Category Archives: Places in Israel

Musings on a recent trip to Israel 1

This past January we had a chance to be a resource person on a TutkuTours.com tour to Israel. I thought I would share a few pictures of some items that I found interesting.

Chorazin — The rebuilding of the synagogue continues and an ongoing excavation is taking place in one of the residential sections of the town.

While we were at Chorazin Achia Cohen-Tavor shared with our group some of the results of his recent excavation. Above is a dish from the Byzantine Period that has a Chi-Rho symbol on it.

El-Araj (Bethsaida) We also had a chance to explore the site of el-Araj — Bethsaida of the New Testament. We were particularly interested to see how the excavations of the Byzantine Church that have been described in recent news releases were progressing

View looking east at the recently excavated remains of a Byzantine Church that the excavators believe was part of a monastic complex—possibly “The Church of the Apostles” that was visited by Willibald in A.D. 725.

One of the mosaic inscriptions found at the church says “. . . chief and commander of the heavenly apostles” which the excavators believe is a petition addressed to Saint Peter.

In the center of the image, the semi-circular apse of the church is visible.  The floor of the church is covered with plastic.  The “mounds” that you see in the picture are sandbags covered with dirt that are holding the plastic in place. (picture January 2023)

For links regarding the excavation see the article Digging In: El-Araj in the online article in Bible History Daily.

For brief reports on the seasons of excavations see Here.

Detailed view of the apse of the “Church of the Apostles.”

Although this is somewhat “old news,” it was good to see that the level of the Sea of Galilee is much higher than what it was duriing the drought years.

Advertisement

The “Theater” at the Herodium

On a recent trip to Israel, we had a chance to visit the Herodium, the famous “volcanic-shaped” mound that is located about 7.6 miles south of Jerusalem and 3.5 miles southeast of Bethlehem.

The extensive excavations carried out by Ehud Netzer have been continued in recent years. In addition, before and during the pandemic, many restorations have been made and newly excavated areas have been prepared to receive visitors. One such area is the “theater.”

View of the north slope of the Herodium.

In the image above, note the modern building on the slope of the Herodium that has three tall windows. This building protects the “Royal Box” and the theater is located just below it. See the following diagram.

A model looking southeast showing the structures on the northern slope of the Herodium.

There have been a number of interesting developments at the Herodium since I last visited the site. One of them was that the “theater” (I think odeum is a better term—given its small size) has been reconstructed.

View looking down at the partially reconstructed “Royal Theater” at the Herodium.

Herod built his small theater (possibly better called an “odeum?”) on the northern slope of the Herodium.  It had a stage (skene) with semicircular rows of seating (cavea) facing it and entrances at both the top and bottom of the structure.  The upper and lower sections of seating are separated by a wider horizontal aisle (diazoma), and three staircases connected them. A total of thirteen rows of stone seats accommodated an audience of about three hundred.

The theater was discovered in 2008 and a “Royal Box” with secco and stucco decorations featured in it. A modern building was constructed to protect these precious finds and for many years we could peek into the building and take photos of some of the frescos—but the building was not open to the public.

View of the small theater (odeum) at the Herodium—before the more recent restoration.

This picture was taken from the stage (skene) area of the theater.  The semi-circular orchestra area is in the lower portion of the image.

In the center of the image, the semicircular rows of seating (cavea) are visible—before the recent reconstruction. A total of thirteen rows of stone seats accommodated an audience of about three hundred.

Above the cavea is a modern building with three large windows.  This building protects the well-preserved remnants of the Royal Reception Hall.  This was a two-story structure that overlooked the theater.  The Royal Box was decorated with stucco reliefs and colorful wall paintings. The theater and room were probably redecorated in anticipation of the visit of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s right-hand man, in 15 or 14 BC.

On this visit, it was great to be able to enter the restored “Royal Box.”

View looking into the central room of the interior of the “Royal Chambers of the “Royal Theater” at the Herodium.

Here in the Royal Box the king could host his guests and offer them refreshments before or during the performances.

This central room was decorated with plaster reliefs and colorful wall paintings.  The theater and room were probably redecorated in anticipation of the visit of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s right-hand man, in 15 or 14 BC.  The walls have evidence of at least two layers of frescos.

