Jerusalem : Israeli scientists said Tuesday that they had discovered the tomb of Herod the Great – the notorious, Rome-appointed "King of the Jews", who ruled over the Biblical kingdom of Judaea at the time of the birth of Jesus.
"We have discovered the tomb of Herod at the Herodium," Professor Ehud Netzer from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who had searched for the ruler's grave for the past 35 years, told a news conference in Jerusalem as he pointed to an aerial picture of the desert fortress, with an arrow marking the exact spot of the tomb.
Herodium is one of the main palaces built by Herod during his nearly four-decade rule over Judaea as a Roman client king in the first century BC.
Located around 12 km south of Jerusalem, it is a double-walled structure whose outer ring was filled with earth, creating an artificial hill.
Historians and archaeologists led by Netzer had been searching for the tomb since 1972, but initially excavated in the wrong sections of the compound.
Netzer said he eventually managed to piece together the exact location of the tomb by reconstructing the king's funeral procession from his winter palace in Jericho to the Herodium. Finally, about three weeks ago, he stumbled on the pieces of a sarcophagus, which he believes was the stone casket belonging to Herod.
Herod the Great, who ruled over Judaea from about 37 to 4 BC, is perhaps best known for his cruelty as described in the New Testament, but also for the grand ancient buildings he constructed in what is now Israel.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, he ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn "King of the Jews", the baby Jesus.
The jealous leader also executed his first wife Mariamne and three of his sons accused of conspiring against him.
One of his other sons, Herod Antipas who inherited half of the kingdom after his father's death, is the one who ruled at the time of Jesus' death and is said to be the one who executed John the Baptist.
But Herod the Great is also famed for his construction of the Second Jewish Biblical Temple, the Massada fortress and the ancient Roman town of Caesaria in what is now central Israel.
Much of his life is known through the 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
"The discovery is significant because first of all he is a well-known figure and also because of his proximity to the time of Jesus' birth," said Netzer.