Monumental Roman Gate Found in Israel Sheds New Light on Pan Worship

The gate, built of basalt and granite rock, may have led to a sanctuary to the Roman god.

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Dr. Michael Eisenberg holding up the bronze mask of Pan.
Dr. Michael Eisenberg holding up the bronze mask of Pan.Credit: Michael Eisenberg
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

A monumental gate from the Roman era in Israel has been found at Hippos, a year after the archaeological team found a unique bronze mask of the god Pan.

The gate, built of basalt and granite rock, could even shed more light on the dating and possibly the use of the mask, which is like nothing found anywhere else in the world, said Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa, leader of the expedition.

The mask of the half-man, half-goat god is the biggest of its sort ever found and made Biblical Archaeology’s list of “The Top 10 Biblical Archaeology Discoveries in 2015.” It had been discovered among stone ruins. Until now the researchers had assumed that the stone building found at Hippos, in the Sussita National Park, was part of the ancient city’s fortifications.

The dig team at the Sussita site.Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

Now the discovery of the massive gate, combined with last year’s discovery of the mask, suggests the theory that it led to a Pan sanctuary, Eisenberg said.

The gate opened to a width of 3.7 meters. On either side stood square basalt towers that had originally been around 6.3 meters high, say the researchers. In other words, the gate had been more than functional; it had been designed to make a formidable impression.

The stone building in which the mask had been found was even taller than the gate and has been dated to the era of Emperor Hadrian, who lived from 117-138 CE, at the latest. It may be older. The Pan mask had been lying on the floor of the western tower.

The eastern tower was better covered from the elements. Eisenberg speculates that the state of preservation inside may be better.

“The mask, and now the gate in which it was embedded, are continuing to fire our imaginations. The worship of Pan sometimes included ceremonies involving drinking, sacrifices, and ecstatic rituals including nudity and sex,” Eisenberg said. “This worship usually took place outside the city walls, in caves and other natural settings. We are very familiar with the city of Paneas to the north of Hippos, which was the site of one of the best-known sanctuaries for the worship of Pan.

“But here we find a monumental gate and evidence of an extensive compound, so that the mystery only gets stranger. What kind of worship of Pan or his fellow Dionysus, the god of wine, took place here in Hippos? To answer that question, we will have to keep on digging.”

Have dinerii, will flaunt

The gate provides strong support for the archaeologists’ assumption that the mask dated to the first or second century CE, Eisenberg says. “These are buildings that we know mainly from the Roman world,” he told Haaretz. “The Roman peace, the famous Pax Romana, strengthened after the Jewish rebellion. We see phenomena of grandiosity and wealth that had no function. There was money and it needed to be flaunted.” The entire eastern part of the Roman Empire, to which this area belonged, was part of this, he says.

Much the same opulence for its own sake can be seen in the ruins of the decapolises, such as Beit She’an in the Jezreel Valley, Eisenberg adds.

Other finds at the Sussita dig include coins and ceramics, which also improve the accuracy of dating.

Pan compound or not, the original structure could still have been fortifications protecting the Romans in Sussita against the Jewish rebels during the days of the Great Revolt.

The city is topographically low, so its protection would have required formidable stone walls, Eisenberg explains.

“We know that Yosef ben Matitiyahu wrote that during the Great Revolt in 66-67 CE, Jews from around Tiberias and Migdal came to Sussita, couldn’t get into the city, but set fires, destroyed and razed the area itself. Sussita controlled not only its own walls but a great area of what is today the Golan Heights,” he says.

The ancient city of Hippos at Sussita is being excavated by an international team, under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

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