A “royal box” built at the upper level of King Herod's private theatre at Herodion has been fully exposed in recent excavations at the site, providing a further indication of the luxurious lifestyle favoured by the famed Judean monarch. The excavations, in the framework of Herodion's National Park at the eastern edge of Gush Etzion, were conducted by Prof. Ehud Netzer under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology.
The theatre, first revealed during the years 2008-2009, is located halfway up the hill close to Herod's mausoleum, whose exposure in 2007 aroused worldwide attention. The highly decorated, relatively small theatre was built in approximately 15 BCE, the same year in which Marcus Agrippa (second in the hierarchy of the Roman Empire) visited, according to Prof. Netzer.
The royal box (measuring eight by seven meters and about six meters high) is the central space among a group of rooms attached to the upper part of the theatre’s structure. This impressive room doubtlessly hosted the king, his close friends and family members during performances in the theatre and was fully open towards the stage.
Its back and side walls are adorned with an elaborate scheme of wall paintings and plaster mouldings in a style that has not been seen thus far in Israel; yet, this style is known to have existed in Rome and Campania in Italy during those years. Netzer concludes, therefore, that this work was executed by Italian artists, perhaps sent by Marcus Agrippa, who a year before his visit to Judea met Herod on the famous Greek island of Lesbos.
On the upper parts of the walls are the room's highlights: a series of unique “windows” painted without folded shutters on either side and various naturalistic landscapes within. They include scenes of the countryside, the Nile River and a nautical scene featuring a large boat with sails. One can identify features of trees, animals and human beings. Some of these windows have survived intact on the walls, whereas others were found in fragments on the floor and are undergoing restoration in the Israel Museum's laboratory.
Painted windows with shutters appear in the late Second Pompeian Style in Italy, and mainly depict unrealistic views like theatre settings and still-life. The closest parallels for the windows at Herodion are known from the "Villa Imperiale" at Pompeii, dated to the early Third Style, 15 to 10 B.C.E.
The data accumulated during the excavation proves that the theatre’s lifetime was very short, less than ten years. Slightly before Herod's death, it was deliberately destroyed in order not to disrupt the conic shape of the artificial hill. During the construction of the artificial hill (as well as the famous monumental stairway which begins at the bottom of the hill), parts of the theatre, including the "royal box," were temporarily used by the builders, leaving their footsteps in the form of subdivision walls, cooking installations and graffiti.
The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which will soon launch the first exhibition featuring the finds of Herod's grave, took upon itself the financing and the complicated preservation work of the royal box.
The royal box site will be opened to the public after a special protective structure is built around the room, while the theatre itself will undergo partial restoration.