The walls have three longitudinal registers.  The walls of the Royal Room were decorated with wall paintings in the secco technique [painting on dry plaster] and stuccowork.  

The bottom register was decorated with lively-colored frescos with “margins” that imitate Herodian masonry.

The middle register was divided vertically by stuccowork pilasters and decorated with painted ‘hanging pictures’ that were suspended by imaginary ‘strings’ and ‘nails.’  The pictures imitate windows with open shutters affording views of imaginary landscapes.  These scenes evidently stressed the achievements of Augustus and Marcus Agrippa—for example, the victory at the Battle of Actium, the conquest of Egypt, etc. 

The upper register was composed of stucco reliefs.

A wall fragment/painting from the middle register of the Royal Box of the theater at the Herodium. Now in the Israel Museum.

This fresco, actually a “secco,” depicts a naval battle with two ships with sails billowing the wind.  On the deck are soldiers armed with shields and spears.  “The painting may represent the victory at Actium and possibly the beginning of Augustus’s rule following the conquest of Egypt.  The choice of theme supports the possibility that the royal Room was decorated in anticipation of the visit of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s second–­in–­command, in 15 BCE, since he was the general responsible for the victory.”

“The walls of the Royal Room were decorated with wall paintings in the secco technique [painting on dry plaster] and stuccowork.  They were divided vertically by stuccowork pilasters and decorated with painted ‘hanging pictures’ that were suspended by imaginary ‘strings’ and ‘nails.’  The pictures imitate windows with open shutters affording views of imaginary landscapes.” (From the descriptions of the paintings in the Israel Museum.)

A wall fragment/painting from the Royal Box of the theater at the Herodium.

“In this painting the artist depicts a sea view along with a bull, trees, a temple, a palm tree, and a boat, recalling sacred scenes from the time of Augustus while also alluding to the conquest of Egypt.”

Audio/visual presentation in the “Royal Box.”

One of the new features that we were treated to was a 9-minute audio/visual presentation on the construction, usage, and destruction of the “Royal Box.” It was time well spent.

For additional images of the theater and Royal Box see Here.

Israel Mount of Beatitudes

This past November I made my first trip back to Israel since my pre-pandemic trip in January 2020. I thought I would share a few impressions and photos from our recent trip.

One of my favorite places to visit, especially for prayer and meditation, it is the Church of the Beatitudes which overlooks the Sea of Galilee from the north.

View looking west at the Church of the Beatitudes.  The church was designed by Antonio Barluzzi and was completed in 1938. It commemorates Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5–7) and more especially the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10).  Italian sisters administer the property.

The “garden” west of the church on November 3, 2022.

Upon arrival at the church it was sad to see that another fire had almost reached the church itself—it seems like there is a serious fire almost every 4-5 years.

One of the sisters wrote:

A “miracle” saved the Church from destruction during the afternoon of July 14, 2022, when a devastating fire raged on the grounds of the sanctuary.  Because of strong winds, the fire spread rapidly jumping from one tree to another and eventually to some of the buildings. After long hours of exhaustive work by the heroic crews of the firefighting aircraft and fire trucks, the fire was brought under control.

But the fire, unfortunately, caused extensive damage to the roof of our Church; our places of prayer; the olive trees on our premises; and the workers’ residence at our pilgrimage site. With the help of aircraft, the fire was eventually extinguished.

In the words of Sister Telesphoro, the director of the sanctuary, we ‘witnessed a miracle in the protection of our God.”  Fortunately, there were no casualties.

Church of the Beatitudes Galilee

The “garden” to the west of the church.

Chorazin Update October 2, 2022

In my previous blog post, I noted the video by Sergio and Rhoda that featured Achia Cohen-Tavor and his discovery of first-century A.D. pottery and coins below the floor of the 4th-6th century Synagogue at Chorazin.

My friend and guide, Ofer Drori, visited the site on October 2, 2022, and sent me three pictures he took. It is clear that the floor and other parts of the synagogue are undergoing extensive restoration.

Photo of the ongoing restoration of the Synagogue at Chorazin. Courtesy of Ofer Drori.

Photo of the ongoing restoration of the Synagogue at Chorazin. Courtesy of Ofer Drori.

