Archaeologists in Israel restoring 2,000-year-old Roman basilica complex destroyed by earthquake


Archaeologists in Israel are working to restore a 2,000-year-old Roman-era basilica believed to be the largest in the country.

In Ancient Rome, a basilica was a large public building where citizens socialized, conducted business, held performances and conducted religious ceremonies.

Experts believe the ancient edifice in Ashkelon, a city on southern Israel’s Mediterranean coastline, dates to the decades before Christ’s birth, when the region that would become Israel was under Rome’s control.

Devastated by earthquake and the passage of millennia, it’s now being rebuilt and will welcome visitors again in the coming months. 

Pictured: An aerial view of the Ashkelon basilica. Archaeologists with the IAA are working to restore the structure, destroyed by earthquake in 363, and open it to the public

Pictured: An aerial view of the Ashkelon basilica. Archaeologists with the IAA are working to restore the structure, destroyed by earthquake in 363, and open it to the public

Founded some 8,000 years ago during the Neolithic period, Ashkelon rose to prominence as the largest seaport in Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age, between 2000 and 1550 BC.

It was conquered by the Philistines in 1150 BC, and frequently warred with the Israelites until falling in the 7th century BC to the Babylonians, who destroyed it.

The city was eventually rebuilt and, after the conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Ashkelon became an important seaport once more.

The archaeologists believe the basilica they uncovered was constructed during the reign of King Herod the Great, a Roman vassal king of Judea who took power in 30 BC.

A rendering of how the Ashkelon basilica should look when competed

A rendering of how the Ashkelon basilica should look when competed

Archaeologist Saar Ganor points to a column motif of an eagle, the symbol of the Roman Empire

Archaeologist Saar Ganor points to a column motif of an eagle, the symbol of the Roman Empire

Judea was under Roman control from the first century BC to the fourth century AD. 

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‘Herodian coins discovered in the bedding of the structure’s ancient floors show that it was built at the time of one of the greatest builders ever to have lived in the country,’ IAA excavation directors Rachel Bar-Natan, Saar Ganor and Fredrico Kobrin said.

A discredited theory posited Ashkelon was Herod’s birthplace, though he is known to have erected bathhouses, fountains, colonnades and other buildings in the city.

An aerial shot of the odeonad

An aerial shot of the odeon added during renovations to the basilica in the second and third centuries AD

During the Roman period, when Ashkelon was a bustling port, public life revolved around the basilica, according to a spokesperson with the Israel Antiquities Association.

The huge building would have been covered with a roof and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls, the group of IAA excavation directors added.

‘The hall was surrounded with rows of marble columns and capitals, which rose to an estimated height of [42 feet] and supported the building’s roof.’

The marble, also used for the floor and roof, were imported from Asia Minor.

The basilica was extensively renovated in the second and third centuries AD, during the Roman Severan Dynasty, when marble architectural features were brought in and a small odeon, or theater, was added.

After earthquake, pillaging and the passage of centuries, architects in Israel are working to restore the basilica and place sculptures and columns in their authentic locations

After earthquake, pillaging and the passage of centuries, architects in Israel are working to restore the basilica and place sculptures and columns in their authentic locations

When a massive earthquake hit the region in 363 AD, though, the basilica was destroyed and abandoned.

According to the researchers, ‘the effects of the seismic waves are clearly visible on the building’s floor.’

During Muslim control of the area, some of the ruins were incorporated into other buildings.

‘There is evidence from the Ottoman period that marble items were cut up for use as paving stones and some of the beautiful architectural features were taken for building construction,’ said an IAA spokesperson in a statement.

Excavation first started in the 1920s when British archaeologists unearthed a massive statue of Nike, the Roman goddess of victory, standing atop Atlas holding the globe. 

They also uncovered a statue of the Egyptian deity Isis as Tyche, daughter of Aphrodite and a goddess of fortune. 

Under the direction of renowned archaeologist John Garstang, though, the British covered up the ruins again, as was common practice to preserve them further, according to Haaretz.

Archaeologist estimate the basilica was about 330 feet long by 130 feet wide, with colonnade of columns 42 feet high

Archaeologist estimate the basilica was about 330 feet long by 130 feet wide, with colonnade of columns 42 feet high

It was only more recently, with a pair of digs in 2008-2012 and 2016-2018, that the full scale of the structure was uncovered.

Some 200 marble items weighing hundreds of tons have been uncovered in all, including dozens of column capitals with plant motifs or bearing the image of an eagle, symbol of the Roman Empire.

Now archeologists are trying to restore parts of the edifice destroyed by the earthquake, and place sculptures and columns in their authentic locations.

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They estimate the structure stood around 330 feet long by 130 feet wide, with a colonnade of columns 42 feet high.

A pillar weighing dozens of tons was hoisted into the basilica and the structure’s floor is being restored and filled in.

The statues of the gods and goddesses are being placed on the southern end, while the odeon is being preserved and renovated with modern seating and a stage.

The huge building would have been covered with a roof and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls, surrounded with rows of marble columns and capitals. Pictured: One of the basilica's massive capitals.

The huge building would have been covered with a roof and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls, surrounded with rows of marble columns and capitals. Pictured: One of the basilica’s massive capitals. 

When the project is completed, visitors will be able to walk through the basilica, the largest in Israel.

A collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the city of Ashkelon and the Leon Levy Foundation, the renovations will also add over a mile of accessible paths tracing Ashkelon’s history that are ‘designed to showcase and provide better access to the park’s unique nature, heritage and landscape,’ according to a statement.

Ashkelon mayor Tomer Glam said the project ‘will contribute significantly to the park’s natural beauty and strengthen its status as the most beautiful and well-kept national park in Israel.’

The IAA did not reveal when it expects the project to be completed, though it said visitors will be able to sit on the seating in the odeon ‘in the coming months’ and watch work being done on the nearby basilica.



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