Byzantine Church Built Over Temple to Pan Found in Israel. 'Like Pilgrims Left Graffiti'

The church was built on top of a Roman temple in the Banias, a cultic center cited in the Gospels, that is today a popular Israeli nature reserve

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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The site of the church recently discovered in the Banias nature reserve in the Golan Heights.
The site of the church recently discovered in the Banias nature reserve in the Golan Heights.Credit: Israel Nature & Parks Authority/ Banias archaeological team
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

An impressive church from the Byzantine era has been discovered in the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve, better known as the Banias, in the northern Golan Heights.

The findings from the church, dated to around 400 C.E., include a mosaic floor decorated with crosses, and a large dressed stone with signs of crosses, which may well have been incised by the pilgrims who visited the church. The church was built on top of an older Roman era temple dedicated to the god Pan (which is where the name Banias comes from).

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Prof. Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, working with Ron Lavi, was in charge of the archaeological dig. The church was part of “what we call a continuity of holiness – converting a site [holy] of one religion into one of another religion,” she told Haaretz. “We know this from human history around the world and also in Israel, for example on the Temple Mount. When Christianity rose to power, they didn’t look for a new site, they converted a pagan site into a Christian site,” said Erlich.

The mosaic floor of the newly discovered Byzantine church in the Banias. Credit: Yaniv Cohen/ Nature and Parks Authority

The mosaic floor shows how the pagan architecture was adapted to Christian needs. “Churches always face east, and this building is from north to south. They arranged for one of the Roman ritual niches to turn into the holy center of the holiness of the church. They made adaptations,” she said.

The archaeologists believe the church was damaged in an earthquake in the seventh century, but it continued to be used for Christian ritual even later,” says Erlich. The large stone at the entrance has crosses and it looks like the pilgrims left graffiti: “It is possible to explain it as a place where you come, and make a cross as part of the feeling of worship. It is very rare – a stone with so many crosses,” she said.

The temple to Pan and the newly found church are in an area that includes a cliff, cave, springs and terraces from ancient times, that were created by the collapse of part of the cliff – with the temples built at the top of it.

“During the Hellenistic period, in the third century B.C.E., the cult of the god Pan began next to the cave and the spring. This is the source of the name of the ancient city Panias, which later changed to Banias. King Herod built a temple to Caesar Augustus in the area at the end of the first century B.C.E. His son Phillip founded Caesarea Philippi at the site at the beginning of the first century C.E.,” said Erlich. “Throughout the Roman period the city was an important cultic center for the gods Pan and Zeus.”

The city faded after the seventh century C.E., but continued to exist throughout history. It was a densely populated city during the Mameluke period in the 13th century.

The dressed stone with incised crosses, possibly made by early pilgrims who visited the church which dates to circa 400 C.E. Credit: Yaniv Cohen/ Parks and Nature Authority
The site of the church recently discovered in the Banias nature reserve in the Golan Heights. Credit: Israel Nature & Parks Authority/ Banias archaeological team

The Israel Antiquities Authority found the remains of another church at the site in the 1990s. This church was also dated to the Byzantine era, about 200 meters from the newly discovered one. According to the Gospels, Jesus met his closest disciples nearby, and this is where Peter revealed him as the Messiah and in return was granted the keys to Heaven. A statue in honor of the event was placed here, and Erlich says it was possible that the newly excavated church is where the statue was placed. A Christian tradition also attributes the miracle of Jesus healing a sick woman from the city to the site.

The Banias is known best to Israelis as a magnificent nature site with streams and waterfalls, but before the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world would come to site every year because of its religious importance.

Dr. Yossi Bordovich, the head of the heritage department at the Parks and Nature Authority, said the excavations were conducted in the area of the ancient temple to Pan, which was probably constructed in the decade before 20 B.C.E. Part of it was excavated in previous digs, and the new excavations were meant to expose the rest of the temple in front of the cave for preservation and the development of tourism.

Ofer Shinar, the manager of the Banias nature reserve, said the peak of settlement in the area was during the Roman period. This was also when it was most popular as a center for religious rites; the site had many temples, though the main cult of worship focused around Pan. This is also when the palace of King Agrippa II was built there. The most important stage for the Banias came when the Hellenistic city of Caesarea Philippi was built there, named after Phillip II, the son of Herod. Herod divided up his kingdom between his three sons, and Phillip received the region that included the Banias, explains Shinar.

Most of the Roman city is still unexcavated. The two major archaeological sites exposed for visitors today are the site of the temples at the top near the large cave, and the palace of Agrippa, Herod’s great-grandson, who made impressive additions to the city. The site also contains a fortress from the Middle Ages.

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