The Tel Ashkelon National Park in southern Israel is undergoing a large-scale renovation project that will open up previously unseen parts of the heritage site, including a recently excavated 2,000-year-old Roman basilica, the largest one ever found in the country, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Monday.
The massive basilica, with its hundreds of ornately carved imported marble columns and statues, was originally discovered in the 1920s, but only fully excavated in recent years, with two major digs taking place between 2008 and 2012 and again in 2016-2018.
Now, archeologists are planning to try and restore parts of the edifice that were destroyed in an earthquake in 363 CE, including erecting sculptures and marble columns found in excavations at the site in a bid to give visitors a sense of the splendor of the building that formed the heart of Roman-era Ashkelon, when it was a bustling seaport.
“During the Roman period, the public life of the city revolved around its basilica, where its citizens transacted business, met for social and legal matters, and held performances and religious ceremonies,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said.
“The huge building was covered with a roof and divided into three parts – a central hall and two side halls,” a statement said, adding that the marble columns and capitals that surrounded the hall and supported the roof were some 13 meters (42 feet tall.
The floor and roof were also made of marble, all of it imported from Asia Minor.
Among the more than 200 marble items found were dozens of column capitals with plant motifs, some bearing an eagle — the symbol of the Roman Empire. Pillars and heart-shaped capitals stood in the corners of the building.
During the original excavations carried out by the British who ruled the country in the 1920s, archeologists unearthed huge statues, including one of Nike, the Roman 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.
IAA excavation directors Rachel Bar-Natan, Saar Ganor, and Fredrico Kobrin said in the statement that they believe the building was initially built during the time of King Herod the Great, whose family was believed to have been from the area, and then later extensively renovated during the Roman Severan Dynasty, in the second and third centuries CE.
“Herodian coins discovered in the bedding of the structure’s ancient floors show that it was built at the time of one of the greatest builders ever to have lived in the country,” they said.
“The writings of the historian Josephus mention Herod’s construction in the city of Ashkelon and list fountains, a bathhouse and colonnaded halls. Today, based on the new archaeological evidence, we can understand the origins of the historical record,” they said.
In addition to the basilica, the public will be able to see for the first time the ancient odeon (theater) discovered at the site, which will also be renovated.
The project, a collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the city of Ashkelon and the Leon Levy Foundation, will also see the creation of some two kilometers (1.2 miles) of accessible pathways through the park.
“I am convinced that the restoration and conservation work in the park, the new archaeological discoveries and the development work – including new accessible paths – will contribute significantly to the park’s natural beauty and strengthen its status as the most beautiful and well-kept national park in Israel,” said Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam.
The statement did not say how much the project would cost or when it is expected to be complete, saying only that it would “soon” be open to visitors “on completion of the development, conservation and restoration work.”