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Archaeologists at a re-erected Roman milestone on the Golan Heights Roman highway.

Key 2nd Century Roman Highway Exposed in Golan Heights

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More than 18 centuries ago, the Romans built a two-lane highway that cut across the southern section of an area that is today known as the Golan Heights, which sits on the border between Israel and Syria. Representing the pinnacle of Roman infrastructure design and construction techniques, the road was 24 miles (39 kilometers) long and connected the Sea of Galilee with the ancient Syrian city of Nawa.  

Roman Trans-Golan Highway Revealed 

In a study just published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, a trio of archaeologists reported the results of their study of this ancient engineering marvel, work which has unraveled some of the mysteries surrounding the road’s origin and reason for being.  

After completing a meticulous in-person examination of one of the best-preserved Roman roads in the southern Levant region, Drs. Michael Eisenberg and Michael Osband from Haifa University and Dr. Adam Pažout from Aarhus University in Denmark were able to confirm that the highway was constructed in the second half of the second century AD. The road fell into disuse and was abandoned in the early fourth century AD, its fortunes perhaps mirroring the early stages of the decline of the prosperity and influence of the Roman Empire. 

In addition to discovering these basic facts, the archaeologists were able to learn more about the purpose of the highway, discern the motivations for its construction, and gain some insights into the role Roman infrastructure projects played in the development of the region. 

 Exposed part of the Roman two-lane highway in Golan Heights.

Exposed part of the Roman two-lane highway in Golan Heights. (Michael Eisenberg/Archaeology of Tel Aviv University) 

A Vital Roman Military Thoroughfare is Identified 

The Golan Heights, also known as the Golan, is a basaltic plateau located along the border that separates eastern Israel from western Syria. It once belonged exclusively to Syria, but two-thirds of the Golan were seized and occupied by the Israelis during the Six-Day War of 1967, and that occupation persists to this day. Highlighting the Golan’s strategic significance as a crossroads in the ancient southern Levant, the region is bordered by the Sea of Galilee in the west, the Yarmouk River in the south, the Wadi Raqqad River valley in the east, and the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range in the north. 

In the 50-plus years of the Israeli occupation, archaeologists from around the world have descended upon the region to perform excavations and examine its ruins, which include many examples that date back to Roman times. This includes the remains of ancient Jewish villages, many of which date to the era of Roman occupation but some of which were occupied during the later Byzantine era 

As for the magnificent Roman road, it represents a pure example of Roman infrastructure and the ambitions that motivated such projects. The engineering ingenuity it took to create it is demonstrated by its impressive width and length, and by the embankments constructed to allow it to pass over flood-prone streambeds along its route.  

Aerial view of the Roman road 

Aerial view of the Roman road. (Michael Eisenberg/Archaeology of Tel Aviv University) 

Roman Rule in Judea 

While it is a standout, this Roman road is far from unique. It is part of a vast interconnected network of highways and side roads that the Romans built across their empire in the early part of the first millennium AD. It is one of several roads constructed in Judea or Syrian Palaestina (the Roman names for the lands of modern-day Israel, the latter replacing the former in 134 AD), many of which were located in the Golan (known as the Gaulanitis region by the Romans). 

The first large-scale Roman infrastructure projects built in the lands of modern-day Israel were ordered by Herod the Great, a Judea-born client king of the Romans who served as the ruler of the Kingdom of Judea during the late first century BC. From that point on Roman interest in such projects never waned, as Roman engineers designed scores of roads, bridges, aqueducts, and other monuments that covered Judea (Syrian ‘Palaestina’) from one end to the other 

 Jewish revolts in the years 70 AD and 132-134 didn’t halt the launching of such projects, as the development of an interlocking road system in particular was essential to Roman governance of these distant (from the city of Rome itself) outposts of its empire. 

Roman Roadside Security 

Significantly, the newly studied road that cuts through the southern Golan Heights features a series of watchtowers strategically located at intervals of approximately one Roman mile (about nine-tenths of a modern mile or 1.5 kilometers). The road did not directly intersect any Jewish villages, showing it was reserved for Roman use and undoubtedly for military rather than commercial purposes. 

 Excavation of the Roman watchtower, with the Roman road to its left.

Excavation of the Roman watchtower, with the Roman road to its left. (Michael Eisenberg/Archaeology of Tel Aviv University) 

It is certainly meaningful that this road was only built in the wake of the two Jewish revolts against Roman rule in the first and second centuries. Roman authorities obviously felt it necessary to have a private thoroughfare in the area over which troops could be moved rapidly and en mass over notable distances.  

"The direct involvement of the Roman army in policing and surveillance in the interior of the province suggests serious security concerns, felt in a predominantly Jewish area (Gaulanitis) even several generations after provincialization of the region," the archaeologists responsible for the new study explained in their journal article. 

Based on the discovery of carved inscriptions and various revealing artifacts at various points along the road’s route, it seems that construction of the highway began in the 160s, approximately 30 years after the last Jewish revolt. The agricultural land alongside the road was divided into rectangular fields in the preferred Roman style, manifesting the range of Roman control in an area occupied by a subject people who likely considered themselves oppressed.  

By the early fourth century AD, the Roman Empire’s concern for security across the whole of their territory grew, causing them to concentrate their efforts to preserve their authority in more centralized locations. With their far-off possessions in the Levant no longer representing a high priority, their forces were deployed elsewhere and the highway in Gaulanitis was abandoned.  

Tracking Roman Administration in the Hinterlands of Ancient Israel 

As excavations at the site of the ancient Roman road continue, the archaeological community hopes to further explore the relationship between occupants of the southern Golan Heights’ only ancient city, Hippos-Sussita, and their Roman rulers. The belief is that such research will uncover fascinating details about Roman provincial administration in the hinterlands of Jewish-occupied territory, while also leading to more discoveries revealing the true nature of Roman culture and society as it developed in the greater southern Mediterranean region. 

Top image: Archaeologists at a re-erected Roman milestone on the Golan Heights Roman highway. Source: Michael Eisenberg/Archaeology of Tel Aviv University 

References 

Pažout, A., Eisenberg, M., & Osband, M. (2024). Between Gaulanitis and Hippos: The Roman Road in the Southern Golan Heights in Context.  Tel Aviv, 51(1), 95–117. https://doi.org/10.1080/03344355.2024.2327802 

 
Nathan Falde's picture

Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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