Photo of the ongoing restoration of the Synagogue at Chorazin—the restored entrance. Courtesy of Ofer Drori.

Ofer and I will be leading a group of travelers from the Biblical Archaeology Society in October/November and will be visiting the synagogue at that time.


PS — Ofer (in Israel) and I will be leading a 13-day Bible Study Tour to Israel and Jordan in April 2023. Shoot me an email and I will send you a brochure—no obligation. (2Foot.Steps.Tours+Chorazin@gmail.com)

A First Century Synagogue at Chorazin?

Many visitors to Israel will visit Chorazin which is located about 2.3 miles north of ancient Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Chorazin is mentioned two times in the New Testament (Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13) and in both cases it, along with Bethsaida are cursed for their lack of belief in Jesus. The text implies that miracles were performed there, and most have assumed that Jesus would have ministered in a synagogue there as well.

The reconstructed 4th-6th century synagogue at Chorazin.

When visiting the 4th-6th century synagogue at Chorazin, typically the question is asked “where is the synagogue that Jesus preached in?” Up until two years ago, the answer was, “we don’t know.”

Recently I came across a YouTube video by “Sergio & Rhoda in Israel” entitled “Lifting the ancient floor of the cursed city of Chorazin.” It was posted on September 27, 2020 (during the “heart” of the pandemic), and features the excavations led by Achia Cohen-Tavor in the synagogue and elsewhere at Chorazin. The whole video is worth watching (23 minutes long) but for those pressed for time, the work on the synagogue begins around 9:15. There are great images, drone shots, and expert commentary by Achia. He believes, based upon excavations below the floor of the late synagogue that he has found first century A.D. remains: pottery sherds and coins.

An important 23-minute video. The portion regarding the excavation of the synagogue begins at 9:30.

There appear to be a few referals to this video on the internet, but I have not seen any official reports of this discovery and would appreciate any references to official reports.

The interior of the synagogue where the excavation took place.

For additional images of the synagogue see Here. For the remainder of the site of Chorazin see Here.

The synagogue before excavation in 1967 on a field trip led by the late Anson Rainey — in the hat above the center of the image.

The Best Rolling Stone Tomb in Israel — Khirbet Midras

As Easter approaches, I thought I would share a few related blog posts that contain some images that some of you might find useful for Easter presentations.

ICSHMD20

View Looking East at the entrance to the First Century A.D. Tomb

View looking east at the entrance to the tomb. The rolling stone was 6 ft. [1.8 m.] in diameter and 1.3 ft [0.4 m.] thick. It was placed between two walls, each built of hewn stone. When discovered, it still rolled in its trough!

The tomb itself was in use during the Roman Period — up until A.D. 135.

In my estimation, it was the best example of a rolling stone tomb in the country of Israel. It seems to illustrate well passages from the Gospels which speak of Jesus’ tomb as being closed by a rolling stone. See especially Matthew 27:57-66; 28:1-2; Mark 15:42–47; 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–2, 10–11; and John 20:1, 11–18.

MidrasMap3Horvat Midras (Hebrew) or Khirbet Durusiya (Arabic) is located 19 mi. [30 km.] southwest of Jerusalem in the Shephelah. The ancient remains are spread over hundreds of dunams in the area. The site dates to the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

ICSHMD03

ICSHMD01

View of the Courtyard of the “Rolling Stone Tomb” at Khirbet Midras—prior to its destruction

In 1976 part of the cemetery was excavated. Several tombs were uncovered, including, in my estimation, THE BEST ROLLING STONE TOMB in the country. Unfortunately in the late 1990’s the tomb site was totally destroyed by vandals!#%$@!!

BUT it has been reconstructed and is now visible in the Adullam Park!

To view 3 additional images of the tomb Click Here.

For images of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher see: Calvary and Tomb.

Click to see images of Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb.

A Monumental Herodian (Hasmonean?) Hall in Jerusalem — Is this where the Sanhedrin Met?

Near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there is a Monumental Hall that dates to the late Second Temple Period  (New Testament era).  There is some speculation that the Sanhedrin may have (occasionally) met here—see below.

herodianhall-0007

View looking northwest at the northern and western walls of the hall. Click on Images to Enlarge and/or Download.

