In the year 363 C.E., a massive earthquake along the great Dead Sea fault shook the land, famously flattening Roman and other cities in the Galilee. That is why it’s called the “363 Galilee earthquake.” But in fact it also leveled the biggest building the ancient Romans ever constructed in this part of the world, as far as we know: the great basilica of Ashkelon.
Around 110 meters long by 40 meters wide and featuring a colonnade of columns 12 to 13 meters high, the basilica was initially erected in the time of the reviled King Herod the Great, a vassal monarch of Rome.
The king famously had a mania for monumental construction, though some edifices associated with him may actually have been built or completed by others. Anyway, the basilica is a few meters longer than a regulation soccer field today, to put things into proportion. And in a matter of months, visitors can see it for themselves: The Nature and Parks Authority, in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, is carrying out a vast restoration project of the basilica, which is part of the Ashkelon National Park (the first national park declared in Israel, adds Shaul Goldstein, CEO of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority).
In fact this enormous basilica had been found and partially excavated in the early 20th century by the renowned archaeologist John Garstang, who would become director of antiquities during the British Mandate rule of Palestine. But Garstang settled for trenches, then covered up the ruins he had found there, as is common practice for the sake of their further preservation.
Excavation of the tell of Ashkelon would resume in 1985 under the auspices of the Leon Levy Expedition; among other things they found the odeon, a small theater, at the basilica’s edge.
In 2016 excavation of the basilica resumed under the banner of the IAA, in a mission led by Dr. Rachel Bar Natan. And lo, they found a great deal, Saar Ganor explains to Haaretz: statues, pillars, capitals, marble, marble, marble. All imported. Much of it had been stolen over the centuries, but a lot was still there, waiting to be found.
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First of all, a basilica today tends to be associated with the Christian Church but in Roman times, it was a purely secular building typically divided into three parts, Ganor explains. Its function wasn’t religious but civic – for things like the city council, the courts and so on.
This basilica too consisted of three parts, a central hall and two side halls, betwixt the pillars towering 12-13 meters high. “We found the steps to the entrance and the central hall; we found all the parts of the basilica,” Ganor says.
But the most surprising aspect of it all was that the basilica had two phases, the first starting with King Herod. That was a surprise.
“We found coins from Herod’s era in the foundations,” he explains – hence we know when that happened.
The historian Flavius Josephus also described Herod’s outstanding and generous public building activity (“construction mania,” Ganor puts it) – in the context of Ashkelon too. Why Herod was so obsessed with monumental building is probably because it befit a Hellenistic monarch. Apparently, Josephus suggested, Herod wanted to emulate illustrious rulers of earlier times.
Later, in the second century C.E., the basilica was renovated under the Severan dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between 193 and 235, and not just by plastering the odd crack. This, Ganor explains, is when the structure’s marble phase arrived.However monumental and colossal it may have been, Herodian period construction didn’t feature marble, which isn’t widely available locally, Ganor explains.
“Garstang had found a lot of marble and statues. We found hundreds more,” he says.
Where did that marble come from? “All over the empire,” Ganor answers – the pillars from one place, their capitals from another. Some of the capitals were decorated with the Roman symbol of the eagle, which is indicative of the formality of the building’s purpose.
“You can see in your mind’s eye ships laden with marble, sailing to Ashkelon,” the archaeologist says evocatively.
When in Ashkelon
Which begs the question of why Herod would build the biggest, or one of the biggest, official Roman buildings in the port city of Ashkelon of all places.
Ashkelon, aka Ascalon, is one of the most ancient cities in what is today Israel. On the balmy shores of the Mediterranean Sea, 20 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip and 57 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, it goes back at least 5,000 years and surely more.
By Herod’s time, Ashkelon was one of the wealthiest cities in the area, boasting some of the finest (read: most expensive) marble in the Roman empire, as statues, pillars and whatnot. Also, some traditions hold that Herod’s family came from that city, and therefore he harbored a fondness for it.
And then in the year 363 there were two massive quakes, at least. The basilica was destroyed and never rebuilt. How do we know that the quake did it in? “There are waves on the floor,” Ganor answers. Asked what floor, he explains that Herod’s flooring apparently consisted of crude white tesserae – mosaics; the later floor was built of marble slabs.
Who would have paid to import all that marble from all over the Levant? Likely the townspeople of ancient Ashkelon, a wealthy city, and possibly Rome itself subsidized part of the cost.
That magnificent building, the biggest in the land, insofar as we know, was abandoned. But its treasures weren’t. During the Muslim period, some marble was repurposed to build structures inside the basilica grounds; during the later Ottoman period, the marble was sawed up and taken farther afield – repurposed, for instance, for flooring.
“The best of it was taken to Jaffa,” says Ganor. Some of the marble from the basilica can be found in the Mahmudiye Mosque, the biggest mosque in Jaffa, which was built in the 19th century, the archaeologist adds – based on historic sources and modern research, he qualifies.
At this point archaeologists are reconstructing what they can of the Roman basilica, using whatever marble still remains on the site. They’ve already resurrected one column more than 10 meters high, as a pilot, Ganor reveals. By the time they’re done the colonnade should have as many as 15 to 17 such columns, and for the first time since the year 363, the basilica will rise anew.