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Roman Sites
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Banyas Israel
Wednesday 22nd August1990
Caesarea Philippi
Sanctuary and town
Good access for the disabled Paid access to the monument
Roman name: Caesarea Philippi
Roman Province: Samaria
Country: Israel
Province: Galilea (Golan)
Nearest town: Qiryat Shemona
Nearest village: Dan
 

Origins

According to written sources, the site was first settled in the Hellenistic period (332-37 BC). In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East and put an end to the Persian Empire. Upon his death in 323 BC, three of his generals (Antigonas, Seleucos and Ptolemeos) divided his short-lived empire among themselves. A town named Paneasis first mentioned by the Roman historian Polibius as the site of the battle in 200 BC between two of their dynasties, those from Egypt (the Ptolemids) and Syria (the Seleucids), whose border was situated roughly in the area of Judea. Paneaswas of great strategic importance as it guarded the fertile plains to the west. The snowmelt from nearby Mount Hermon flowed underground at the base of the mountain and surfaced within a cave at the base of a high limestone cliff rising above the site. This water formed one of the biggest springs in the Middle East, feeding into the Banias River (also called the Hermon River or Nahal Hermon), the eastern-most of the three recognized sources of the Jordan River. During biblical times the place was uninhabited. Flavius Josephus mentioned that the Augustus gave Paneas to kingHerod. Herod's son Philip expanded the city and called it CeasareaPhilippi (to distinguish it from Caesareaon the coast). In 61 AD the king Agrippa II renamed the place to Neroniasin honour of the Roman emperor Nero, but this name held only till 68 AD.

The Roman temple site Pan, Jews and Christians

The Ptolemaic kings continued to develop the Hellenistic (Greek) culture in the region. In ancient times, the combination of natural features of cavern and spring gave rise to a fertility cult to the Canaanite gods Baal-Gad. The site developed into a Greek pagan temple dedicated to Pan, half man and half goat, with goat's hoofs and horns on his head, who was the Greek god of herds, shepherds and nature. Locals regarded this area at the foot of Mount Hermon with its spring, caves, and woods as a sacred site to Pan. Not surprisingly, the origin of the town’s name, Paneas, is to be found in this cult.

There was also a Jewish community in Paneas. During the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD the Romans imprisoned them, and in 70 AD, after the revolt was suppressed, games were held here to celebrate the victory of Titus, and many of the Jewish captives were killed. However, the Jewish community in Paneas survived.

According to Christian tradition St. Peter confessed the divinity of Jesus to the people in Caesarea Philippi, near the caves of Pan, where on the way to the town Peter witnessed that "You are the Deliverer, the Son of the living God." After the eleven sitting apostles had confirmed this was their belief as well, Jesus foretold they would know the truth about him. Arriving at Caesarea Philippi at the home of one Celsus, it was disclosed that the revenues had dried up, but (this is a really nice insight to the functioning of early Christianity as a small sectarian organisation), one of the brethren (David Zebedee) had foreseen this and had accordingly instructed his messengers to act as collectors of money. These messengers arrived from Bethsaida that evening, bringing sufficient funds for the Decapolis tour. Also, Matthew expected money from the sale of his last piece of property in Capernaum by that time, having arranged that these funds should be anonymously turned over to Judas. The miracle of the transfiguration is also placed close to Caesarea Philippi.

In the 4th and 5th century, Paneas had an important episcopacy that participated in church councils and the city became an important focus of Christian pilgrimage.

Upon Muslim conquest in the 7th century, Paneas became Banyas, due to the lack of a "p" in the Arabic alphabet. The Moslem geographer el Ya'akubi writes that Banyas was the capital of the Golan, competing with Damascus in its wealth and quality of life. The Cairo Genizah of 1055 describes Jewish life, including a Jewish court in Banyas that it calls "the Fort of Dan", having its own religious court. Jews apparently left the city before the Crusader invasion, most likely to Egypt.

