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.
Not a subscriber yet? Join today.
The world of the Bible is knowable. We can learn about the society where the ancient Israelites, and later Jesus and the Apostles, lived through the modern discoveries that provide us clues.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the guide on that fascinating journey. Here is your ticket to join us as we discover more and more about the biblical world and its people.
Each issue of Biblical Archaeology Review features lavishly illustrated and easy-to-understand articles such as:
• Fascinating finds from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament periods
• The latest scholarship by the world's greatest archaeologists and distinguished scholars
• Stunning color photographs, informative maps, and diagrams
• BAR's unique departments
• Reviews of the latest books on biblical archaeology
The BAS Digital Library includes:
• 45+ years of Biblical Archaeology Review
• 20+ years of Bible Review online, providing critical interpretations of biblical texts
• 8 years of Archaeology Odyssey online, exploring the ancient roots of the Western world in a scholarly and entertaining way,
• The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
• Video lectures from world-renowned experts.
• Access to 50+ curated Special Collections,
• Four highly acclaimed books, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution: Aspects of Monotheism, Feminist Approaches to the Bible, The Rise of Ancient Israel and The Search for Jesus.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to get to know the Bible through biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.