The biggest Roman basilica of its kind ever found in Israel has been unearthed in the city of Ashkelon. The excavation of the 2,000-year-old basilica is being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) within a development project of the Tel Ashkelon National Park and the structure will soon be available for the public to view.
The structure was initially unearthed in the 1920s by a British archaeologist named John Garstang who covered it back up. Nearly a century later, it was re-excavated and is now almost ready for public viewing. In fact, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) has even reconstructed a portion of the colonnade.
The building has three sections – a main hall area with two side areas. There were gigantic 13-meter-high marble columns (43 feet) in the main hall that contained beautiful decorations such as plant motifs and an eagle. Even a small theatre (called an odeon) was unearthed at the site.
Dr. Rachel Bar Nathan, who is the IAA director of excavation (along with Saar Ganor and Federico Kobrin), said, “Garstang had already calculated the dimensions of the building, and seeing the remains of the marble columns, made with materials imported from Asia Minor, he had suggested that the basilica dated back to the time of King Herod the Great, since historian Josephus described how the king built a colonnaded hall and other structures in the city.”
This suggests that the basilica is from around the 1st century BCE, but “...the more grandiose elements, the marbles, the columns, were built later, around the 2nd-3rd century CE, the time of Emperor Septimius Severus style,” Bar Nathan explained.
Additional artifacts found at the site included Herodian coins and numerous large marble sculptures from Severus’ time. Some of the sculptures depicted pagan goddesses like Isis and Nike.
Interestingly, the basilica was not used as a religious building during Roman times. Instead, it was a public building located in the middle of the city where people went for court cases, commerce, and additional civic events. But as centuries went by, Christian churches were inspired by the basilica’s architectural design.
Unfortunately, the basilica was destroyed in 363 CE when an earthquake hit the Ashkelon area. Some of the building’s remains were re-used between the 8th and the 12th centuries during the Abbasid and Fatimid time periods for the construction of an industrial area. Thankfully, Garstang found the structure in the 1920s and it was rediscovered again in more recent times. Remnants of the earthquake are seen on the structure’s floors as they were heavily damaged.
Pictures of the site can be seen here.