Category Archives: Places in Israel

One of the Best Preserved Ancient Synagogues in Israel

In a past issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review the process of the reconstruction of the synagogue at Umm el–Kanatir was described.  The following are some images of the site.  Additional images of this interesting synagogue can be viewed on my website.  See HERE for a recent Jerusalem Post article on the synagoguge.

Entrance to synagogue at Umm el–Qanatir

Umm el–Q/Kanatir (The Mother of the Arch) is a site located on the upper reaches of the Wadi Samekh, 5 mi. [8.5 km.] east of the Sea of Galilee on the Golan Heights.  It boasts one of the best-preserved ancient synagogues in the land—90% of the remains (collapsed) were still in place after the earthquake of AD 749.  It is in the process of being reconstructed (anastylosis) by Yehoshua Dray and his colleagues.

Menorah — One of Several Found in the Remains of the Synagogue at Umm el–Qanatir

The village—ancient name not known—was constructed in the fourth or fifth century AD and was destroyed by the devastating earthquake of AD 749.

Spring and Flax Processing Installation

In addition to the synagogue, remnants of a flax processing installation have been discovered by the spring in the village.

To view additional high-resolution images of Umm el-Qanatir Click Here.

For additional information about Umm el–Q/Kanatir see Yeshu Dray’s web site and Singer, Suzanne F. “Rising Again — Hi–tech Tools Reconstruct Umm el–Kanatir.”Biblical Archaeological Review vol. 33, no. 6 (November/December, 2007): 52–55, 59.

For the recent article see:  Ben David, Chaim. “Um [sic] el–Kanatir — Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again.” Biblical Archaeological Review 42, no. 4 (July/August 2016): 40–49.

See also the recent Jerusalem Post article.

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Defending the City at the City Gate

Often times the gate of an ancient city was located at a low point that was easily approached—via an incline ramp—from outside the city.

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View of the model of the six–chamber gate that was discovered at Megiddo. The initial excavators dated it to the days of King Solomon but today its dating is disputed—and some still prefer a Solomonic date.

Note how there are outer and inner gate houses—with a courtyard between them.  Also note how towers abound in the gate houses and associated structures.  As a city was being defended, the courtyard between the two gate houses could be viewed as a killing field whereby defenders could shoot down from their towers and wound and/or kill the attackers with arrows and/or spears.  Even if attackers were merely incapacitated, they would lie there bleeding and moaning and other attackers—in the deafening bloody chaos—would have to climb over their bodies in order to try to gain entrance to the city.  Of course they themselves were vulnerable to same the fate as their “colleagues.”  This must have had a detrimental effect on the second wave’s enthusiasm to attack the city!

In addition, as the attackers attempted to make their way through the inner gate, they would have to break down its outer door.  They would then be confronted with another killing field between the six chambers (three on each side) of the inner gate.  In this area, defenders could be positioned directly above the attackers—shooting arrows down on them.

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Model of the six–chamber gate (Solomonic) at Hazor. The dark green gate is located in the lower left portion of the image.  (Outside the citadel is to the upper left of the gate)  This particular gate has two projecting towers—one on each side.  A double (casemate) wall is attached to the gate (also dark green).

As for “doors”—there does not seem to be too much physical evidence for how the gates were “sealed/closed.”  However, we do know that in other structures that a pair of doors each swung on columns that could pivot in a socket.  More on this, next post.

For some brief comments on the dating to the six–chamber gate at Megiddo Click Here.  More on gates to follow.

Worship (illicit) at the City Gate

One of the not–to–frequently mentioned actions that the ancients practiced at city gates was  worship ([always?] illicit).

2 Kings 23:8     Josiah brought all the priests from the towns of Judah and desecrated the high places, from Geba to Beersheba, where the priests had burned incense. He broke down the shrines at the gates—at the entrance to the Gate of Joshua, the city governor, which is on the left of the city gate. (NIV)

One of the best places to envision an example of one of these shrines is at a not–too–frequently visited place in Israel called et–Tell—probably to be identified as biblical Geshur (home of Absalom; see below for location).  One of the spectacular finds is a massive four–chamber Iron Age Gate.

