Entering an Unknown Pagan Sanctuary: New Discoveries Made at a Roman Site in Israel

Entering an Unknown Pagan Sanctuary: New Discoveries Made at a Roman Site in Israel

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A team of researchers have finally found the missing link in the ancient Israeli city of Hippos-Sussita. Following discoveries of a large bronze mask of the Greek god Pan and a monumental gate, they were searching for the last piece of evidence to ascertain the era and purpose of the rich site. Through the discovery of a large theater and a bathhouse, they have declared it was almost definitely occupied during peacetime. However, the theater seems to have been used as a space for something other than entertainment - the experts speculate that it could have been a religious center instead.

An Important City During Roman Times

The new discoveries were made during recent excavations in the Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project , a research project conducted by a team from the University of Haifa with partners from all over the globe, at Hippos, overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel.

The Roman amphitheater they uncovered leaves no doubt about the site’s era. As Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa and leader of the Hippos Excavations Project, revealed, "The excavations outside the city over the past few years are falling into place like in a detective story.” He went on to explain ,

“First we found the mask of Pan, then the monumental gate leading to what we began to assume was a large public compound - a sanctuary. 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.”

Early excavations of the Roman theater. There is a semicircular passage between the lower and upper seating arrangements (praencinctio) and an entrance to a vaulted corridor (vomitorium). ( M. Eisenberg )

As previously reported on Ancient Origins , the team of archaeologists unearthed a large bronze mask of the Greek god of forests and shepherds (Pan) while excavating a catapult armory outside Hippos-Sussita in 2015. They suggested that it dates to the Pax Romana, a time of peace in the Roman Empire.

Dr. Michael Eisenberg holding up the bronze mask of Pan.

Dr. Michael Eisenberg holding up the bronze mask of Pan. ( Michael Eisenberg )

The Missing Link is Found

Despite all the evidence, there was a missing link that didn’t allow the researchers to state the site’s exact era with certainty: The Roman Theater. As Eisenberg described, “No self-respecting Roman city in this period could allow itself to remain without a theater. It’s simply unthinkable that any Roman polis could have existed without a theater.”

Eisenberg also added that Dr. Arthur Segal, leader of the Hippos project for many years and a top expert on the theaters in the Roman East, was the one who insisted that there must be a theater in the city.  As one can easily understand, its discovery gives a new meaning to the project and the reassurance local researchers needed to verify their theories and speculations.

Dr. A. Iermolin (standing) and Dr. M. Eisenberg during the excavation of the first vaulted passage (vomitorium).

Dr. A. Iermolin (standing) and Dr. M. Eisenberg during the excavation of the first vaulted passage (vomitorium). ( A. Nakaryakov )

Religious Ceremonies Instead of Entertainment

However, Haaretz reports that all the findings so far have led the experts to speculate that the theater was more likely used for religious purposes than a place of entertainment. As Eisenberg said ,

“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. Dionysus, the god of wine, is associated with change and the loss of identity, and accordingly, with the masks used in the theater.”

Additionally, Eisenberg explained that the gate, which is almost unearthed, probably 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 makes sure to note, however, that all this is just a hypothesis for the moment, and only further research – and possibly more findings – will clear things up.

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