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Archaeology in Israel: Horbat Omrit

The excavations at Horbat Omrit, located in the north of the country, next to Kfar Szold, have been conducted since 1999 by an expedition from Macalester College of St. Paul, Minnesota, under the direction of Professor Overman, head of the chair for Classical Studies, his staff and students and the author of this article, serving as an advisor to the expedition on behalf of the Antiquities Authority.

Horbat Omrit is on the western slopes of the Hermon, a mere stone’s throw from Banias. It is situated on a low hill that overlooked the Hula Lake, in the Roman period. The site is located along side the Roman Scythopolis - Damascus road, one of the country’s main arteries. In the Roman period nearby Banias was a crossroads from which the road continued on to Damascus and joining it was another road coming from the west, from Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. North of the site one can clearly observe the remains of the Roman road along side of which was built a guard tower and a sacred compound. The temple compound, located in the center of the hill, was connected to the road by way of a street that in the beginning of the 2nd century CE was adorned with a row of columns, as was customary on the city streets in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. The colonnaded street continued to serve the site in the Byzantine period also and the remains of shops and installations, including a wine press, were uncovered the length of it in the expedition’s excavations.

Enclosed by a stone wall in the center of the compound (the temenos) were the remains of the temple and the staircase that goes up to it from the east. Large, elaborately decorated architectural elements belonging to the structure were found fallen on all sides of the compound. These included bases, column drums, Corinthian capitals belonging to columns and engaged pillars, architraves, friezes and cornices decorated with floral designs.

Two construction phases were discerned in the temple: in the first phase the temple was built atop a podium (14 x 20 m) c. 2.5 m high, with a broad staircase ascending to it. This is a long temple with four columns in the front of it, a vestibule and cella; in the floor is an underground crypt whose walls are treated with colored plaster. The temple’s bema is built of ashlar stones and is decorated on top and bottom with molded profiles. The first phase of the temple dates to the end of the 1st century BCE or the beginning of the 1st century CE and it almost certainly was one of the building projects initiated by King Herod. At the beginning of the 2nd century CE the size of the temple was increased with an addition that enlarged the podium on three sides; the staircase on its northern side was also made wider. The front of the temple during this phase was adorned with six columns and a row of Corinthian columns surrounded the structure on all sides. Many of the large capitals like those borne atop the columns, as well as those atop engaged pillars in the temple’s walls, were found fallen and scattered around the building.

The temple was destroyed by an earthquake that struck in 363 CE and a small chapel built of stones in secondary use was constructed in the compound at the beginning of the Byzantine period. Even though only part of the site has been excavated so far, it seems that on all sides of it there are enormously large amounts of collapse containing most of its architectural elements including the stones from its walls, and because the site was so remote from any settlement, its stones were not removed from there for use in later construction. The podium was preserved in its entirety, as was the staircase leading up to it. Besides the architectural parts of the temple, which currently constitute the bulk of the major finds, fragments of statuary and inscriptions were also recovered in the excavation. One of these may make reference to Aphrodite, a marble statue of who was found years ago in the fields at the foot of nearby Tel Dan and can now be seen in the Bet Ussishkin Museum. It is quite possible that the origin of the statute should be sought in the temple at Horbat Omrit. In the increasingly revealed temple, one can clearly see its two phases, the latter of which consisted of enlarging its area and converting it into a peripteros style temple, a trend that is also apparent at other sites such as the theatre temples in Bet Shean (Scythopolis).

The work plan of the Macalester College expedition includes completing the excavation of the temple and its compound. The excavators intend to make a concentrated financial and engineering effort to preserve and reconstruct the structure. Based on what is visible today much of it can be restored and for the first time the country will have a complete Roman temple standing in situ, constituting a rare archaeological gem in this region where the pace of tourist development has recently been on the increase.

The identities of the site and the temple are still shrouded in mystery, because until now no inscription aiding us in this matter has been uncovered. At this point in time it seems the temple lies within the domain of nearby Banias and therefore is connected with its history also. At the end of the Hellenistic period the region was part of the Ituraean kingdom until the year 36 BCE when Panion (Banias) was turned over to Cleopatra, who leased it out to Zenodorus the Ituraean. When Augustus bestowed the Golan, Bashan and Trachonitis on Herod after the battle of Actium, the city also passed into the latter’s domain. This was probably part of Augustus’ policy in maintaining the eastern frontier against the Parthians, who after vanquishing them and visiting Damascus and Ituraea, he conducted a triumphal procession (triumphus) in Rome having returned to it the legions’ standards. According to Josephus, Herod built a temple an Augusteum, in honor of the emperor, one of three that he constructed in Panias, Sebaste and Caesarea (Josephus Wars of the Jews I, XXI, 3). Josephus, who mentions that the temple was built entirely of white stone, does not state that it was built in Panias, rather in the territory of Zenodorus, near the place called Paniun.

His son, Herod Philippus, founded a city there that became the capital “Caesarea Philippi” (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews XVIII, II, 1). The Augusteum his father built appears on the coins that were minted in the city and is depicted as a temple with a façade of four columns and a staircase. Panias continued to exist as an autonomous city during the reign of Agrippa I (37-44 CE). Agrippa II rebuilt the city in 61 CE and renamed it Neronias Caesarea Sebaste” (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews XX, IX, 4). It was reported that Vespasian and Titus visited the city at the time of the Great Revolt. In the second century CE, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, coins were struck in the city, which were minted with the inscription “Caesarea Sebaste, holy, city of asylum near [Hippo] Panyo”. The New Testament, which mentions the visit there by Jesus and his disciples, also uses the same Greek terms as Josephus meaning …”near”, “in the region of” Panias.

The temple’s plan reflects the type of Augusteum for celebrating the emperor’s cult that was common in this period. Similar temples were found at Pula, in Croatia, and at Nimes, in the south of France; however, there were other variations of the model also. This can probably be considered an attempt at exporting the cult of Augustus and Rome throughout the Roman Empire and by way of it to produce uniformity in the traditional structure, a trend to which Herod no doubt was a silent participant. Should the temple at Horbat Omrit be considered the Augusteum that Herod built in honor of the emperor, on the main crossroads on the way to Panias, even though at that time in Panias itself there was no temple to the god Pan or even temples to other gods? It seems that the answer to this question, like those to other questions, is hidden in the remains of the temple that are being uncovered at Horbat Omrit.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry