- The Roman basilica in the Tel Ashkelon National Park. Image from Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority.
Tel Askelon National Park hides a secret that will soon be uncovered for all. Originally discovered in the 1920’s, the park sits atop a massive Roman basilica that’s construction dates back 2000 years. Despite knowledge of the site, various difficulties made it impossible to excavate until recently, with two major digs in 2008 and 2016 finally revealing the scope of what can be found. Now, the park and the Israel Antiquities Authority are prepared to finally excavate the basilica in earnest, planning a large-scale dig and restoration projects that will bring this ancient marvel back to life.
The basilica is a treasure trove of historical wonders. More than 200 marble items have already been found on the site. These include columns, ornately carved column capitals, and statues. A large part of the new excavation and restoration efforts will be aimed at repairing and restoring damage done to these statues and columns by an earthquake in 363 CE. The idea is to restore as much of the basilica as possible so modern visitors can explore it as it would have existed in Roman-era Ashkelon.
- Statues from the Roman basilica in Tel Ashkelon National Park. Image by Yaniv Cohen, Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
The basilica would have been a place of great importance in its heyday. Likely created/commissioned by Herod the Great, whose family may have come from Ashkelon. The IAA believes this to be the case, citing coins found in the foundation of the building as supporting evidence in a statement ""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.”
The basilica would have functioned as a seaport and heart of trade and community business. A multi-purpose center for the city, docks would welcome ships loaded with goods for trade while the halls of the building would be used for social events, religious ceremonies, and even legal disputes. A kind of one-stop city hall, civic center, and dock. A remarkably sophisticated accomplishment of civic engineering and planning.
As well as the basilica, the renovation efforts will also be restoring the ancient Odeon theater on the site. This will be the first time the public will be able to view the ancient stage and seating area. A taste of what day-to-day life would have been like in Roman-era Israel.
The renovations will be adding new paths and walkways in the area to allow visitors easy access to these wonders. Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam has high hopes for the project. "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.”
Exciting times for Ashkelon and another fantastic reminder of the rich and living history of Israel.