Palaces, archaeology, ancient buildings

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A model of King Herod's palace at Jericho

Herod's palaces
at Jericho

Solomon's temple, the walls of Jericho, the gates of Megiddo

Ancient buildings

Masada, Jewish fortress and palace of King Herod the Great

Jewish fortress

The Warrior, sketch by Leonardo da Vinci

Omri & Ahab

Gold snake bracelet

Queen Jezebel






Palaces in ancient Israel

Palaces were first and foremost houses for a king, but they were also 

  • administrative areas

  • repositories for goods collected as taxes and

  • and military and administrative centers.

The main royal palaces in Israel were in Jerusalem and Samaria, but each city-state had its own small palace where a governor lived. 

Large empires such as Assyria and Egypt, of course, had much more grandiose structures.

Reconstruction of the Pleasure Palace of King Herod the Great at MasadaSplendid palaces were built by Herod the Great, one of the most prolific builders of the ancient world. Palaces, as centers of power and administration, have been central to civilized (as in town-dwelling) groups of people throughout human history.


Solomon's Palace

The only evidence we have to reconstruct Solomon's Palace is the written description in the Bible. No part of the actual palace has survived.


PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: 'The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon' by Sir Edward John Poynter; 19th century reconstruction of Solomon's throne room

'The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon' by Sir Edward John Poynter. 
A 19th century reconstruction of Solomon's thr
one room. This painting used information from the biblical text, but the scale of the room is much larger than it should be. The room size for a palace at that time, for a city of Jerusalem's size, would have been closer to that of the Throne Room at Knossos


The Throne Room in the palace at Knossos, Crete

The Throne Room at Knossos, with throne at right

Solomon's Palace seems to have been built after the Temple, but it probably had the same architect and builders. It was built of expensive materials, like the Temple, but the emphasis was on elaborate stonework rather than on gold plating. The description of the Palace is not given in much detail, but we know it had a great hypostyle hall 50meters long by 25meters wide and 15meters high. 

The cedar roof was supported by forty-five pillars, also of cedar - all of this wood coming from Lebanon. Along the sides of the wall were three tiers of windows. The focus of the palace, the throne room, had a porch of pillars, then a porch for the throne room in which the king sat in judgment. Behind this were quarters for the king, but all that we know about that part of the palace is that it had a courtyard. This is about all the precise information the Bible gives.

Columns with archways giving onto an inner courtyard

Wide porches giving onto a courtyard 
were popular in ancient palaces

However, all is not lost - you can draw on information about the palaces of other kings in Phoenicia-Syria in the 10th-9th centuries BC and, since Solomon used the same craftsmen and builders, this can give us some idea of what his palace looked like.

The biblical description says that a person would approach Solomon's audience room through a porch of pillars. This would fit in with a certain type of palace at the time which had entrances on the long side of rooms. Solomon's throne would then be at one end of this room. From the audience/throne room, Solomon could retire to the courtyard which surrounded his private apartments.

Solomon's throne was magnificent, and certainly meant to impress. PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: gold leaf covered irvory, lion kills young manIt was probably a wooden structure overlaid with carved ivory panels, which in turn were overlaid with gold. The throne was raised on six steps and there was a footstool of gold. Flanking the arms of the throne were two lions, and there were said to be twelve lions on each side of the throne - this was probably a facade of lions forming a veneer on the walls behind and around the throne. Lions, symbols of strength and ferocity, were popular decorations in palaces of powerful kings. The ivory plaque above, though Assyrian, is an example of the type of motif and gold overlay that was used for Solomon's throne.

Ground plan of Jerusalem (Jebus) as it was when David and Solomon ruled there

The fortress of Jebus stood on a small ridge (bottom right of ground plan); Solomon built his palace and Temple on the large flat rock floor north of this 

Solomon also built a separate palace for Pharaoh's daughter, his principal wife (though not the mother of his heir). She, as a follower of Egyptian religion and its gods, had to have a home which was not inside Jerusalem nor too near the Temple. This suggests that Solomon's own palace was too close to the Temple for it to be acceptable for a foreign princess to live there.

It is unlikely that Solomon's palace was inside the original boundaries of Jerusalem as it was when David captured it and made it his capital. There is simply too little space for town buildings, a Temple, and large royal quarters. Solomon's palace is more likely to have been outside the original fortress city, which was a simple town on a site unfavorable to grandiose architecture. However, the archaeological evidence is regrettably slight.


Samaria - the Ivory House

'It was in the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah that Omri became king of Israel and he reigned twelve years, six of them in Tirzah. He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver and built a city on it which he named Samaria after Shemer the owner of the hill.'

PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Ruins of the walls of the ancient capital of Samaria

Ruins of the walls of the ancient capital of Samaria, 
built by Omri and Ahab, husband of Jezebel

With this purchase, the hill became the personal possession of the king, and was subject to his power and will. Whatever its previous history, Samaria now belonged to the family of Omri and their successors. For the stories of the two kings Omri and Ahab who built the 'Ivory House' at Samaria, see Bible Top Ten Warriors

From the beginning, there were plans for a comprehensive building program. The hill of Samaria was completely free of buildings, with the exception of a few farm houses.  It controlled access to the mountains  of Ephraim from the coastal plain and included a plateau of about 8 hectares, ideal for the lay-out of a city. You could see the Mediterranean from the western tip of the plateau. On the evidence of archaeological digs, there seem to have been two building phases: the first from the reign of Omri, the second from his son and successor (and husband of the much maligned Jezebel)  King Ahab.

PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: ashlar stone blocks

An example of ashlar stone blocks

In the first phase a large (178x89m) area was surrounded by a wall about 1.5metres wide, which served as a retaining wall. This wall was built of carefully prepared ashlar blocks (large rectangular blocks of stone cut with square edges and smooth surfaces). The palace stood on the west side of the area, with rooms arranged around a courtyard measuring 8.4x9.5 metres. 

It was in this area that the famous ivory fragments were found - the palace was called the Ivory House because of the lavish use of ivory carvings and plaques used to decorate the surfaces of furniture, screens, and possibly even walls - the 'beds of ivory' mentioned in Amos 6:4. The carvings show Phoenician influence, and possibly Jezebel brought artists and craftsmen with her as part of her bridal retinue.


The Samaria Ivories
Delicate ivory plaque showing a lion attacking a bull

This delicate ivory plaque shows a lion attacking a bull. The lion symbolizes the sun, the bull the earth, the two creatures eternally warring for supremacy, with the lion better equipped to win. The plaque would have been attached to a screen or piece of furniture.


Fragment of an ivory plaque showing the Woman t the Window, an ancient religious symbol common in the Middle East

The Woman at the Window; who or what this woman was remains a mystery. It is too simplistic to say she was a temple prostitute; she must have been a central figure in a seminal religious story of the ancient Canaanites. She is parodied in the Bible stories of Jezebel, who appears at a window just before she is murdered, and in the story of Jael's murder of Sisera


Ivory plaque depicting the Woman the the Window, still showing signs of painting and gilding

Another version of the Woman at the Window; these ivories would have been painted and gilded


Small ivory plaque showing a lion killing a boy; it still has its original painting and gilding

This particular ivory was not found at Samaria, but is included 
because it shows the way these small masterpieces were painted and gilded


Ivory plaque showing a winged sphinx

A winged sphinx, not unlike the winged cherubim 
who were guardians of the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem

During the second phase of building the area of land covered was increased to almost 200x100metres. There were enlarge walls and defenses, and built a tower on the south side of the city - clearly, Ahab and Jezebel were expecting trouble. 

The palace buildings thus formed a multi-purpose unit. They provided a fortified area for protection - which all too soon would be needed - Ahab's sons and his queen, Jezebel, would all be murdered by conspirators. Read Jezebel's story at Bible People: Jezebel

The palace housed the royal family and their retinue, along with court officials. They were the center of royal power in the state, and they may also have provided a storage place for food, and for deliveries of goods paid as taxes. 

PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: lattice covered windows, modern PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: women standing at lattice-covered windows

The woman at a lattice-covered window is a recurring motif in literature and art at this period, 
and lattice-covered windows must have been a common feature of buildings at this time. 
See for example the story of Sisera’s mother in Judges 5:28, at Bible Women: Deborah and Jael.



The cities and palaces of the three great western empires of the ancient world were very different. The imperial cities of Nineveh and Babylon were huge, with splendid palaces and temples, and massive walls and towers. Nineveh probably had a population of more than 150,000 , and Babylon may have had as many as half a million. 

Persepolis, on the other hand, had a much smaller population, because it was built for a different purpose. It was a ceremonial and administrative center, and was used by the king only during the New Year celebrations each year. It did not have extensive living quarters for the court. 