Water

Banyas was always a strategic region due to its springs. The water that feeds these springs originates deep beneath Mount Hermon. The water runs underground through karstic systems and emerge at Banyas Cave (400m above sea level) at the base of Hermon. The river that feeds the springs (Nahal Banyas or Nahal Hermon) is the eastern tributary of the Jordan River and is 8 km long. This water ensured the possibility of agriculture in the region and the control of Banyas meant the of that agriculture. This was clear long before that battle in 323 BC between two Macedonian dynasties, as it is clear today as well. In 1920, the French managed to secure banyas for the French Mandate. However, in 1941 Australian forces won Banyas from Vichy-controlled Syria. When in the 1960s the Syrian government planned to divert the waters of Banyas along the slopes of the Golan to the Yarmuk River it almost caused a war between Syria and Israel. Part of the reason for the Israeli annexation of the Golan heights is control of the water supply for the region.

The site

After the modern bridge on the Banyas-Kiryat-Shmona road there is a Roman bridge across the junction of Hermon and Govta rivers. The interior is covered with travertine, the chalky deposits of spring water. Overlooking the two bridges, across the river, is a tall Crusader tower hidden by greenery. Following the trail, one passes the ruins of the Crusader wall of Banyas; there are also remnants of Roman aqueducts, terraces and columns.

Soon the road divides. The left path passes under an iron bridge and leads to the gatehouse of the Crusader wall. The gatehouse is a large hall, with walls 2 meters thick and a typical Crusader cross-vault ceiling. This was the entrance to the Crusader town of Banyas. A medieval bridge leading from the gate to the far bank was destroyed in the beginning of the 20th century.

The right path leads to the officers pool. This swimming pool is one of five pools that were built along the slopes of the Golan, and which were used by Syrian officers during the period 1948-67. It is possible that the modern pool is based on an ancient one, because a wealthy town of Paneas stood along the nearby stream from the 4th century BC.

Banyas Cave, the place of Christian pilgrimage, is located near the eastern entrance to the Banyas Reserve. It is about 15 meters high and 20 meters wide. A water aqueduct was built from the cave to the north-western to the north-western Roman villa suburb of Paneas. Part of the outer rim is damaged by an ancient earthquake, which probably re-located the source of the Hermon River. Banyas springs probably emerged from inside the cave before that, but now the springs bubble in pools nearby.

Following the path along the pool, one arrives at the waterfall observation point. The Banyas waterfall is only 10 meters high, but it is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Israel. From the observation point the trail goes down to the pool at the foot of the waterfall.

We were on our way to the Golan Heights.. and so were they. The Israeli Defence Force bringing up reserve armour.
We were on our way to the Golan Heights.. and so were they. The Israeli Defence Force bringing up reserve armour.
More armour being moved up. This is a unit of engeneers. After all, Saddam's just invaded Kuwayt..
More armour being moved up. This is a unit of engeneers. After all, Saddam's just invaded Kuwayt..
This region has seen war before: in ancient times the Crusaders once guarded the fertile plains below from their fortress Nimrud.
This region has seen war before: in ancient times the Crusaders once guarded the fertile plains below from their fortress Nimrud.
Far away to the north lie the Hermon mountains.
Far away to the north lie the Hermon mountains.
Barrita near the river. Glad to be out of the sun!
Barrita near the river. Glad to be out of the sun!
Arriving at Masada - which of these desolate table mountains is Masada anyway?
Banyas waterfall.
Part of the temple of Pan, who named this place.
Part of the temple of Pan, who named this place.

The Visit

A fast one, we were in a hurry. You know the drill; guided tour, our party of 4 and 6 others in a Landrover racing helter skelter up the Golan Heights. First stop was Tabgha, then with near-light speed up the escarpment and onto the Golan. It was hot and the landscape not particularly inspiring, being either yellow grass, brown bushes or volcanic rock. Add to that the old bunkers and barbed wire of past wars.. And then there was the armour. We noticed several columns of tanks and APC's being moved up to the border. Now that was worrying. We of course knew all along that Saddam Hussein was busy occupying Kuwayt, and not that far from where we were making holiday, a large coalition force was being assembled. No chance of war just now, but it was clear that Isreal did not take any chances Clearly, the Israeli Defence Force was moving up all its armoured material to a forward position. They weren't secretive about it, either.

Well, we had some tea with Druze folks, ate some local junk food ('Falafel Fun', would you believe it!), rode up to the northernmost point of Israel at Metulla before moving south again. When we arrived at Banyas we were too tired to go exploring, and thankful for every piece of shade we were drawn to Banyas waterfall as if by a magnet. Unsurprisingly we did not stop too long for the sanctuary of Pan, nor did we see anything of the town of Caesarea Philippi either.

Bibliography

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