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Archaeology in Israel: Hamat Gader

Hamat Gader (meaning "hot springs of Gadara") is located in the Yarmuk River valley, some 7 km. east of the Sea of Galilee. There are several mineral springs in the valley, with waters of up to 50º C. The ancient name of Hamat Gader is preserved in the Arab name of the mound located near the site, Tel Bani, a corruption of the Greek word meaning "baths".

Baths were built at Hamat Gader as early as the 2nd century, but they became popular only during the Byzantine period, in the 5th and 6th centuries. Some of the buildings were damaged by an earthquake in the 7th century and restored by the Umayyad caliph who ruled from Damascus. Eventually, in the 9th century, the baths were abandoned and a thick layer of silt covered the ruins.

The curative powers of the Hamat Gader springs, famous since ancient times, were described by the historian Eunapius who visited them in the 4th century:

Gadara, a place which has warm baths in Syria, inferior only to those at Baia in Italy, with which no other baths can be compared.

Among the visitors to the baths during the Roman-Byzantine period were many Jews, and also Jewish sages who made mention of the baths in the Talmud. A synagogue for their use was built nearby.

Dozens of Greek inscriptions, as well as some in Arabic, were found on marble and stone plaques incorporated into the floors and walls of the bath buildings. These provide information about the Byzantine rulers and about wealthy individuals who contributed to the cost of construction and renovation work, for which cures were wished on them. Dedicatory inscriptions mention the empress Eudocia (421-460), the Caesar Anastasius (491-518) and the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiyya (661-680). An inscription from the reign of Empress Eudocia, on a 1.81 x 0.71 m. marble slab, bears the empress’ name and praises the springs and baths of Hamat Gader, mentioning 16 buildings, including halls, pools and fountains.

Remains of the various structures at Hamat Gader were first studied and partially excavated in 1932. Extensive excavations which exposed a large portion of the baths complex were conducted during several seasons, beginning in 1979.

The exposed structures have recently been restored and opened to visitors. Thus today, as in antiquity, one can take the plunge, enjoy the hot springs and take advantage of their curative properties.

The Roman Bath Complex

The bath complex was reached from the north, via a 12-m. wide paved street, which connected the various buildings of Hamat Gader. A long, paved passageway, with decorated arches supported by pillars, led to the baths. The building complex covers an area of over 500 sq. m. and offered the visitor a variety of hot water pools and halls, probably with different functions. The buildings are exceptionally well preserved to a height of several meters, the walls are constructed of local basalt stone or well-trimmed limestone. The pools were each in a separate hall; these were connected to one another by passageways which enabled the bathers to pass from one pool to another, gradually adjusting to the differences in water temperature, until reaching the pool closest to the spring, with the hottest water. The pools are of different shapes and sizes, with steps around the edges for comfortable access. Paved walkways around the pools led to halls with niches for individual bathtubs.

The pools were filled and drained by a complex system: hot water was brought from the spring through wide pipes of interlocking stone sections and from them, lead pipes carried the water to and from the pools. An unroofed, cool water pool over 50 m. long, was surrounded by 32 rectangular marble fountains, each some 60 cm. high, the sides facing the pool decorated with sculptured human and animal heads; from their mouths, water poured into the pool. The sculptures were found broken and defaced, obviously the work of iconoclasts.

The Synagogue

The synagogue uncovered on the mound south of the baths was built in the 5th–6th century for use by the many Jews who came to the baths. The synagogue is located in a complex of buildings with paved rooms and courtyards leading to the synagogue. Benches along the walls of a large room next to the synagogue indicate that it was used for study, or that it was a women’s court.

The almost square synagogue hall, measuring 13.90 x 13 m., faced south, toward Jerusalem. Three rows of columns divided the hall into a central space surrounded by aisles. The southern wall, facing Jerusalem, had a semi-circular niche (apse), in front of which was an elevated platform (bema) to which steps led.

The synagogue was paved with mosaics, mainly in geometric patterns. Three carpets – in geometric and floral designs creating rhombuses containing roses and pomegranates – covered the center of the synagogue hall. The carpet in front of the bema is the most elaborate, with two cypress trees and two lions facing the center and a wreath surrounding a dedicatory inscription which ends as follows:

...whose acts of charity are constant everywhere and who have given here five coins of gold. May the King of the Universe bestow the blessing upon their work. Amen. Amen. Selah.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry