Strange Ruin in Northern Israel Could Be a Lost Roman Temple

On a hill in the Galilee stands Khirbet Omrit: A temple that may have been built to curry favor with an emperor, and may have become a shrine to a weeping nymph. And why a huge column from the temple was moved to a college sitting on a giant fault line

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Omrit: Herod-style columns in a Herod-style place
Omrit: Herod-style columns in a Herod-style place.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

There’s nothing like a good archaeological mystery. Nestled amid squills atop a hill between Kfar Szold and She’ar Yashuv stands the ruin of a 2,000-year-old temple. The Nebi Yehuda tomb, sacred to Druze and Muslims, lies at the foot of the hill.

Archaeologists agree that the temple was built during the time of King Herod, over 2,000 years ago. The big question is whether it was one of the four temples the king built during his lifetime, as described by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius.

One was the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The other three were reportedly built to honor the Roman emperor Augustus: one is in Caesarea and another in Samaria, as has long been known. Is the temple at Omrit, near the Banias (the biggest city in the region during the Second Temple period, and named for the god Pan) the “lost” one? This is a matter of some argument.

It’s easy enough to reach Omrit but the site isn’t set up for tourists, and indeed few visitors make it there, despite the site’s beauty. I came to Omrit with the archaeologist David Mevorach, a curator of the Hellenistic and Roman period in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and also the curator of displays at Tel Hai College in the Galilee. Mevorach is sort of an archaeological double agent. Some years ago he curated the Herod exhibit at the Israel Museum and know much about the contentious king. To some extent this work changed his attitude towards Herod, resulting in new appreciation of the vassal king.

Omrit may be off the beaten track today but back in the 19th century, it was visited by pilgrims, botanical researchers or plain ordinary adventurers from all over the world.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Sacred over the ages

Actually Omrit has the ruins of three ancient temples, each built atop the preceding one, Mevorach says. It was clearly a sacred site.

Herod reigned in Judea for 33 years, from 37 to 4 B.C.E. This area of the Galilee came under his aegis in 31 B.C.E.

Now, the first temple at Omrit arose in the first century B.C.E., apparently between 40 to 30 B.C.E., Mevorach says. Indeed Herod could theoretically have been involved in its construction. The second one apparently arose in 20 B.C.E., right in the middle of Herod’s reign: maybe he wanted to upgrade the first one.

The third temple at the same site, built atop the other two, arose later, in the first century C.E. and stood until the earthquake in 363 that destroyed it. What we see at the site today are the results of that temblor: columns originally 11 meters tall collapsed and lie are scattered on the ground.

Mevorach and some others surmise that the second incarnation of the temple is the one Herod built in honor of the Augustus cult: the “missing” Augusteum.

Omrit is also just four kilometers from the Banias, the most important city at the time in the area.Credit: Gil Elyahu

Omrit is also just four kilometers from the Banias, the most important city at the time in the area, he adds.

Over at the Banias, the archaeologists Ehud Netzer and Zvi Uri Maoz excavating there think otherwise and claim to have identified the lost Augusteum there though they don’t agree which structure is the lost temple. Both their candidates lie within the area of the ancient city, which Mevorach actually feels renders them inferior candidates compared with Omrit.

Why? The hillside where Omrit arose was also not unimportant, lying along a major trading route, and building the Augusteum there would have been typical of Herod, he feels: a temple standing in the landscape. “Herod’s first job before he became king was governor of Galilee. Here was his home turf, and the temple seems very Herod-like when it comes to the choice of the site, the dimensions and the style. Now you may ask if it’s really the Augusteum?” Mevorach smiles. “We can continue to live off this question for many years to come.”

The third incarnation of the Omrit temple was the biggest, being built on the previous two; and it contained an inscription engraved on stone dedicated to Echo, the Greek nymph who could only repeat the words of others. The mythological Echo fell in love with Narcissus, who broke her heart and left her weeping. Which deity was being worshiped at this version of the temple remains unknown at this stage.

A reconstruction of a section of Khirbet Omrit, displayed at Tel Hai College.Credit: Gil Eliahu

A 19th century pilgrimage

Omrit may be off the beaten track today but back in the 19th century, it was visited by pilgrims, botanical researchers or plain ordinary adventurers from all over the world. Only in the 1970s was an archaeological survey done there, headed by Prof. Gideon Foerster of the Hebrew University. Excavation began 20 years later, after a visit by Prof. Andrew Overman of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A fire that broke out in 1998 exposed the remains of the temple, and Overman fell in love with it and kept coming back, digging there for about 20 years, helped by groups of students from the college.

Mevorach describes Overman as caring deeply about preserving the site after the dig, and preparing it for visitors. “His students learn a lot about preservation. Actually, the entire initiative took shape thanks to him,” Mevorach says.

Speaking from his home in Minnesota, Overman explains that as they worked at Omrit, the site’s value became apparent. Concerned about theft of antiquities and vandalism (and adjacent old minefields), they began considering ways to protect the finds them for the sake of future generations.

Some of the finds were recovered with soil, a norm in archaeology; that’s always the easy solution, Overman says. They also began working with David Mevorach on a permanent display in the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem.

