herodion and other hilltops

Herodion is an ancient hilltop fortress built by Herod, then conquered by the Romans, and later used as a base by the Jews during the Bar Kokhba revolt. (I recently read Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, so I was already aware of the revolt.) It was fascinating to see how cisterns and tunnels underneath the summit of the strangely shaped hill were repurposed and extended by the Jewish rebels into an intricate and confusing warren which permitted them to obtain water and move around without being seen from the outside while they were besieged. The map of the underground constructions reminded me of diagrams of the human body’s internal organs and systems, with multiple spleens, stomachs and livers, connected by ducts, tubes and arteries. It was after visiting Herodion that I began to understand to what extent the siting of the new Israeli settlements is the expression not only of what I imagine to be universal military thinking – hilltop towns are more easily defensible in any place or time – but also a deeper and more specific historical and religious connection for Jews to the idea of the hilltop fortress as the locus of past resistance, and perhaps more crucially, of defeat. Later on in my trip we tried to visit Masada but arrived too late in the day; I imagine that would have strengthened my conviction.

Here is a link to the Israeli Parks Department page about Herodion:


Note how the driving directions refer to roads that are identified in relation only to Israeli settlements, and not to any of the other numerous Palestinian villages which surround Herodion.

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