Thanks still to the extensive descriptions by Flavius Josephus, but now also to the many clues provided by design and structural elements from modern excavations, Peleg-Barkat feels we are able to reconstruct the Portico in detail with some degree of confidence. Viewing the reconstructions, one can get a sense of the grandeur that must have been felt by first-century Judeans until the Roman sack of Jerusalem destroyed the second Temple.
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