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Archaeology in Israel: Banyas

The remains of the city of Banyas (Arabic pronunciation of Panias) are located in northern Israel, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Here, below a steep cliff, the cold waters of the Banyas spring, one of the sources of the Jordan River, gush forth.

According to written sources, Banyas was first settled in the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemaic kings, in the 3rd century BCE, built a cult center to counter the Semitic one at Dan to the south, which indeed gradually declined. Then, in 200 BCE, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III defeated the Ptolemaic army in this region and captured Banyas.

Almost 200 years later, in 20 BCE, the region which included Banyas was annexed to the Kingdom of Herod the Great and was ruled by his successors until the end of the first century CE. In the year 2 BCE, Herod Philip founded a pagan city and named it Caesarea Philippi (in honor of Augustus Caesar). It became the capital of his large kingdom which spread across the Golan and the Hauran. Contemporary sources refer to the city as Caesarea Panias; the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi. (Matt. 16:13)

During the Roman period, the center of the city spread over a plateau measuring 300 x 300 m., with natural features protecting it on three sides. At its peak, it extended even beyond these natural boundaries.

From the fourth century and until the Arab conquest, Panias functioned as an important Christian center. During the Arab period, the city was the district capital of the Golan in the province of Damascus and its name was changed to Banyas. During Fatimid rule in the 11th century, fortifications were constructed. Then the Crusaders, who ruled the town from 1129, surrounded it with a massive ring of fortifications. However, after repeated attacks, the city was conquered by Nur ed-Din of Damascus in 1164. Fearing that it might again serve as a Crusader fortress, the fortifications were dismantled at the beginning of the 13th century and are, therefore, only partly visible.

Banyas gradually lost its importance. Today there is a Druze holy place (Weli Sheikh Khader) in a whitewashed building on the cliff overlooking the spring.

Since 1967, but mainly during the last ten years, major excavations at the site have focused upon two areas: the remains of the sanctuary complex to the god Pan; and the center of the city - the latter continue to the present.

The temenos (sacred precinct) dedicated to Pan was constructed on an elevated, 80 m. long natural terrace along a cliff which towered over the north of the city. At its western end is a large grotto which has been regarded as sacred to Pan since the Hellenistic period. At the foot of the sacred precinct is the spring, a major component in the site's sanctity. The cult site to the god Pan derives from the juxtaposition of natural features which include forest, spring and cave. From time immemorial, the site had been visited by wandering shepherds who worshiped at the cave and the spring.

The excavations uncovered remains of a cult center dedicated to the god Pan which developed in several phases during the Roman period. The temenos included a temple, courtyards, a grotto and niches for rituals. Several decorated niches were cut into the rock cliff, in which statues probably stood in the past. Inscriptions, mentioning donors, were carved between the niches. Of the temples which stood here, only the foundations survived. Following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, this pagan cult center which had existed throughout the Byzantine period was destroyed and the ashlars of the walls removed for re-use.

The Temple of Zeus

Opposite the entrance to the sacred grotto, Herod the Great, in 19 BCE, built a temple in honor of his patron, Augustus Caesar, described by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (The Jewish War I: 404-405). This temple was 20 m. long and had two parallel walls, 10.5 m. apart. Cult niches which once contained sculptures were found along the inner faces of the walls, which also served as retaining walls. This semi-subterranean building also provided access to the sacred grotto behind the temple. This temple, only partly preserved, is depicted on contemporary coins minted by the city, showing a facade decorated with four Ionic columns.

The Court of Pan and the Nymphs

During the first century CE another shrine, dedicated to Pan and the Nymphs, was constructed east of the Temple of Augustus. This building consisted of three especially thick walls with cement foundations; it abutted the cliff on its north, creating a rectangular enclosure measuring 15 x 10 m. which apparently served as an open-air shrine. A small grotto was cut into the rock cliff behind it and, in a later period, niches for statues were added. A Greek inscription indicates that these niches date to the year 148: "The priest Victor, son of Lysimachos, dedicated this goddess to the god Pan, lover of Echo."

The Temple of Zeus and the Nemesis Courtyard

Around the year 100 (the 100th anniversary of Panias), during the reign of Trajanus Caesar, a Temple of Zeus was built at Banyas, east of the previous one. The temple consisted of two rooms: a hall measuring 8.25 x 7.6 m. which was originally covered with colored marble slabs and a 4.25 m.- wide front porch. The facade of the building was decorated with four columns with Corinthian capitals of especially fine workmanship. It has been suggested that rituals were also carried out on the roof of the building, opposite the niches cut into the cliff face. A 4 m.-wide paved courtyard, approached from the south by a broad staircase, was dedicated to Nemesis, goddess of revenge and justice, whose cult was popular in the region. A carved niche in the rock cliff above it bears the inscription: "For the preservation of our lords the emperors, Valerios [Titi]anos, priest of god Pan, dedicated to the lady Nemesis and her Shrine which was made by cutting away the rock underneath... with the iron fence in the month of Apellaios."

Temple Tomb of the Goats

In the third century, a cultic building for the burial of the bones of the sacred goats was erected at the eastern end of the sacred precinct. The structure was divided into three long halls oriented north-south. Along the walls of the central hall (which measures 12.5 x 6.6 m.) were two low galleries supported by rectangular niches (0.6 sq. m. each) opening onto the central hall. The niches contained sherds and a large quantity of animal bones, mainly of sheep and goats, bringing to mind the cult of the sacred goats related to the god Pan, as depicted on Roman coins of the city of Panias. These finds suggest that the structure was used as a temple-tomb for the interment of the bones of the sacred goats, whose cult was probably practiced in the buildings excavated at Banyas.

The temple was found covered by a mound of debris with an abundance of fragments of statues and statuettes, among them Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysos and Pan. The best-preserved statue (restored from two fragments) is that of a half life-size Artemis with a hunting dog attacking a hare at her feet. The statues and statuettes were probably offerings brought to the sacred precinct and destroyed as an act of anti-paganism at the end of the Byzantine period or in the early Arab period.

The Banyas National Park, which includes the excavated and restored archeological remains, is a unique tourist attraction, with a combination of wild natural beauty: cliffs, mountains, forest and an abundance of flowing water.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs