Under a brain-numbing sun, the mountain gradually gave up its secrets to the archaeologists' trowels. A flight of stairs - part of the route of the elaborate funeral procession planned by the tyrannical ruler - leads to the very place where the notorious king of Judea was buried.
Yesterday, on the powdery grey flank of an artificial mountain overlooking the Arab villages and Jewish settlements scattered across the Judean Wilderness, Israeli scholars presented their answer to one of the great mysteries of biblical archaeology: the tomb of Herod the Great, a Roman client king who ruled the Jews with the ruthless paranoia of a Stalin or Saddam Hussein from 37BC until his death in 4BC.
For Ehud Netzer, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University, the find was the culmination of a 30-year search. Herod was known to have been buried at Herodium, the towering desert fortress he built for that purpose a day's march south of Jerusalem.
The Roman historian Josephus Flavius described the lavish funeral procession in his book The Jewish Wars, the unchallenged source book of the Second Temple era. He told how the body was attended by members of the family richly dressed in silks and jewels, how soldiers from across the ancient world paraded in their armour, as for war, accompanied by hundreds of attendants carrying spices such as frankincense. He said the king's body was covered in a purple shroud and carried on a bier.
"The bier," wrote Josephus, "was of solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colours. On this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the sceptre beside his right hand."
The sarcophagus, with its triangular cover decorated on all sides, was indeed a unique specimen, Professor Netzer said. Its remains were still clearly identifiable although it had been smashed into pieces, probably, he said, by Jewish rebels fighting between the years 66 to 72AD, decades after the king's death.
Jews who had rebelled against Roman rule in 66AD and took refuge at Herodium were the most likely suspects. "The rebels," explained Professor Netzer, "were known for their hatred of Herod and all that he stood for as a puppet ruler of the Romans."
Herodium was one of Herod's many architectural masterpieces in the Holy Land, and according to some, his finest work. A man of great ego and architectural vision, this was the place he had chosen to be not only his burial place but also his memorial.
Herod was also responsible for the rebuilding and expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the desert fortress of Masada, as well as building up the port city of Caesarea and other major projects.
Herod's tomb is no 21st-century Tutankhamen treasury. There are no bones, let alone a mummified body. What Professor Netzer unearthed on the West Bank three weeks ago were dozens of fragments of finely dressed pale-pink limestone, elegantly carved with rosettes, decorated stone urns and the remains of a stone podium 10 metres square on which the mausoleum is believed to have stood.
All that is left of Herod is his notoriety - which in the view of many people, was well-earned. To Christians, he was the king who ordered the massacre of the innocents, described in St Matthew's Gospel (though in no other source). St Matthew tells how, soon after the birth of Jesus, three wise men from the east came to Herod and asked where they could find "the one having been born the king of the Jews". Herod, who feared the rise of a a rival for his kingdom, ordered the slaughter of all boys up to the age of two in Bethlehem.
Joseph, who had been warned in a dream that Herod intended to kill Jesus, fled with his family to Egypt, where they stayed until after Herod's death.
To his Jewish subjects Herod was at once a benefactor and a scourge. Kenneth Spiro, a modern American rabbi, defined him as "a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis", but acknowledged that he was "also the greatest builder in Jewish history".
Jona Lendering, a Dutch historian of the Holy Land, summed him up thus: "With building projects, the expansion of his territories, the establishment of a sound bureaucracy, and the development of economic resources, he did much for his country. However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked Herod's Greek tastes - tastes he showed not only in his building projects, but also in several transgressions of the Mosaic Law."
Not the least of these was the erection of a golden eagle, the symbol of the Roman Empire, at the gate of the Jerusalem Temple, which was torn down by Jewish students just before his death.
Herod, the son of an Idumean father and Arab mother, encouraged the Jews to practise their faith, however. He married Mariamne, a princess of the deposed Hasmonean royal family, to buttress his legitimacy (having put aside his first wife, Doris, in order to do so). Above all, he rebuilt and greatly expanded the Temple. It is said to have taken 10,000 men 10 years to build the retaining wall of the massive man-made platform on which Al Aqsa mosque now stands. One face is the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites.
"The sanctuary," Josephus wrote, "had everything that could amaze either mind or eye. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, in the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who endeavoured to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun."
Herod brought prosperity and a measure of stability to the land. He skilfully played off the rivals among his Roman masters. He commanded his troops to victory over local foes. But, like tyrants throughout history, he feared plotters, real or imagined, and liquidated anyone he thought might challenge his supremacy. These included two high priests - one his father-in-law Hyrcanus, the other his brother-in-law Aristobulus - who were drowned in a bathing pool, as well as 46 judges of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court.
Not even those who Herod supposedly loved passionately were spared the paranoid monarch's wrath. Convinced by his sister Salome that his beloved Mariamne was being unfaithful, he planned to have her murdered. According to Josephus, once Mariamne found out about the plot to have her killed she stopped sleeping with her husband but this simply convinced Herod that he was right to suspect his favourite wife in the first place and he swiftly had her put on trial for adultery. "As soon as his passion [anger] was over," Josephus wrote, "he repented of what he had done and his affections were kindled again." But it was too late. Mariamne had been executed.
Mariamne's mother, Alexandra, who had colluded in her trial, was also executed after she accused Herod of being unfit to rule in a bid to seize power.
Nor did he spare his sons. "It is better to be Herod's dog than one of his children," the Roman emperor Augustus is said to have drily remarked. (Augustus should know; he gave permission for their executions.)
Herod's two sons by Mariamne, Alexandros and Aristobulus, were strangled on their father's orders after being found guilty of high treason. (Herod's heir, Herod Antipas, the king who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, is alleged to have incited his father's anger against his half-brothers.)
Antipater, his son by his discarded first wife, was also executed, accused of involvement in the insurrection that led to the smashing of the golden eagle.
Of Herod's monuments, many can still be seen: the Temple platform and the Citadel near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem; Herodium, the only one to carry his name, and its sister fortress Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea; the massive structure erected over the traditional burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Hebron; the ruined Mediterranean port city of Caesarea; and a winter palace complex excavated by Professor Netzer near Jericho in the 1970s.
The professor still has to prove to some scholars that he has indeed found Herod's tomb. An official of the Palestinian antiquities authority, visiting the site yesterday, noted that the Israelis had found no inscription. Stephen Pfann, a Christian textual scholar at the University of the Holy Land, hailed the find as "a major discovery by all means," but cautioned that more research was needed."We're moving in the right direction," he said. "It will be clinched once we have an inscription that bears his name."
Professor Netzer, who learned his trade under the celebrated Yigael Yadin at Masada, is confident of his attribution, however. "The location and the unique nature of the findings, as well as the historical record, leave no doubt that this was Herod's burial site," he insisted.
The stones bore all the marks of majesty, he said, and the sarcophagus was similar to those found at the Tomb of the Kings in Salah ed-Din Street in East Jerusalem. "It's not every rich Jew or citizen of this time that could afford this royal sarcophagus," he argued. "This podium, this base, is a well-executed monument. The stone work is very different from any we know elsewhere in Herodium." The location was right, he added. Pottery and coins found on the site showed that so was the date.
But the work is not over. Excavation began as recently as August 2006. Professor Netzer will keep on looking for the clincher.