Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter VI

Kusr Bint el-Melek (Herod's Hill), Tiberias


"KUSR BINT EL-MELEK," or "The Palace of the king's daughter," is the name by which the ruin, on the summit of the great rock to the west of the remains of Ancient Tiberias, is known. So far as we have been able to discover, no tradition has come down to our day that tells the name of the king or the daughter from whom the designation is derived.

One thing, however, is certain, the present ruin on "Herod's Hill" represents the site of the palace of the Greco-Roman city of Tiberias, which Herod Antipas (4 B.C. - A.D. 39) built between the years A.D. 18 and 22 (Jos. Ant. xviii. 2, 3), and which, in virtue of its ornamentation, was called "The Golden House." The city itself lay between the citadel and the sea, but was unfortunately built on an ancient cemetery (ibid.), and on this account no pious Jew could enter it (Num. 19:11-14).

Herod accordingly found difficulty in securing suitable citizens, but as time passed he gathered in a motley crowd, which in later years formed a variety of political parties, that very often became troublesome and unmanageable. The new city, when finished and named after the reigning Caesar, became, in place of Sepporis or Diocaesarea, the capital of Galilee, and thus the Golden House became a leading palace of Antipas and his successors, and so associated with interesting events in their history.

Now Herod Antipas is best known to us through his connection with the death of John the Baptist. Of this event we have two records: (1) The narratives in the Gospels (Matt. 14:6-12; Mark 6:21-29), and (2) The account given by Josephus (Ant. xviii. v. 1-3). The Gospels set forth that Herod, on account of his illegal marriage with Herodias, his brother's wife, had been reproved by John. At her instigation he was imprisoned for a time, and finally by further intrigue on her part, he was beheaded on the occasion of the feast held in honour of Herod's birthday, and this, if we follow the Mishnah (Ab. Zar. 1:3), would be the anniversary of his accession, and consequently in the beginning of April, A.D. 29.

The narrative of Josephus is to the effect that Herod Antipas, when in Rome, met Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip, who was still alive, and that, proposing marriage to her, he was accepted. But before the plot became publicly known, it was discovered by Herod's real wife, the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia. She requested liberty to go to Machaerus, which "was subject to her father" (Ant. xviii. 112, Ed. Naber), and thence she escaped into Arabia. In a subsequent section (119) we read that "John was sent a prisoner to Machaerus, and was there put to death," but no explanation is offered as to how this was possible, the fortress being then in the hands of Herod's enemy, who was preparing war against him.

The Gospels make clear that the imprisonment and execution of John were "for Herodias' sake," and that on the latter occasion she was fully and publicly installed. John was in prison for the greater part of a year before the feast, and it was before his imprisonment that the daughter of Aretas had fled. Hence at this later date it is even more impossible that John's detention and death could have taken place at Machaerus.

The sequence of events rules out all possibility of the feast being held at Machaerus, and the fact that the guests were "his lords, high captains and chiefs of Galilee" naturally leads us to the same conclusion. The single journey thither from Galilee required from six to eight days. And again, considering the perpetual state of ill-feeling between Jews and Samaritans, it would be unnatural and undiplomatic to invite the persons indicated to the Herodian palace in Samaria.

Accordingly there remains as a seemly and convenient place for such an assembly Herod's new palace, the Golden House, at Tiberias. It meets every demand. John's connection with North Israel was indeed closer than we usually think. The place where he baptised (John 1:28) and preached was in such a position that Cana of Galilee was reached with all facility "on the third day" (John 2:1), and that must have been at the site of the Jordan Ford, beside Bethshan, that still bears the name of Bethabara. It was also in Galilee, though that may be a less weighty argument, that the disciples of John came to Jesus (Matt. 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-35). Then Christ's crossing the Sea of Galilee after He got the news of John's execution, suggests that it occurred somewhere in the neighbourhood. His withdrawal was evidently to escape contact with any public excitement over that event.

Weighing all the evidences we feel compelled to recognise the Golden House as the most probable site of the death of John the Baptist, and as we know of no other "king's daughter" (in any sense) associated with this palace, except Salome, the daughter of Herodias, we are strongly inclined to believe that the Arabic name of the site is derived from her and her step-father Herod Antipas.

About the year 40 A.D. there was another crisis in the history of this palace. Caius Caesar, on his accession, had liberated and honoured the brother of Herodias, and he now returned to the East with the title of "King," as Agrippa I. Herodias, whose husband was only "Tetrarch," bore this "in a very envious manner," and she immediately began to incite her husband to seek the higher dignity. In quest of this, they set out for Rome, but only to pass into exile, upon which the territories of Antipas were added to those of Agrippa, who accordingly took possession of the palace at Tiberias (Jos. Ant. xviii. 7. 1-2).

Then there occurred in this same palace, in the year 43 A.D., another event that for temporal pomp and brilliance surpasses almost everything else in the history of the Herods. Agrippa, after a spell of strenuous labour, had returned to Tiberias for relaxation and enjoyment, and there he entertained a crowd of kings who all came to visit him at the same time. There were Antiochus, king of Commagena; Sampsigeramus, king of Emesa; Cotys, king of Armenia Minor; Polemon, king of Pontus; Herod, king of Chalcis; and in addition, there would be present, Cypros, the queen of Agrippa I; their son Agrippa, now sixteen years of age; their daughter, Berenice, married to Herod, king of Chalcis (see Acts 25:13, 23); their daughter Drusilla, married later to Aziz, king of Emesa, and then to Felix (Ant. xix. 8. 1).

During the stay of these kings at the Golden House, another visitor to Agrippa was announced in the person of Vibius Marsus, the Roman Prefect of Syria. The whole company at the palace went forth in royal procession to meet him to the distance of seven furlongs, or 1400 yards, along a road that can still be traced. The Prefect was suspicious of the friendship of so many kings for one another, and he secretly sent instructions to each one separately, enjoining him to get home to his own country. This led to bitter enmity between Agrippa and the Legate (Jos. Ant. xix. 8. 1).

This is the Agrippa who slew James and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12), who built the Third Wall of Jerusalem (Ant. xviii. 7. 1-2), recently excavated; who made a great speech at Caesarea, and was eaten of worms in the year 44 A.D. (Acts 12:23).

His son Agrippa was only seventeen years of age, and as the Emperor considered him too young to rule, his father's territories were attached to the Roman Province. Gradually, however, he received back his patrimony, and before the death of Claudius, in 54 A.D., he was again in possession of Tiberias.

With the Jewish War the history of the Golden House closes. In 67 A.D. there were three parties in Tiberias: (1) The party of Agrippa, headed by Julius Capellus, and desirous of preserving the city; (2) The rabble, anxious for war, confusion and plunder, and guided by Jesus ben Saphia; and (3) The purer Hebrew patriotic party with Justus of Tiberias as their chief. Josephus was at Bethmaus (the hot baths), and to his camp there he summoned the citizens in the name of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. In its name he demanded the destruction of the palace, in virtue of its being adorned with the graven images of creatures forbidden in the Law. Capellus, for a time prevented injury, but ultimately the rabble set the palace on fire, hoping to enrich themselves as they saw the roofs to be gilded. They took as spoil a quantity of furniture, but Josephus recovered some of the most important items--candlesticks of Corinthian brass, royal tables, and uncoined silver (Jos. Vita, 12). Since that day the Golden House has lain in ruins.

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