Iron Age II City Gate at et-Tell/Geshur

Iron Age II City Gate at et-Tell/Geshur

View looking west into the entrance of the east gate of et–Tell.  Note the basalt paving stones and the two upright standing stones on each side of the gate.  On the right (north) side are three steps that led up to a “high place” (= worship center?).

GeshurStelaThe carved basalt stela found at the Iron Age Gate at et–Tell (probably biblical Geshur).  Note the bull headed figure that is place upon a tripod and wearing a sword.  It may be a representation of the storm god Hadad.  The stela dates to the 9th or 8th centuries BC.

high-place-detailView looking north at the High Place and stela located on the north side of the Iron Age gate that leads into the city.  On the left is one of the seven(!) stelae that were found in the gate area—this one is not inscribed.  Slightly to the right of center note the three steps that lead up to a high place that has a basin—carved black basalt—on the top platform.  Note the replica of a stela with the deity Hadad engraved on it.

GeshurEt-Tell is located about 2 miles north of the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee on the east side of the Upper Jordan River.  It is often identified with the New Testament city of Bethsaida but in fact the remains from the Old Testament period are much more significant and it is probably to be identified as biblical Geshur (home of Absalom).

 

Murder of a Jewish High Priest at NT Jericho

For the few tour/academic groups that visit New Testament Jericho usually, because of time constraints, the main (northern) site is viewed from the south of the Wadi Qilt, but an exploratory walk on the north side of the wadi does pay dividends.

One of the distinctive structures north of the wadi is a double pool that was built in conjunction with the Hasmonean Palace during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE).  It was refurbished by Herod the Great.

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View of the double swimming pool where the handsome, eighteen year old, Hasmonean High Priest, Aristobulus III was murdered by Herod’s colleagues. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

Each pool measures 42 x 60 ft. and each is 10 ft. deep.  Note the staircases that lead down into the north (near) and south (far) basins.  A wide wall separates the two basins.

It was probably here, in 35 BC, that the brother-in-law of Herod, the young High Priest Aristobulus III, “accidently” drowned while “playing” with some of Herod’s youth.  His death marked the end of potential Hasmonean take over of Herod’s throne.

(53) Upon all this Herod resolved to complete what he had intended against the young man [Aristobulus III]. When therefore the festival was over, and he was feasting at Jericho with Alexandra, who entertained him there, he was then very pleasant with the young man, and drew him into a lonely place, and at the same time played with him in a juvenile and ludicrous manner.

(54) Now the nature of that place was hotter than ordinary; so they went out in a body, and of a sudden, and in a vein of madness; and as they stood by the fish ponds, of which there were large ones about the house, they went to cool themselves [by bathing], because it was in the midst of a hot day.

(55) At first they were only spectators of Herod’s servants and acquaintances as they were swimming; but after a while, the young man, at the instigation of Herod, went into the water among them, while such of Herod’s acquaintances as he had appointed to do it, dipped him as he was swimming, and plunged him under water, in the dark of the evening, as if it had been done in sport only; nor did they desist till he was entirely suffocated.

(56) And thus was Aristobulus murdered, having lived no more in all than eighteen years, and kept the high priesthood one year only; which high priesthood Ananelus now recovered again. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 15:53–56).

This is the same Herod (r. 37–4 B.C.) who murdered his beloved wife Mariamne, a mother-in-law, an uncle, and three of his sons.  The Herod who was alive when Jesus was born (ca. 5 B.C.) and before whom the “Magi” asked “where is he who is born king of the Jews?” and who subsequently slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1–3, 16–18).

To view 18 high–resolution images of Herodian Jericho Click Here.

First Century Synagogues and Corinth Books

The folk over at The Ancient Near East Today, ASOR, newsletter have published a link to a new FREE SBL book Invention of the First–Century Synagogue by Lidia D. Matassa, SBL, 2018. It is a 289 page book in pdf format and is a fee Download HERE.  I have not yet had time to read it but the Table of Contents indicates a treatment of the synagogues at Delos, Jericho, Masada, Herodium, and Gamla.  Please see the comment below as to why other first century synagogues, such as those at  Magdala and Umm el–’Umdan were not included.  (Thank you to Gene Dahmes [below] for drawing this to my attention).

