Archaeologists in Israel are working to restore a 2,000-year-old Roman-era basilica, considered the largest in the country.
In ancient Rome, a basilica was a large public building where citizens socialized, did business, performed and held religious ceremonies.
Experts believe the ancient building in Ashkelon, a city on southern Israel’s Mediterranean coast, dates back to the decades before the birth of Christ, when the region that would become Israel was under Rome’s control.
Destroyed by an earthquake and the passage of millennia, it is now being rebuilt and will welcome visitors again in the coming months.
Pictured: An aerial view of Ashkelon Basilica. Archaeologists from the IAA are working to restore the structure, destroyed by an earthquake in 363, and to open it to the public
Founded about 8,000 years ago during the Neolithic period, Ashkelon rose to prominence as the largest seaport in Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age, between 2000 and 1550 BC.
It was conquered by the Philistines in 1150 BC, and often made war with the Israelites until it was destroyed in the 7th century BC. fell before the Babylonians, who destroyed it.
The city was eventually rebuilt and, after Alexander the Great’s conquest in the 4th century BC, Ashkelon once again became an important seaport.
The archaeologists believe the basilica they uncovered was built during the reign of King Herod the Great, a Roman vassal king of Judea who took power in 30 BC.
A representation of what the Ashkelon Basilica should look like during a match
Archaeologist Saar Ganor points to a column motif of an eagle, the symbol of the Roman Empire
Judea was under Roman rule from the first century BC to the fourth century AD.
“Herodic coins discovered in the bedding of the structure’s ancient floors show it was built during the time of one of the greatest builders to ever live in the country,” said IAA excavation directors Rachel Bar-Natan, Saar Ganor and Fredrico Kobrin.
A discredited theory claimed that Ashkelon was Herod’s birthplace, although he is known to have built bathhouses, fountains, colonnades and other buildings in the city.
An aerial view of the odeon added during renovations to the basilica in the second and third centuries AD
During Roman times, when Ashkelon was a bustling port city, public life revolved around the basilica, a spokesman for the Israel Antiquities Association said.
The massive building would be covered with a roof and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls, the group of IAA excavation directors added.
‘The hall was surrounded by rows of marble columns and capitals, rising to an estimated height of [42 feet] and supported the roof of the building.’
The marble, also used for the floor and roof, was imported from Asia Minor.
The basilica was extensively renovated in the second and third centuries AD, during the Roman Severan dynasty, when marble architectural features were added and a small odeon, or theater, was added.
After earthquakes, looting and the passage of centuries, architects in Israel are working to restore the basilica and place sculptures and columns in their authentic locations
In the 1920s British archaeologists unearthed a huge statue of Nike, the Roman goddess of victory (left) standing atop Atlas holding the globe, as well as a statue of the Egyptian deity Isis as Tyche, (right) daughter of Aphrodite and a goddess of fortune
However, when a massive earthquake hit the region in AD 363, the basilica was destroyed and abandoned.
According to the researchers, “the effects of the seismic waves are clearly visible on the floor of the building.”
During the Islamic control of the area, some of the ruins were incorporated into other buildings.
“There is evidence from the Ottoman period that marble objects were cut to be used as paving stones and that some of the beautiful architectural features were used for construction,” an IAA spokesperson said in a statement.
The excavations began in the 1920s when British archaeologists unearthed a huge statue of Nike, the Roman goddess of victory, on top of Atlas with the globe.
They also discovered a statue of the Egyptian deity Isis as Tyche, daughter of Aphrodite and a goddess of fortune.
However, under the leadership of the famous archaeologist John Garstang, the British covered the ruins again, as was customary for further preservation, according to Haaretz.
Archaeologists estimate that the basilica was about 330 feet long and 130 feet wide, with a colonnade of columns 42 feet high
It was only more recently, with a few excavations in 2008-2012 and 2016-2018, that the full scale of the structure was uncovered.
In total, some 200 marble objects of hundreds of tons have been uncovered, including dozens of column capitals with plant motifs or with the image of an eagle, a symbol of the Roman Empire.
Now archaeologists are trying to restore parts of the earthquake-ravaged building and place sculptures and columns in their authentic locations.
They estimated that the structure was about 330 feet long and 130 feet wide, with a colonnade of columns 42 feet high.
A pillar weighing tens of tons has been lifted into the basilica and the floor of the structure is being restored and backfilled.
The statues of the gods and goddesses are placed on the south side, while the odeon is preserved and renovated with modern chairs and a podium.
The huge building is said to have been roofed and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls, surrounded by rows of marble columns and capitals. Pictured: One of the basilica’s massive capitals.
When the project is complete, visitors will be able to walk through the basilica, the largest in Israel.
A collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the City of Ashkelon and the Leon Levy Foundation, the renovations will also add more than a mile of accessible trails that trace Ashkelon’s history and are “designed to let and provide better access to the park’s unique wildlife, heritage and landscape,” a statement said.
Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam said the project will “significantly contribute to the natural beauty of the park and enhance its status as the most beautiful and well-maintained national park in Israel.”
The IAA has not disclosed when it expects the project to be completed, although it said visitors will be able to sit on the chairs in the odeon “in the coming months” and watch the work on the nearby basilica.