On a good day, you can see it from a distance. It stands proudly on a ridge below a higher peak at a site where you would least expect to see a fine Roman structure. Although it lies in ruins, the white structure stands out in a landscape of black basalt rocks, typical of the Golan. Before 1967, it was the site of a Syrian military bunker.
Khirbet Omrit (the Arabic name) rests on the border between the Galilee and the Golan, on what was the boundary between civilization and barbarity. At first, during the Roman occupation of Palestine, the Galilee was also a wild and unruly area where the young Herod was sent to restore order. He did this with his usual ruthless brutality, not allowing humanity to stand in the way of good order. As a result of his success, his masters in Rome saw he was suited to become King of Judea. Later this cruelly successful mode of operation also gained him rule over the Golan, which was added to his kingdom in about 30 BCE.
Herod remembered this border territory, the site of his early triumph, and came back one day to build a temple to his patron, the Emperor Augustus. According to the first-century historian Josephus Flavius, after Caesar granted Herod the territory of the local governor who had died, "he [Herod] erected for him [Augustus] a beautiful temple in white stone in the territory of Zenodorus, near the place called Paneion [today, Banias]" (Antiquities 15: 363).
This white stone building at Omrit stands in the middle of nowhere today, but this was not so in antiquity. Recent excavations have shown that it stood alongside the Roman road from Tyre to Damascus, where it was joined by the route from Scythopolis (Beit-She'an) to Damascus. The temple stood high above the road and was joined to it by an avenue of columns that led to a bridge across the wadi Al-Hazin, which the road followed.
A colonnaded way means a road of shops, and that means commercial activity - here associated with travelers as well as locals. Omrit was a way-station on the road to Damascus, the seat of the senior Roman procurator who supervised Syria, which included Palestine.
Herod built three temples in honor of his patron Augustus. One stood at Sebastia (Samaria) and a second one at Caesarea. Where was the third? Some archeologists think it was at Banias itself, but that city was dedicated to the god Pan.
Andrew Overman of Macalester College in the US thinks the temple was at Omrit. Overman has been digging at the site for nearly 10 years and sees in the remains all the unique characteristics and high quality of Herod's methods of building. Like the other two temples, Omrit was approached by a grand flight of stairs that led to a portico of six columns and onto the cella, or enclosed shrine, which would have housed a statue of Augustus, as the Romans considered him a god. It is perhaps significant that the temple faced west, toward Rome and the emperor, and in front of the temple there was a paved area with an altar that would have been used for libations in his honor.
The high quality of the stonework, laid in headers and stretchers without mortar, and the finely carved capitals all point to the work of Herod the Great. So does the concept itself, of an isolated temple standing impressively on a high podium on a prominent ridge to make it visible and even overpowering from afar.
The excavators found that there was a second stage of the construction, which surrounded the original structure with a colonnade of eight columns on each side and six at the rear, which would have made the temple even more impressive. The original columns were of the Ionic order, consisting of spiral ends, while the new colonnade was of the Corinthian order, carved with elaborate acanthus leaves, all in fine Roman style, based on Greek originals.
This expanded temple is dated to about 100 years later than the original and may have been ordered by Herod's grandson Agrippa II, who ruled the area of Gaulanitis (Golan) from 54 CE to 66 CE. It shows the continued importance of the location well after the time of Herod, and even after the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE, which destroyed much of Jewish life in the Galilee. It may well reflect the importance of the Golan to the Galilee refugees of the revolt.
All the work of the temple is in shining white limestone, which would have had to be imported into this area of black basalt rocks. The local primitive buildings of the time are all in the local basalt, but although that was easily available, it was hard and difficult to work. Herod and his grandson used limestone to good effect. It was unusual for the area, it gleamed white in the sunlight and it shone from afar. It was also much easier to carve than basalt, and the stonemasons had to carve six Ionic capitals and then 20 Corinthian ones, all in intricate detail.
The carved stonework was not the only decoration. Internally the early cella was painted with frescoes. The later work revealed inscribed fragments, one with the Greek letters "Aphro," standing for the goddess Aphrodite, and marble reliefs of a priest with a cornucopia, of a slain deer attacked by another beast, and of a sphinx.
The temple probably stood for many years while the character of the site slowly changed to commercial and industrial use, and the temple site and stonework may have been used to create a chapel, where two crosses in black basalt were found.
The late Roman remains show an active village site, perhaps an early Judeo-Christian community, thriving alongside an active trade route to Damascus and the coast.
The temple-shrine may have come to an end after the severe earthquake of 363, but life continued in the Byzantine period until the massive quake of 749, which destroyed so many of the buildings in the Golan. The site was then abandoned, but a few late remains of the 13th century were found, with crude houses and cooking equipment - perhaps a camp of semi-nomads and their animals seeking refuge from the more regulated areas of the Galilee. By then, however, the Roman roads had been abandoned, and the area returned to its original wild state, which it retains today.
To access Omrit, take the turning on Route 918 marked Nabi Yehudah, on the right after Kfar Szold, coming from the South. The asphalt road leads to the enclosed Muslim Nabi (grave) and then turns sharply to the right and continues until it becomes a gravel track. At the large yellow gate, leave the car and climb up alongside the tractor tracks until you see the ruins above you. The gates are open to pedestrians.
Overman and his fellow excavators plan to restore the temple one day, seeing as so much of the original stonework lies around. We look forward to an impressive sight and wish him and his team much strength - they will need it.
Stephen G. Rosenberg is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Jerusalem.