Which begged the question: why actually send the finds anywhere? Omrit and its treasures are in the Galilee, and should remain there and be displayed there, he explains, and thus began the collaboration with the Tel Hai college, which have been true partners in the endeavor, he says.

The wandering column

Thus after the construction of a library on Tel Hai’s eastern campus was completed, Prof. Tziona Grossmark of the Galilee Studies program contacted Mevorach and suggested he help to set up the archaeological exhibit there. First they thought of something more usual, such as display windows with small items. Then Mevorach suggested focusing on one large, significant item.

Omrit has the ruins of three ancient temples, each built atop the preceding one, Mevorach says. Credit: Gil Elyahu

“I thought it would be appropriate to concentrate on findings from Omrit,” explains Mevorach. “I liked the fact that you can see the site from the college. We’re always in a dilemma as to whether to remove findings from the area. Whether to transfer them to a large museum, in Jerusalem, for example, or perhaps to leave them in a local museum.”

And then, in a moment of lunacy, he says himself, they proposed to move one of the giant columns from that 2,000-year-old Roman temple and rebuild it in the library. Done in 2016, that involved moving 13 stone “building blocks” that comprised the column, which had collapsed at the site. In total they weighed a whopping 17 tons. The column, 11 meters tall, was rebuilt in the winding stairwell in the library building.

As people climbed the steps, they grasp its tremendous size and can also see it in detail, he explains. Once they reach the top floor, the visitors can see the column’s ornate capital.

When he and Overman presented their proposal to the college administration, it was greeted with mixed reactions, he admits. “There was enthusiasm but fears as well. Suddenly the project was transformed from a few display windows to a project on a different scale. This is the first time in Israel and apparently anywhere in the world, that an entire ancient column is recreated to its full height inside a modern building, and that’s why it’s such a complex engineering project.”

Note, Mevorach says, the college campus sits smack on the great Syrian-African rift, a fault line that produces many a quake and some big ones. “The building is standing on the meeting point of the tectonic plates that move in an earthquake. Already then we all realized that such a proposal means asking for trouble,” he acknowledged.

Obtaining the blessing of the permission of the Israel Antiquities Authority to take the pieces was a process that took years; and deciding how to technically go about it was also a protracted matter. Eventually the IAA people accepted that if left at the site, the pieces would weather badly; newly unearthed, they were already “going green” from the dampness.

How to appreciate the true dimensions and grandeur of the Omrit columns.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“The temple was turning green,” Mevorach says. “What’s more, the site abuts a minefield, making it difficult to develop it as a site capable of public visitation. Through great efforts, we were able to convince the Authority officials that this was the right thing to do, even if the costs were staggering and the engineering challenge was insane.”

Once the installation of the column in the library was completed, several stone capitals were also transferred and installed on the college campus, close to the theater. More recently, Mevorach and a crew working with him, headed by the designer Avi Or, and the preservation experts Victor Uziel and Amir Lavie, completed the restoration of one of the facades of Omrit’s temple on a building on the campus. I watched them for an hour as they argued fervently about the precise hues of a restored fresco on the temple facade. One doubts that Herod’s craftsmen had such a broad choice of shades to choose from, but at Tel Hai they eventually settled on a shade that is called “Ancient Roman.”

Professor Tziona Grossmark is a historian who engages in day-to-day life, and who has authored articles on two of the tiniest finds at Omrit - a cylindrical stamp and a white ring. She says that she has been familiar with Omrit since her student days. When archaeologists who dug at the site started talking about the permanent exhibit at Tel Hai College, she says, she could not believe that such a thing could even happen.

“As far as we are concerned, as a college in the Upper Galilee, this is a big deal. Items that were found on the site are being displayed in the Galilee. Students who are exposed to studies of the Classic period will be able to see every day, with their own eyes, authentic findings. We have succeeded in creating a link here between the temple of the ancient world in Omrit and the temple of the modern world - the college library.”

Prof. Tziona Grossmark of the Galilee Studies program.Credit: Tel Hai College
David Mevorach with a bust of Augustus.Credit: Eli Posner

Grossmark contends that the displays of the column and the facade are intended for the students, but also for visitors from outside the college. “We are not a museum,” she clarifies, “but the exhibit is open to the public at large, and is worth seeing.”

Asked if the site itself - four kilometers to the east of the college - should have been developed, Professor Overman responded: “Israel is more advance that other countries when it comes to preservation of archaeological sites. There is the budget and the desire here for that. The site is part of the landscape of the Galilee region, and is historically speaking very diverse. Although we did not find a synagogue on site, it is a region in which Jews and Christians lived. The village that arose alongside the site in the 9th century was Muslim. I would want the Israeli partners to march ahead and clarify their intentions for Omrit. It seems to me that they want to merge the site with the National Park at Banias, and that sounds like the right thing to do.”

Visibility on the day I visited Omrit was outstanding. From the west, at a distance of 7 kilometers away, it was easy to see the white buildings of Tel Hai College. Mevorach explains that another important stage has not yet been completed. The idea is to install two telescopes - one on the hill in Omrit, the other on the roof of the library at the college. The direct visual connection between the two would underscore the connection that has been made between the ancient site and the college. The telescopes have not yet been installed, says Mevorach, but the connection does exist.

Omrit, a sacred site.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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