The Israel Antiquities Authority announced Monday that archaeologists had discovered a 2,000-year-old Roman basilica built by King Herod. The basilica excavated in Ashkelon National Park with a nearby odeon (ancient theater) is the largest structure of its kind in Israel.
King Herod the Great, perhaps best known in the Christian Bible for ordering the murder of the children of Bethlehem to kill the newborn baby Jesus, was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule Judea and served from 37 up to 4 BC The basilica he built stood in the heart of Ashkelon – at that time an important seaport with a flourishing commercial economy – and acted as a hub for all aspects of public life. In Roman times it was customary for citizens to conduct business and legal transactions, socialize, and attend religious ceremonies and performances there.
The massive public building contained a central hall flanked by 12 meter high marble columns and two side halls. The floors and walls were made entirely of marble imported by ship from Asia Minor.
Nearly 200 marble elements weighing hundreds of tons were used in the construction of the basilica. Among the finds are dozens of columns and capitals with plant motifs in the Roman Corinthian style, as well as carved eagles, a symbol of the Roman Empire, and heart-shaped capitals that held a roof over the basilica.
Earlier excavations by the British in the 1920s revealed large statues of the Greek goddess Nike worn by the god Atlas and a statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis depicted as Tyche, a Greek deity believed to be wealth and that Controlled the fate of a city.
Cracks still visible in the basilica’s floor indicate that the building was destroyed and eventually abandoned after an earthquake struck the region in AD 363. Slabs of the basilica’s original marble were cut into pieces and used during the Ottoman period (late 13th) for paving and new construction. The area itself was later used as an industrial site.
Conservation efforts are currently being made to restore, repair and rebuild the site with its original sculptures and marble columns and accessible paths for visitor access to the Odeon and Basilica.