Ancient Corinth: Site Guide (7th edition), 2018, multiple authors.  This is the first official guidebook to the site of ancient Corinth published by the ASCSA in over 50 years, and it comes fully updated with the most current information, color photos, maps, and plans. It is an indispensable resource for the casual tourist or professional archaeologist new to the site.

 

New Testament/Herodian Jericho

Most tour groups to Israel will visit the site of Old Testament Jericho.  However, there is a site about 2 miles south of there where first the Hasmoneans and then King Herod built a series of palaces along the Wadi Qelt.

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View looking north at Herod the Great’s Third Palace at Jericho—on the north side of the Wadi Qelt.  Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

From left to right is a large reception room, a large courtyard, a Roman bath (including cool, dressing, warm, and hot rooms), another courtyard and service area (sloping down and to the right).

HerodThirdPalaceDuring the winter, when there is rain, sleet, and snow in Jerusalem, generally the climate in Jericho is warm and pleasant!

Jericho was famous for the agricultural products that were grown here—especially Balsam shrubs/trees.

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This is a view of a pool that, according to the excavator, was used for the soaking of Balsam branches. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

The balsam plantations at Jericho were world famous and this precious commodity was shipped all over the Roman World.  To harvest it I believe that usually not-too-deep slits were cut into the branches of the bush with either a sharp bone or piece of glass—never with a metal knife.  The sap that came out was processed for its scent.

Evidently, another method included the cutting and soaking of crushed branches, in a pool such as this, but I am not certain how that process actually worked.  I am guessing that the finished product, although valuable, was not as good quality as that produced by the method described above.

For 18 high resolution images of Herodian/New Testament Jericho Click Here.

The road leading to and from Jerusalem passed by theses palaces.

  1. Jewish Pilgrims going up to and returning from Jerusalem.
  2. Jesus’s family visiting Jerusalem? (Luke 2:41–52)
  3. The setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25–37)
  4. Healing blind Bartimaeus (and friend). (Matt 20:29–34; Mark 10:46–52; Luke 18:35–43)
  5. Visiting Zacchaeus the [balsam?] tax collector. (Luke 19:1–10)

The following 11 minute video traces the route of this road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

See Netzer, Ehud, and Rachel Laureys–Chachy. The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, pp. 42–80.

Herod the Great and The Stadium and Theater at Jericho

About half way between Old Testament Jericho and the Second Temple Palaces of Jericho there is a site called Tell es–Samarat.  This tell was partially excavated and the area surveyed by Ehud Netzer.

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View looking south from the top of Tell es–Samarat at the “stadium” of Second Temple Jericho. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

In the foreground is the top of the cavea of the small (3,000 seat) theater that faces south.  The flat area beyond it from the house in the lower right to beyond the hot houses is were the “stadium” of Herodian Jericho was located.  The stadium was bounded on the right (west) by the asphalt road and on the left by a line of green trees.

The first–century Jewish historian Josephus mentions several  important events that happened here.

It was in this stadium (also called an amphitheater) where the sickly Herod reprimanded those responsible for the removal of the eagle from the Temple, where Herod had locked up the Jewish leadership that was to be executed upon his death, and where his death and will were announced to his troops prior to the procession to the Herodium where he was buried (Josephus Antiq. xvii.161, 173–179, 193–195).

Trial in the Theater of Jews for the Removal of the Golden Eagle in the Temple Precincts  (160) . . .  And when the king had ordered them to be bound, he sent them to Jericho, and called together the principal men among the Jews; (161) and when they were come, he made them assemble in the theater, . . .  He then cried out, that these men had not abstained from affronting him, even in his lifetime, but that, in the very daytime, and in the sight of the multitude, they had abused him to that degree, as to fall upon what he had dedicated, and in that way of abuse, had pulled it [the golden Eagle] down to the ground. They pretended, indeed, that they did it to affront him; but if anyone consider the thing truly, they will find that they were guilty of sacrilege against God therein.

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View looking west northwest at the cavea (semi-circular seating area) of the 3,000 seat “theater/odeum” at Tell es–Samarat. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

It was in this area where the sickly Herod reprimanded those responsible for the removal of the eagle from the Temple (see text above), where Herod had locked up the Jewish leadership that was to be executed upon his death (texts below), and where his death and will were announced to his troops prior to the procession to the Herodium where he was buried (Josephus Antiq. xvii.161, 173–179, 193–195).

