Tel Ashkelon National Park has recently undergone extensive development work, during which the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed a magnificent 2,000-year-old basilica (a Roman public building) that’s the largest of its kind in Israel.
The works were initiated and funded by the Nature and Parks Authority, Ashkelon Municipality, and the Leon Levy Foundation, and include developing and constructing a new network of paths designed to showcase and provide better access to the park’s unique heritage and landscape.
The exciting finds, which also include an ancient odeon (theater), are now being revealed for the first time and will soon be open to visitors to Tel Ashkelon National Park. The site will be opened on completion of the development, conservation, and restoration work, which includes erecting sculptures and marble columns found in excavations at the site.
During the Roman period, the public life of the city revolved around its basilica, where residents transacted business, met for social and legal matters and held performances and religious ceremonies.
According to Dr. Rachel Bar-Natan, Sa’ar Ganor, and Fredrico Kobrin, excavation directors on behalf of the IAA, “the huge building is covered with a roof and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls. The hall was surrounded by rows of marble columns and capitals, which rose to an estimated height of 13 meters and supported the building’s roof. The floor and walls were built of marble.”
The marble, discovered during many years of archaeological excavations lasting until two years ago, was imported from Asia Minor in merchant ships that reached the shores of Ashkelon, which was a famous, bustling trade city at the time. Roughly 200 marble items weighing hundreds of tons have been found in all, testifying to the building’s great splendor.
Dozens of column capitals with plant motifs were discovered, some bearing an eagle – the symbol of the Roman Empire. Pillars and heart-shaped capitals stood in the corners of the building. Excavations by the British in the 1920s unearthed huge statues, including a statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, supported by the god Atlas holding a sphere, and a statue of Isis – an Egyptian deity depicted as Tyche, the city’s goddess of fortune.
The basilica was devastated by the earthquake that struck the country in 363 CE. The effects of the seismic waves are clearly visible on the building’s floor, providing tangible evidence of the events of that year in Ashkelon. After its destruction, the building was abandoned.
During the Muslim Abbasid and Fatimid periods, the site of the basilica was transformed into an industrial area and several installations were built in it. In one of these, marble pillars and capitals from the basilica were incorporated in secondary use in the buildings’ walls. There is evidence from the Ottoman period that marble items were cut up for use as paving stones and some of the beautiful architectural features were taken for building construction.
The conservation department of the IAA is conducting complex preservation and restoration work on the odeon and the impressive basilica, led by the Nature and Parks Authority and generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation. The work involves placing the spectacular marble sculptures of ancient Ashkelon in the southern part of the basilica.
In the first stage, the odeon will be conserved and restored. Thanks to a Leon Levy Foundation’s donation, it will incorporate modern seating, a stage, and a series of explanatory signs. At the same time, a pilot program at the site has begun installing the impressive marble items in place, in a complex operation in which one of the pillars, weighing dozens of tons, was hoisted into the basilica.
The floor of the excavated basilica will be restored and filled in, and additional columns will be placed around the perimeter based on lessons learned from the initial program. The public will then be able to access a magnificent basilica, the largest in Israel. In the meantime, visitors will be able to sit on the seating in the odeon – to be completed in the coming months – and observe the work on the nearby basilica.
Meanwhile, the new system of accessible paths being developed by the Nature and Parks Authority and Ashkelon Municipality in the national park aims to make the park’s unique nature, heritage and landscape more readily available, thereby enhancing the visitor experience. The route, about 2 km long, will go through the national park’s main sites, including the world’s oldest arched Canaanite gate, the famous wells of the ancient city, the basilica, and the odeon, and the Crusader walls.
This chronological trail tracing Ashkelon’s history through the ages will be clearly lined with content signage. A second trail will lead to the ancient wall and Ashkelon’s dunes, providing a glimpse of the rich flora and fauna to the south of the national park. Between the two trails, in the center of the park, a new visitor center will illustrate in an experiential interactive way the vibrant life of the port city and its importance throughout the various periods.