I spent most of the day wandering around, on, and under the Herodion, a partially artificial mountain built about 2,040 years ago by King Herod, and the place he was buried. The day supplied all sorts of interesting insights.
Herodion seen from the south. There was always a hill there, somewhat higher than its surroundings; the cone part is artificial, and was built, in two separate stages, by Herod.
The story of the mountain, in brief, begins when Herod was a young man and once had need to escape Jerusalem with his entourage. Guarding the rear of the escapees, he turned on their pursuers and forced them to fall back. This was near a hill in the desert, some 10 miles south-east of Jerusalem, and he marked the point as significant for him. Later, as king of Judea, he launched on one of the ancient world's largest construction binges, building fortresses, palaces, a port, the Temple Mount, Massada, and also the mountain of Herodion, named after himself. Since it was out in the desert in the middle of no-where (literally), he forced it into prominence by pouring money into it; by the time he was an old man it had a fortress, a palace, a small artificial lake (an early model of the Bellagio, perhaps), a theater, assorted Roman baths, some more palaces and so on. As death approached he undertook the final construction project there, raising the mountaintop so it would be visible from Jerusalem, indeed, impossible to overlook, sticking out as it does over the landscape, and prepared an imposing mausoleum in which to be buried.
70 years later, as the Jews battled Roman legions during the first revolt against Rome, some of the insurgents holed up on the mountain, destroying Herod's mausoleum, smashing his coffin, and adapting his underground system of cisterns for defense during siege. This didn't help them much. Another seventy years on, during the Bar Kochva revolt, the insurgents added an intricate system of tunnels under the mountain, so as to be able to emerge unexpectedly, kill a Roman or three and disappear back underground. Yet again, this didn't much help them, as the Roman's were known to slaughter insurgents until they were all gone.
During the Byzantine era (that's the Roman Empire once it was Christian), the area became a monastic region, with individual and group monasteries way out in the desert a mere day's walk from civilization. The Byzantines, as Christians, had no love for Herod, and they may have constructed a church or two on his mountain as a sign of their victory over him.
Then the area emptied, and between 600 and 1900, more or less, no-one lived there except the occasional transient Beduin tribe: there's no water, not much rain, it's too dry for crops, and without the engineering prowess and funds of Herod, no way to pipe water from elsewhere.
Still, stand anywhere along the south-eastern rim of Jerusalem today and look out over the desert, and you can't miss Herod's mountain. Assuming his point was to gain immortality, he seems to have done so better than most.
So what insights did I bring back? The first is about archeology. Nowadays archeology has become yet another battlefield on which Jews Palestinians and antisemites clash. Yet archeology is an extremely imprecise tool for such purposes. How imprecise?
Then, in 2007 (!), they found it.
(Peace, by the way, would have been preferable, but that's a different subject).
Evil Israeli roads: You've all heard about the nasty roads Israel builds in the West Bank, to connect their settlements, demonstrate their dominance, humiliate Palestinians, destroy the natural terrain and generally be obnoxious. Anybody who follows the media's discourse about the conflict has heard these themes repeatedly.
Dror Etkes in 2004, when it was still under construction, and he told me solemnly that it was an Israeli effort to dominate this area). Most Israelis have never heard of it much less used it; on the other hand, the local Palestinians use it, and if Israel ever hands over this area to Palestine, as may well happen, the road will connect the area to El Quds and shorten the ride by about 80%.
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've also heard the Palestinian contention, accepted by the Economist and other important Europeans, that the Israeli settlements are hideous, they destroy the view, while Palestinian villages are beautiful and natural.
Which brings me to the next insight: It's a desert. Until modern water systems were invented in the 20th century, nobody lived out here in permanent residences, and hardly in tents, either. Which means, the Palestinian villages are as recent as the Jewish ones in this area.
Actually, Herodion is on the outer limit of the advance into the desert; to its east, i.e. further into the desert, it's still mostly empty. Mostly:
The place in the foreground is Sdeh Bar, seen from Herodion. Sdeh Bar is a settlement, sort of, but not really. It is however a place that breaks all your glib stereotypes about settlements and settlers. So we went to visit it, and looked back up at the Herodion:
They do so by putting them to work. Some work with the goat herd. Others produce goat-milk products, including fine cheese and yogurt. Others produce "gefet". Gefet is an ersatz wood, used for heating, charcoal or even production of soap, produced from the waste left over when you turn olives into olive oil. The waste is a pollutant, and burning wood to heat wood ovens means cutting down trees. So these folks have figured out a way to make the olive waste useful, and save trees.
Imagine you're a deeply troubled 15-year-old. Estranged from your family, full of rage at society, scarred and tainted by a history of violence or craziness. You've washed up, somehow, in this lonely outpost at the edge of the desert, where they're calming you and soothing you by tending to goats, farming, and producing environmentally friendly fuel. You rise each morning and look out at the emptiness -