Unearthing Pagan Temple Foundations

September 17, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

A University of Maryland historian and his team of archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of a grand pagan temple erected by Herod the Great, the wily and tyrannical ruler of Palestine in the first century B.C. and one of the master builders of the ancient world.

After weeks of digging, excavators in July exposed some of the massive stones that once supported the gleaming, 2,000-year-old temple at Caesarea, Israel. They also recovered pieces of its columns and other sculpted stone.

King Herod built the city and the temple about a decade before the birth of Christ. In a gesture of subservience to his Roman patrons, the Jewish king dedicated the temple to the goddess Roma -- a pagan deity representing the spirit of the Roman state -- and to the emperor Augustus Caesar.

Historians knew the temple existed, but no one was sure exactly where it sat.

Kenneth G. Holum, who teaches ancient history at College Park and led the search for the temple, said he decided to dig on the site of an early Christian church. He had a hunch, he said, that a line of stones at the site formed part of the temple.

"And there it was," he said.

"It was the first time I've ever excavated using that kind of speculative approach," said Dr. Holum, who since 1989 has served as one of three directors of the Combined Caesarea Expeditions, a continuing effort by the University of Maryland and Haifa University to excavate all of Caesarea. "It was more than a little surprising."

Judging from the size of the structure's foundation and column fragments, archaeologists calculate that the temple was as tall as a modern 10-story building and covered an area about the size of four basketball courts.

Built of sandstone covered with a white plaster that contained powdered marble, the temple sat on a ridge of bedrock about 30 feet above the Mediterranean -- and was probably used as a landmark by ships entering the port.

Stephanie McCullough, a 28-year-old graduate student in ancient history at College Park, helped uncover four vertical rows of foundation stone at the temple's northwest corner. In late July, she said, students and volunteers cleaned up the site so it could be photographed, then stepped back to admire it.

"The site is absolutely breathtaking," she said. "We just stood there in awe and nobody said anything. Ten minutes passed and we were just standing there. I don't know how to describe the feeling. You knew that Pontius Pilate was there. Herod was there, on that [ridge] where we were standing. We were all just kind of awe-struck."

Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea who made his headquarters at Caesarea, presided over the trial of Jesus, according to the New Testament.

Eric M. Meyers, a professor at Duke University and president of the Baltimore-based American Schools of Oriental Research, called the discovery "a very, very significant and major find."

Historians can now accurately place the temple inside Caesarea's city plan. "It is certainly of primary importance for understanding the multicultural and multireligious heritage of this period," he said.

"It's in the dead center of the city, in the highest point of the city's topography," said Dr. Holum. "All of the city's streets lead to it." Construction of the large, prominent temple, he said, "suggested that Herod built the city for the non-Jews in his kingdom," although Jewish families came to live there as well.

Still, Dr. Holum said, construction of the temple was probably the subject of whispered scandal. "It's quite shocking that a Jewish king would dedicate a temple to a pagan goddess, especially when she was an embodiment of Rome," he said. "Jews weren't supposed to worship pagan gods."

But Herod, who had seized the throne with the help of Rome, managed to keep his pagan masters happy while using guile, tact and terror to keep his mostly Jewish subjects in line.

"Herod was a consummate politician," Dr. Meyers said. "He was masterful in cultivating the Roman connection. He was masterful in manipulating his own population. He was certainly one of the most colorful figures in the history of Jewish politics, then and now."

About 140 volunteers and archaeologists with the combined expeditions began digging at the site May 28 and finished for the season July 28. What excavators found, Dr. Holum said, was "absolutely decisive" evidence that the foundation belonged to the ruined temple, which, like the city and seaport, was built between 22 B.C. and 10 B.C.

The architectural style of the foundation and building fragments match those of other Herodian buildings, Dr. Holum said. Pottery shards and coins found in the soil next to the foundation stones also date from about the third century to the first century B.C., suggesting that the temple was built not long after.

The decorative plaster lathered on cheap local sandstone was another giveaway. "This is one of Herod's typical tricks," Dr. Holum said.

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