Among the historic women who played a key role in the shaping of Jerusalem’s expansive history is the legendary Hasmonean princess, Mariamne I, known also by her Hebrew name Miriam, named for the biblical Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron. Although Mariamne I is most notable as the second wife of the historic King Herod the Great, her history, royal lineage, and ultimately her death, have earned a significant place in the history of Jerusalem. Who was Mariamne, what role did she play in the history of Jerusalem, and what mysteries does her life and legacy leave behind in this historic city?
Born into royalty, as the grandaughter of John Hyrcanus (‘Yochanan HaKohen Gadol’ in Hebrew literature) and the daughter of Aristobulus I, Miriamne instantly intrigued Herod the Great, who courted her for marriage in order to establish his standing with the royal family. Herod’s arrival in Judea followed the capture of Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Pompey in 63 BCE - who allowed the Hasmonean dynasty to continue ruling Judea, albeit under a newly-installed Roman governor. Herod, born to Antipater, a powerful official under the Hasmonean kings - and a client to Pompey, was a Jew, but his grandfather was an Edomite who was forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean leader, John Hyrcanus. Although Herod was certainly Jewish, his split lineage would perhaps play a major role in his later ruling decisions upon his rise to power.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, the Hasmoneans appointed Herod to be the governor of the Galilee - which culminated in a brutal rule clearly aligned with a greater allegiance to Rome than to the Judeans. By 40 BCE, Herod’s relationship with the ruler Marc Antony helped him secure his new role as “King of the Jews”, as designated by the Roman Senate. For the next three years, from 44-41 BCE, Herod would go on to besiege Jerusalem, eventually defeating the Hasmoneans and stripping them of power. While Herod carried out a ruthless takeover of the Hasmonean dynasty, he also sought to boost his legitimacy to the throne - by marrying the Hasmonean princess, Miramne.
For the next thirty-three years, Herod ruled Judea and would ultimately go on to contribute some of Judea’s greatest archeological structures. In particular, Herod decided to deconstruct the existing Second Temple in Jerusalem and rebuild a far grander and expansive one in its place - providing one of Judaism’s greatest structures and holy sites. At the same time, Herod and Miramne remained married until Herod’s paranoia caused him to go on a killing spree to ensure that the Hasmoneans would never be able to overthrow him.
In 29 BCE, coupled with his paranoia against the Hasmoneans, as well as the belief that his wife had betrayed him by committing adultery, Herod ordered that Mariamne be killed. Later, Herod would also see the execution of his two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus IV in 7 BCE, as well as his wife’s brother, Aristobulous III, and the Hasmonean King, Hyrcannus II. Despite her death in 29 BCE, Mariamne’s story continues: a legend states that out of his love for her, Herod kept Miramne’s body preserved in honey for seven years. The truth about this claim is still a mystery, yet this has not stopped hypotheses from emerging about Mariamne’s fate, and created some poetic speculation.
One such scenario occurred in 2019, when several guests to the Tower of David Museum reported seeing an increased activity of bees surrounding the historic Phasael Tower built by King Herod. The bees were spotted entering and exiting a hole in the tower that was created by the impact of a cannon by the Jordanian army in the 1948 War of Independence and the Tower of David team sought to explore the story behind this newly discovered bee activity.
With the careful help of expert apiarists, a team of professionals rapelled from the top of the tower and discovered a beehive and honeycomb with over 25,000 bees, and safely removed and relocated the honeycomb to a safe location. Was this story a mere coincidence, albeit a poetic one? Perhaps, while the mystery of Mariamne’s fate is still largely unknown, the mysteries of the tower continue to echo in the daily activity of the citadel thousands-of-years later in poetic fashion.