Horbat Omrit – A Roman Temple at the Foot of Mount Hermon
The excavations at Horbat Omrit, next to Kfar Szold in the north of the country, have been conducted since 1999 by Macalester College of St. Paul, Minnesota, under the direction of Professor Overman, Chair for Classical Studies, his staff and students. The author of this article participated in the excavations and served as an advisor to the expedition on behalf of the Antiquities Authority. Normally, there were annual excavations at the site and the expedition from Macalester College was one of the few foreign expeditions that came to excavate despite the security situation; it could not come in 2002, however. Rest assured, the expedition will return in 2003.
Horbat Omrit lies on the western slopes of the Hermon, a mere stone’s throw from Banias. It is situated on a low hill that overlooked the Hula Lake during the Roman period. The site is located on the Roman road between Scythopolis and Damascus, one of the country’s main arteries. In the Roman period there was a crossroads near Banias from which the road continued on to Damascus. Joining it at this point was the road from Tyre, to the west on the Mediterranean coast. The Roman road ran north of the site where there was a guard tower and a sacred compound. The temple compound, on the middle of the hill, was connected to the main road by a colonnaded street that was common in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 2nd century CE. The colonnaded street continued in use into the Byzantine period. The expedition uncovered the remains of shops and installations, including a wine press, along its route.
Enclosed by a stone wall in the center of the compound (the temenos) were the remains of the temple and the staircase that led up to it from the east. Large, elaborately decorated architectural elements belonging to the temple, were found strewn over the entire compound. These included bases, column drums, Corinthian capitals belonging to columns and engaged pillars, architraves, friezes and cornices decorated with floral designs.
Two construction phases were discerned: in the first phase the temple was built on a podium (14 x 20 m) c. 2.5 m high, with a broad staircase ascending to it. This is a longhouse temple with four columns before it, a vestibule and cella; in the floor was an underground crypt whose walls were decorated with colored plaster. The bema was built of ashlar stones and was decorated on top and bottom with molded profiles. The first phase of the temple dates to the turn of the millennium and was almost certainly a King Herod enterprise.
At the beginning of the 2nd century CE, the size of the temple was increased additions that enlarged the podium on three sides; the staircase to the north was also widened. The facade of the temple during this phase was adorned by six columns, while a row of Corinthian columns surrounded the structure on all sides. Many of the large capitals, including those on top the columns, as well as those atop engaged pillars in the temple’s walls, were found scattered around the building.
The temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 363 CE and a small chapel built of stones in secondary use was constructed in the compound at the beginning of the Byzantine period. Even though only part of the site has been excavated so far, it seems that on all sides there are enormously large amounts of debris containing most of its architectural elements including the stones from its walls, and because the site was so remote from any other settlement, its stones were not removed from there for use in later construction. The podium was preserved in its entirety, as was the staircase leading up to it.
Besides the architectural elements of the temple, which currently constitute the bulk of the major finds, fragments of statuary and inscriptions were also recovered in the excavation. One of these may make reference to Aphrodite, whose marble statue was found years ago in the fields at the foot of nearby Tel Dan and can now be seen in the Bet Ussishkin Museum. It is quite possible that the origin of the statue should be sought in the temple at Horbat Omrit.
In the increasingly exposed temple, one can clearly see its two phases, the latter of which consisted of enlarging its area and converting it into a peripteros style temple, a trend that is also apparent at other sites such as the theatre temples in Bet Shean (Scythopolis).
The work plan of the Macalester College expedition includes completing the excavation of the temple and its compound. The excavators intend to make a concentrated financial and engineering effort to preserve and reconstruct the structure. Based on what is visible today much of it can be restored and for the first time the country will have a complete Roman temple standing in situ, providing a rare archaeological gem in a region where tourist development has recently been on the increase.
The identities of the site and the temple are still shrouded in mystery, because until now no identifying inscription has been uncovered. The temple seems to lie within the domain of nearby Banias and therefore is connected with its history. The region was part of the Ituraean kingdom from the end of the Hellenistic period until the year 36 BCE when Panion (Banias) was turned over to Cleopatra, who leased it out to Zenodorus the Ituraean. When Augustus bestowed the Golan, Bashan and Trachonitis on Herod after the battle of Actium, the city was included. This was probably part of Augustus’ policy against the Parthians. After vanquishing them and visiting Damascus and Ituraea, he celebrated a triumphal procession (triumphus) in Rome for having returned to it the legions’ standards. According to Josephus, Herod built a temple, in honor of the emperor, an Augusteum, one of three that he constructed (the others were at Sebaste and Caesarea (Josephus Wars of the Jews I, XXI, 3). Josephus, who mentions that the temple was built entirely of white stone, does not state that it was built in Panias, rather in the territory of Zenodorus, near the place called Paniun
His son, Herod Philippus, founded a city there that became the capital “Caesarea Philippi” (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews XVIII, II, 1). The Augusteum his father built appears on the coins that were minted in the city and is depicted as a temple with a façade of four columns and a staircase.
Panias continued to exist as an autonomous city during the reign of Agrippa I (37-44 CE). Agrippa II rebuilt the city in 61 CE and renamed it Neronias Caesarea Sebaste (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews XX, IX, 4). It was reported that Vespasian and Titus visited the city at the time of the Great Revolt. In the second century CE, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, coins were struck in the city, which were minted with the inscription “Caesarea Sebaste, holy, city of asylum near [Hippo] Panyo”. The New Testament, which mentions the visit there by Jesus and his disciples, uses the same Greek terms as Josephus meaning …”near”, “in the region of” Panias.
The temple’s plan indicates the type of Augusteum used for celebrating the emperor’s cult at that time. Similar temples were found at Pula, in Croatia, and at Nimes, in the south of France; however, there were other variations of the model. This can probably be considered an attempt to spread the cult of Augustus and Rome throughout the Roman Empire and by way of it, to produce uniformity in the traditional structure, a trend to which Herod no doubt was a silent participant. Should the temple at Horbat Omrit be considered the Augusteum that Herod built in honor of the emperor, on the main crossroads on the way to Panias, even though at that time in Panias itself there was no temple to the god Pan or even temples to other gods? It seems that the answer to this question, like those to other questions, is hidden in the remains of the temple that are being uncovered at Horbat Omrit.
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