Herod Commanded the Execution of Jewish Elite so that there would be Mourning at His Death  (173) . . .  and though he [Herod] was near his death, he contrived the following wicked designs. (174) He commanded that all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation wheresoever they lived, should be called to him. . . . And now the king was in a wild rage against them all, the innocent as well as those that had given him ground for accusations; (175) and when they were come, he ordered them all to be shut up in the hippodrome, and sent for his sister Salome, and her husband Alexas, and spoke thus to them:—“I shall die in a little time, so great are my pains; which death ought to be cheerfully borne, and to be welcomed by all men; but what principally troubles me is this, that I shall die without being lamented, and without such mourning as men usually expect at a king’s death.” (176) For that he was not unacquainted with the temper of the Jews, that his death would be a thing very desirable, and exceedingly acceptable to them; because during his lifetime they were ready to revolt from him, and to abuse the donations he had dedicated to God: (177) that it therefore was their business to resolve to afford him some alleviation of his great sorrows on this occasion; for that, if they do not refuse him their consent in what he desires, he shall have a great mourning at his funeral, and such as never any king had before him; for then the whole nation would mourn from their very soul, which otherwise would be done in sport and mockery only. (178) He desired therefore that as soon as they see he hath given up the ghost, they shall place soldiers round the hippodrome, while they do not know that he is dead; and that they shall not declare his death to the multitude till this is done, but that they shall give orders to have those that are in custody shot with their darts; and that this slaughter of them all will cause that he shall not miss to rejoice on a double account; that as he is dying, they will make him secure that his will shall be executed in what he charges them to do; and that he shall have the honor of a memorable mourning at his funeral. (179) So he deplored his condition, with tears in his eyes, . . . and begged of them that they would not hinder him of this honorable mourning at his funeral. So they promised him not to transgress his commands.

Jewish Elite Released at Herod’s Death  and the Reading of His Will  Antiq.17.8.2. (193) But then Salome and Alexas, before the king’s death was made known, dismissed those that were shut up in the hippodrome, and told them that the king ordered them to go away to their own lands, and take care of their own affairs, which was esteemed by the nation a great benefit; (194) and now the king’s death was made public, when Salome and Alexas gathered the soldiery together in the amphitheater at Jericho; and the first thing they did was, they read Herod’s letter, written to the soldiery, thanking them for their fidelity and good will to him, and exhorting them to afford his son Archelaus, whom he had appointed for their king, like fidelity and good will. . . .  so there was presently an acclamation made to Archelaus, as king, and the soldiers came by bands, and their commanders with them, and promised the same good will to him, and readiness to serve him, which they had exhibited to Herod; and they prayed God to be assistant to him.

Herod’s Burial Procession from Jericho to the HerodiumAntiq.17.8.3. (196) After this was over, they prepared for his funeral, it being Archelaus’s care that the procession to his father’s sepulchre should be very sumptuous. Accordingly he brought out all his ornaments to adorn the pomp of the funeral. (197) The body was carried upon a golden bier, embroidered with very precious stones of great variety, and it was covered over with purple, as well as the body itself; he had a diadem upon his head, and above it a crown of gold; he also had a sceptre in his right hand. (198) About the bier were his sons and his numerous relations; next to these was the soldiery distinguished according to their several countries and denominations; and they were put into the following order:—First of all went his guards, then the band of Thracians; and after them the Germans; and next the band of Galatians, everyone in their habiliments of war; and behind these marched the whole army in the same manner as they used to go out to war, (199) and as they used to be put in array by their muster-masters and centurions; these were followed by five hundred of his domestics, carrying spices. So they went eight furlongs, to Herodium; for there, by his own command, he was to be buried;—and thus did Herod end his life.

BTW: the only other place in the Roman world where a theater is connected with a stadium is at the beautiful/well–preserved site of Aizanoi in Turkey!

PS: Caution Visiting Tell es–Samarat  The last time we visited this site our group of about 35 was harassed by five 10-12 year old boys who kept touching the women in our group and would not stop—even our Palestinian bus driver tried to intervene, but to no effect.  Unfortunately we had to quickly leave because of this.

See Netzer, Ehud, and Rachel Laureys–Chachy. The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, pp. 72–80.