Israeli Zoo Finds It's Been Growing Geraniums in Roman Sarcophagi for 25 Years

In fact the 1,800-year-old stone coffins had been found a quarter-century ago, were mislaid and forgotten, Ramat Gan Safari Park officials say

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The two sarcophagi found last week
The two sarcophagi found last weekCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

While digging the foundations for a new wing of the animal hospital at the Ramat Gan Safari Park, the builders found two ancient stone sarcophagi. Or to be accurate, they rediscovered the stone coffins.

Long-time employees at the suburban Tel Aviv safari park acknowledge that they had been found for the first time about 25 years ago in the course of infrastructure work for the parking lot. At the time, the stone coffins were extracted from the ground and moved next to an administration building.

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Nobody quite realized what they were, so there they sat, alone in the dark, for more than two decades. Over time they were overgrown with vegetation and forgotten.

Then last week, in the course of the construction of the animal hospital wing, the sarcophagi were noticed peeking through a mass of geraniums by Rami Tam, the head of the African savannah section of the huge zoo, a section where the animals roam free. Bemused, he called over Shmulik Yedvab, the park’s animal health director – who called in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit.

No, it isn’t that they thought anybody was going to lug off the giant stone coffins. It was a procedural matter. So Uzi Rotstein and Alon Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority entered the picture.

It’s true that Israel is littered with sarcophagi, and it’s also not unusual for ruins and archaeological treasures to be discovered in the course of infrastructure work. But it’s rare for isolated sarcophagi to be discovered by members of the public in such a fashion, let alone in a zoo.

“The original building contractor didn’t understand what they were,” Rotstein explains to Haaretz. After the antiquities were moved, people simply stopped noticing them and over time, they became in effect geranium plant pots. Such is life.

Close-up of one of the two sarcophagi found last weekCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

And then the new contractor arrived, began removing the wild vegetation and lo and behold, there they were. Based on their decorations, chiefly garlands of flowers and symbolic disks typical of the Greek and Roman periods, the archaeologists immediately realized they would have been used for the pagan burial of Romans about 1,800 years ago.

Among the garlands, there are blank spaces. Rotstein and Klein suspect they might have been spaces designated for a customary grape-cluster motif, but for some reason, the work remained unfinished. Asked if the sarcophagi might have originally been in a graveyard, Rotstein explains that they don’t know and if they were, the graveyard is apparently long gone.

“Usually such sarcophagi would be in a big burial cave or mausoleum, so it would have been isolated,” he explains, adding that the purpose of the engraved disks on the coffins was to protect the deceased on their journey to the next world. This clearly demonstrates that, although the nearest town at the time was ancient Bnei Brak – a Jewish town, although under Roman rule – the burial was not Jewish.

One of the two sarcophagi found Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Ancient Bnei Brak is even mentioned in the Passover Haggadah: “It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining [at a seder] in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them: ‘Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!’”

Back to the coffins. Wondrously, they were an imitation of a foreign style, Rotstein explains. The sarcophagi were fashioned from local limestone, possibly from the Jerusalem or Samarian hills. But the style was precisely the same as Greek marble sarcophagi from Proconnesus, the island now known as Marmara in Turkey. Importing them from Turkey would have been prohibitively expensive. “These were local imitations,” Rotstein concludes.

And they were big, about 2 meters (6.5 feet) in length and half a meter in width. Obviously they were proper coffins for an entire body, in contrast to the local ancient practice of primary burial: allowing the body to decay and then putting the bones in an ossuary – a secondary burial vessel. The secondary burial practice goes back at least 6,500 years.

One of the sarcophagi found last week Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

It also appears that when the sarcophagi had first been found and were moved, one was damaged, and someone attempted to repair it using concrete, Rotstein says.

Are there bodies inside? We don’t know yet. Theoretically they could contain a couple, a husband and wife, who may have wanted to be laid to eternal rest in an isolated mausoleum. The coffins have been moved to an Israel Antiquities Authority facility for further study, Rotstein says.

The new medical complex at the Ramat Gan Safari Park is designed to provide advanced veterinary services for birds and mammals. It will include a specialized operating room and avian nursery, providing quiet, heated housing for the frequent feeding required during the chick-rearing seasons, the zoo says.

The Ramat Gan Safari Park itself consists of a drive-through section with African herbivores that roam free. (The lions are in a separate enclosure). Then visitors reach the parking lot, where they can park and visit the extensive zoo section on foot or with an electric cart.

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