Ancient Pagan Temple Found in Israel

Mati Milstein in Zippori National Park, Israel
for National Geographic News
August 15, 2008

Ruins of a pagan temple from the second century A.D. have been unearthed in the heart of a Jewish capital that existed during Israel's Roman period.

In its heyday, the temple sat within a walled courtyard abutting the most centrally-located homes in the ancient city of Zippori, about halfway between Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists discovered the temple's foundations under the ruins of a Christian church that had been built on the site during the Byzantine period, which spanned the fifth and sixth centuries.

Although pagan artifacts have been found in Zippori before, the temple represents the first significant structural evidence of a pagan settlement in the capital.

"We have textual accounts from the second century indicating the presence of a pagan population in Zippori," said Zeev Weiss, lead archaeologist of the Noam Shudofsky Zippori Expedition at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Based on the new find, "it is clear [the pagans] had the influence and the ability to erect this temple in the center of the city."

Zippori was a thriving multicultural center where tens of thousands of pagans, Jews, and Christians lived and worshipped, the researchers say.

(Related: "Catacomb Find Boosts Early Christian-Jewish Ties, Study Says" [July 20, 2005].)

Temple of the Gods

The newfound temple measures about 40-by-78 feet (12-by-24 meters). It was built just south of the decumanus, a colonnaded street running east to west that served as the main thoroughfare in most Roman cities.

The temple originally had a decorated façade, but its walls were plundered in ancient times and only the foundations have survived.

No archaeological evidence was found to indicate the nature of pagan rituals carried out in the temple. The structure was not built like a Jewish synagogue, and formal Christian churches did not exist until at least the third century A.D.

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