Ancient Roman theater found in northern Israel may have been religious center

"It is quite possible that thousands of visitors to the theater came not to see the latest show in town, but to take part in rituals honoring one of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon."

By
January 10, 2017 12:46
4 minute read.
An image of the excavation site

An image of the excavation site. (photo credit: COURTESY OF DR. MICHAEL EISENBERG)

 
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A Roman amphitheater discovered during an excavation by the University of Haifa at Hippos, a site overlooking the Sea of Galilee, may support the hypothesis that the facility was used for religious ceremonies instead of entertainment.

Hippos, which is situated on a prominent hill some two kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee within Sussita National Park, is operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

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According to the University of Haifa’s Dr. Michael Eisenberg, who heads the Hippos Excavations Project, the digs outside the city over the past few years “are falling into place like in a detective story.”

“First, we found a mask of Pan, then the monumental gate leading to what we began to assume was a large public compound, a sanctuary,” he said this week at an annual research conference at the school’s Zinman Institute of Archeology. “And now, this year, we find a public bathhouse and theater in the same location – both facilities that in the Roman period could be associated with the god of medicine Asclepius, or with gods of nature, such as Dionysus and Pan.”

During the Roman period, Hippos was an important city in the Golan Heights, and the area east of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret. Over the past two years, researchers from the university’s Institute of Archeology have repeatedly been surprised by the unexpected findings uncovered outside the city’s walls.

However, one feature that was missing in the excavated city, until now, was the theater – a public building capable of accommodating thousands of people, which served as the venue for the popular public shows.

Eisenberg explained that “no self-respecting Roman city in this period could allow it self to remain without a theater.” However, until recently, no such structure was unearthed.



“From the moment our delegation began to uncover Hippos, we waited for the moment when we would find a theater in the city,” he said.

“It’s simply unthinkable that any Roman polis could have existed without a theater. Some researchers suggested that the small odeon we uncovered might have served as a substitute theater, given the small size of the city, but we knew that this was not the case.”

Prof. Arthur Segal, who headed the Hippos project for many years and is a leading expert on the theaters in the Roman East, insisted that there must be a theater in the city, Eisenberg noted.

Before it was finally located, the researchers uncovered various intriguing findings outside the city over recent years. In 2015, they found an unusual bronze mask of the god Pan and a year later located a monumental gate on which the mask was likely placed.

“Pan’s Gate” was selected several days ago as one of the top 10 biblical archeology discoveries in 2016 by the Biblical Archaeology Review.

These findings led them to assume that the gate formed the entrance to a large compound, perhaps a ritual site devoted to Pan or Dionysus, who were often worshiped together.

“This year, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place, we have found the first buildings in this compound: the public bathhouse and the theater, both of which are associated with ritual,” Eisenberg said.

The researchers located the public bathhouse relatively easily, although they have only exposed a small part of its extensive and rich compound.

Alexander Iermolin, the member of the delegation who found the famous Pan mask, noticed a basalt depression covered by a huge layer of debris and suggested it could be the site of the theater.

After excavating for several days, two findings were uncovered that nearly conclusively prove that it was indeed the theater: a passageway limited by a semicircular wall built of basalt ashlars, that served as a divide between the lower and upper blocks of seats; and one of the vaulted corridors that crossed the seating area, allowing the audience to reach their blocks of seats.

A subsequent small excavation revealed the foundations of several rows of seats, although the seats have long since vanished. The gate is dated to the early 2nd-century CE, and the probe excavation suggests that this was also the period when the theater itself was built.

“What is even more exciting for the researchers than the discovery of the theater is the fact that they may have uncovered an expansive sanctuary outside the city walls,” Eisenberg said. “Dionysus, the god of wine, is associated with change and the loss of identity, and accordingly, with the masks used in the theater.

“From the earliest days of the theater in the Greek world, the buildings served for the worship of Dionysus. In both Greek and Roman sites, we find a bathhouse as part of the sanctuary associated with healing, and with Asclepius, the god of medicine.”

Moreover, Eisenberg explained that the gate, which is nearly excavated, likely bore the bronze mask of Pan that was found in one of the gate towers.

“All these findings suggest that this was a large sanctuary outside the city – something that completely changes what we knew about Hippos and the surrounding area, until now,” he said. “If our hypothesis is correct, it is quite possible that thousands of visitors to the theater came not to see the latest show in town, but to take part in rituals honoring one of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. They watched and listened to the priests here until they entered a state of ecstasy and catharsis.”

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