The Ancient Road to Jerusalem: The Work of Romans, or Jewish Pilgrims?

A father-and-son archaeological team defies convention by claiming that Second Temple-era Jews hewed roads to Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land before the Romans came.

“Roads are culture, links between people, the basis for commerce. They are a whole world,” says Yigal Tepper, a member of Kibbutz Yagur, farmer and scholar of the Land of Israel. Tepper, together with his son, the archaeologist Yotam Tepper, recently finished a fascinating study of rock-hewn roads in the Land of Israel. Together with relatives and a small group of friends, they walked and documented dozens of paths throughout the country.

Their research led them to contradict a scholarly consensus that rock-cut stepped roads leading to Jerusalem during Second Temple times were Roman projects. Rather, they say they were hewn by Jews who used them to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The book that emerged from their project, which was carried out without any institutional support, is entitled “The Roads that Bear the People — Pilgrimage Roads to Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period” (Hakibbutz Hameuhad). The name came from a term used by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius for the pilgrimage road known as the Beth Horon Ascent.

Yigal Tepper is already bracing for criticism. “We are the only ones who claim that these roads were not made by the Romans,” he says.

However, Prof. Chaim Ben-David, head of the Land of Israel Studies Department at Kinneret College, accepts at least part of the new theory. “With regard to Judea, I believe that Yigal and Yotam Tepper are right and they have enlightened us,” he says. However, Ben-David says additional research is necessary before the theory can be applied elsewhere in the country, especially those areas, for example in the Upper Galilee, which were not under Jewish control.

The idea to buck scholarly convention with regard to the roads first dawned on them when they were working with a committee to document ancient milestones and roads. The more stepped roads they uncovered in various parts of the country, the more they began to realize that they had been hewn before Roman rule began here. “The Roman method of road building was standard throughout the empire. What guided them was the need for passage by wheeled vehicles year-round. They did not build steps. They even crossed the Alps without a single step. It doesn’t seem likely to us that only in Israel the Romans built steps,” Yotam Tepper says.

Yotam Tepper also notes that the Romans usually built their roads from west to east, while the roads in the Land of Israel led from north to south, from the Galilee to Jerusalem, for example. He also says the stepped roads they studied were narrower than the standard Roman road.

The project was far from easy, Yigal Tepper says. “We walked many paths, some of which were not marked. These were long hikes, along which we measured and documented the roads, examining them, sketching them and arguing. Sometimes we even raised our voices at each other,” he confesses.

But the hard work also produced satisfying moments, especially as the picture became clearer to them. “There were a few times when we broke out in a dance on the steps we found,” Yigal Tepper says.

The senior Tepper describes how, while trying to follow the route of an ancient aqueduct near Hukuk in the area of Lake Kinneret, he unexpectedly came across a stepped road. “I was coming down the hill and suddenly … I found 100 meters of steps hewn at a width of 1.70 meters. It seemed clear that these were not steps cut to make the descent easier, because it was very moderate. I was so happy I took out my gas stove and made coffee, and then I called Yotam to tell him.”

Another place where the Teppers found steps where the topography did not require it was near Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha west of Jerusalem.

Almost everywhere they found road, they found hewn steps near water sources but far from settlements. A Jew, especially if he were a priest, could not pass near non-Jewish communities, Yotam Tepper says. The roads were a kind of pure path to Jerusalem, which is why many were near water sources, where ritual purification could take place, Tepper believes, during a time when the Jews of the Land of Israel were preoccupied with ritual purification.

Emil Salman