Reconstruction of the Palace of Persepolis as it was when first built

A reconstruction of the Palace of Persepolis as it was when first built, 
courtesy of, k.afhami & w.gambke


Labelled areas and room in a reconstruction of the Palace of Persepolis as it was when first built

Present-day photograph of the ruins of Persepolis

The Palace of Persepolis as it is now


Reconstruction of the Great Throne Room at the Palace of Persepolis

A reconstruction of the entry into the great Throne Hall


Stone statues guarding the entrance of the Throne Room at Persepolis

The same view of the entry as it is now


The Grand Entry into the Palace at Persepolis

The Grand Entry


The Grand Entry before restoration work, photograph

The Grand Entry before restoration work


Photograph of columns that held up the roof of the Palace at Persepolis

This photograph shows the great height of the ceilings in the original palace


Detail of two court officials from a wall carving in the Palace of Persepolis

A detail of two court officials

Instead, the palace had pavilions and pillared audience chambers, for the use of the king when he gave audiences and banquets for his subjects and vassals. There were basically three types of quarters: for the King, for the Treasury, and for the military. These rooms extended over a huge terrace, over 12 hectares in area and 60ft in height. The main buildings were the Great Stairway, Xerxes' Gate of Nations, the Apadana Palace of Darius, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, the Hadish Palace of Xerxes, the palace of Artaxerxes III, and the Imperial Treasury. The relevance of these kings, as far as the Bible is concerned, is that the founder of their dynasty, Cyrus the Great, had allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon.

Monumental staircases led up onto the terrace (see example at left), and the person ascending the stairs was made immediately aware of the power of the king by the reliefs on the walls of each staircase and room - those on the staircase, for example, showing a procession of tribute bears from every corner of the empire, each bringing special gifts to the king.

The palace at Persepolis was burnt by the troops of Alexander the Great in 330BC.


Masada - King Herod's Palace

Masada was first and foremost a fortress, but it was also a palace, a very luxurious one. Herod the Great rebuilt what had been an old castle-fortress at Masada, surrounding the mountain top with a wall nearly a mile long, making it 20ft. high and 12ft. broad, with 38 towers over 70ft high.


PALACES: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: three tiers of the palace at Masada

Aerial view of the three tiers of the palace at Masada. Herod built on what most architects would see as an impossible site: a waterless plateau sitting on sheer cliffs. But it gave him an impregnable fortress as well as a luxurious palace, and this is what the paranoid king wanted.


Model showing an aerial view of the three tiers of the palace at Masada, backed by extensive support and administrative buildings

A model of Masada: royal quarters were at the front, administrative and storage areas at the rear


Reconstruction of two of the luxurious pleasure buildings at Masada; one was a Roman-style bathhouse

A model of the lower two pleasure buildings at Masada; one was a Roman-style bathhouse


Remains of an intricately designed mosaic floor in one of the main reception rooms at Masada

Remains of a mosaic floor in one of the main reception rooms at Masada


A section of the bath house at Masada, with remnants of a wall painting

Part of the bath house at Masada. There were strict Judaic laws against making images of living creatures, so the wall paintings at Masada were simpler than contemporary Roman ones


One of the vast water storage tanks at Masada, with a human figure showing the scale of the cavity in the rock

One of the vast water storage tanks at Masada; these tanks meant Masada could withstand 
a long siege, but they also provided water for the lavish bath houses

Within the walls he added a spectacular palace, a quadrilateral with towers at the corners, which like all his other palaces was richly furnished.

The whole area was waterless desert, but Herod built cisterns of such capacity that they not only supplied a reliable amount of drinking water, but enough for baths and swimming pools. The catchment system was so good that, during a siege, a single thunder storm supplied enough water to avoid the surrender of the large garrison.

He laid up enormous stores of food and weapons at Masada - it was obvious that, if necessary, he would go down fighting. The stores of food were still intact one hundred years later, when the Jewish rebels made their desperate, doomed last stand against the Roman legions.

There were two main palaces, the earlier western palace and the northern palace, along with less important houses for his courtiers. The palace itself shared the same sort of architectural details as several of his other palaces: it made a dramatic visual impression on the viewer, it used circular elements in its design, it used up-to-date technology, and it had remarkable architectural flair - the unnamed architect of Herod's palaces was a genius, there is no doubt of that. He used a site most people would have shied away from, turning the disadvantages of the site into dramatic advantage.

The northern palace at Masada occupied a jutting knife-edge of rock with three platforms spread over a 110ft. vertical drop. The top platform of the building was semi-circular, the middle circular, and the lowest rectangular. The view from these platforms was as spectacular as any in the Roman world, perhaps outdoing even the extraordinary views from Tiberius' villa at Capri, which it pre-dated.

The palace had both circular and barrel vaults, full Roman baths, mosaics, plaster work, frescoes, and painting in the latest style. But the frescoes cannot be compared to Roman villas of the same period, because of Herod's respect for the Second Commandment, which forbad painted images - even though this was a private space, unseen by the general populace.

For many more photographs of Herod's extraordinarily beautiful palace/fortress at Masada, and its magnificent site in the desert, see BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: MASADA


See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible



Palaces  - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible  Study Resource
Jerusalem, Samaria, Persepolis, Masada



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