Note the finely finished stones in both walls as well as the chest-high decorative horizontal ridge/railing that separates the lower and upper portion of the walls.  Near the corner of the west (left) wall note the delicately carved protruding pilaster.

I visited this all in the 1970s with Gabi Barkai and I thought he said it might be Hasmonean.  But our guide said it was Herodian (37–4 B.C.) with possibly some Hasmonean elements.

I am not sure of its function but it certainly is “monumental.”  In my Zondervan Atlas of the Bible I labeled it as a “Public Building” (p. 250).

herodianhall-05171

View of the northeastern corner of the Monumental Hall.

In the above image note, the delicate protruding pilaster to the right of the center of the image and to the left of center note the well–defined horizontal “railing” that is about chest high that separates the lower and upper portions of the wall.

herodianhall-05134

View looking at the southeastern corner of the Monumental Hall.

On the left (east) wall there are two huge doorways.  Note the large carved doorposts and the huge lintels.  Currently, these doorways lead to the ritual bath that I described in a previous post, but originally they may have led to something else.

I believe that the far wall, with a doorway and other openings, is secondary, and that the original hall extended farther south.

Could this have been the hall where the Sanhedrin met?  If so, possibly Jesus, some apostles, Stephen, and/or Paul appeared here. (Unconfirmed speculation)

The early explorer Charles Warren called this structure the “Hall of the Freemasons (see below).  Additional comments/suggestions/correction are appreciated.

Not my “cup of tea” below.


From the Gallery of Masonic Sights from Israel
Hall of the Freemasons, Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Israel.
Discovered and named by the Freemason, Bro. Lieutenant Charles Warren [!] during the excavations of the late 1860’s near Wilson’s Arch.  Second Temple construction by Zerubbabel (536-516 BCE).

The Earliest Synagogue in Israel? Used by the Maccabees?

First of all — Happy Hanukkah!
A SYNAGOGUE USED BY THE MACCABEES?

The folk over at Bible History Daily have drawn attention to  an article “Modi’in: Where the Maccabees Lived Have excavations uncovered the hometown [synagogue?] of the Maccabees, heroes of Hanukkah’s Maccabean revolt?”  Just in time for Hanukkah!

I don’t believe that any tour groups stop at this site so I thought I would share two images of the site (Umm el–’Umdan; Arabic for “Mother of the Columns”).

modiinsynagogue01

View looking west at the synagogue at Umm el–’Umdan (Arabic for “Mother of the Columns”.

modiinsynagogue60001

The red “c’s” are column bases. Note the remains of the courtyard, entrance, and benches.

Excavations conducted in the past decade at Umm el-‘Umdan (Arabic for “Mother of Columns”) by authors Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn (recently deceased) revealed a previously unknown synagogue—featuring eight imposing columns—likely built during the reign of King Herod. But what about earlier? What was at Umm el-‘Umdan during the time of the Maccabees and the Maccabean revolt?

Directly beneath the Herodian synagogue lies a smaller synagogue constructed during the Hasmonean period, and beneath this was a structure securely dated to the end of the third or beginning of the second century B.C.E. According to the excavators, this structure must have been contemporaneous to the time of the Maccabees and the Maccabean revolt. While this Early Hellenistic building influenced the location and shape of the two synagogues built atop it in subsequent centuries, the excavators believe that there is not enough information at the time to conclude that the Early Hellenistic building was also a synagogue.

If the excavators are correct in their interpretation and dating of the above mentioned three structures, then structures two and three (earliest) might well be the earliest synagogue(s) discovered in Israel!   They seem to suggest that structure 2 is a synagogue.

modiinsynagogue03

A more detailed view of Umm el–’Umdan.

For more evidence confirming Umm el-‘Umdan’s Jewish identity in antiquity as well as a discussion of the linguistic relationship between the Hebrew name Modi’in and the Arabic name Umm el-‘Umdan, see “Modi’in: Hometown of the Maccabees” by Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Happy Hanukkah!

The Tomb of the High Priest Annas? Part 1 of 2 — The Exterior

Annas was a very influential High Priest (AD 6–15) whose sons, and later son-in-law, Caiaphas, succeeded him in that office.  Annas is mentioned in the New Testament in Luke 3:2; John 18:13, 24;  and Acts 4:6.

One of the most richly decorated tombs from the Second Temple Period is located on the southern slope of the junction of the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys.

Junction of the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys with the Tomb of Annas

This is the area that some have called “Akeldama” or the “field of blood” that is associated with events surrounding the death of Judas.  In 1994 Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer published an article suggesting that this special tomb may have been that of one of the High Priests mentioned in the New Testament and elsewhere.

Exterior of the “Tomb of Annas”
Badly defaced by later quarrying

Entrance to the “Tomb of Annas”

The above images show a view looking south at the exterior of the tomb.  On the right (west) side of the image notice the two semi-circular niches (for mourners/visitors?).  The entrance to the tomb has been heavily quarried/destroyed.  Notice the decorative partial shell conch over the now-almost-destroyed entrance to the tomb.

Detail of west side of tomb with an engaged column (pilaster) and the mourner niches.
When this photo was taken the tomb and forecourt were being used as a cattle pen!

West side of the tomb

In the image above, remnants of an engaged column (pilaster) are visible as are two apses—possibly used by mourners and/or visitors.

Standing in front of this tomb, looking north, one has a clear view of the Temple Mount—where Annas and his descendants had served.

For a detailed description of this, and other tombs in the area, as well as the logic that this is the tomb of Annas, please seen the article by Leen and Kathleen  Ritmeyer, “Akeldama: Potter’s Field or High Priest’s Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review 20 (1994): 23-35, 76, 78.

In the next post — images of the magnificent interior of this tomb!

Nazareth: Perfect Crusader Capitals — Scenes from the Gospels and Acts

One of the places in Nazareth that is rarely visited is the Archaeology Museum of Nazareth.  It is actually located below the plaza on to which visitors to the Church of the Annunciation exit!  Of the displays, pride of place must go to the five capitals of the crusade era, unearthed by Father Viaud at the beginning of the 1800s, in a grotto dug to the north of the crusade Basilica, close to the grotto of worship.

View of the only rectangular capital called the “Fides–Ecclesia.” Click on Images to Enlarge and/or Download.

The central capital shows a scene that has been open to several interpretations and represents a crowned woman holding a cross, while she travels to the left accompanied by a barefoot man among figures of the devil.
Some academics see the scene as the Byzantine theme of the liberation of Adam through the decent of Christ to the underworld. On the other hand, others identify the crowned woman with the Church Mother, holding the hand of an apostle, helping him to stand up to temptations, represented by the demons armed with bows and ready to shoot their arrows.

The capitals are made of high quality “sultan” stone.  The background surface is rough while the figures are very smooth.  The five, apparently unused, capitals from the Crusader Period depict episodes from the canonical apostles and from apocryphal writings regarding the life of the apostles.

View of one of the four octagonal capitals called the “Capital of Saint Peter.”

This capital represents two images of scenes from the life of the apostle Peter, taken from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
The three arches on the right in all likelihood represents the episode of the apparition of Jesus to the apostles, after the resurrection, at the lake of Tiberias. Peter, throwing himself from the boat to reach the shore, holds his hand out to Jesus, who is calling him. Below the three left arches there is a scene of the resurrection of the disciple Tabitha, in the city of Jaffa, by the hand of Peter, as told in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostle lifts the disciple from her deathbed, while three witnesses observe the prodigious miracle.

View of one of the four octagonal capitals called the “Capital of Saint Thomas.”

This capital is one of the four octagonal capitals. Below six arches, a unique scene is depicted, narrating the episode of the meeting between Saint Thomas and Jesus Christ, after the resurrection.
Thomas, absent at the time of the first apparition, is put to the test by Jesus who is showing the apostle the wound on his ribs, which Thomas had previously not believed in when hearing the take from the other apostles.
Christ is recognizable by the halo and the cross. The other saints present at the scene are the apostles: among these can be noted Peter, to the right of Christ and the brothers James and John in the arch on the left [not visible in image].

 


The Crusader Period in the Holy Land is from 1099 until 1291.  However, after the battle of the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187 the rule of the Crusaders was doomed.