What was believed for decades to be an ancient synagogue in central Israel is actually a Roman temple, according to new research conducted by archaeologists. This is the second building excavated at the site which was wrongly identified as a synagogue.
Originally uncovered near Beit Guvrin in 1991, the site has been undergoing excavations overseen by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 2015. The precise location of the site hasn’t been disclosed by the country’s Nature and Parks Authority for fear of vandalism. Sections of the temple’s walls, however, can be seen sticking up from the ground.
Previous theories about the site, such as one postulated in a 1991 book by archaeologist Zvi Ilan, for example, draw a comparison between the structure on site and monumental synagogues in northern Israel from the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.
Co-directors Orit Peleg-Barkat from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Gregg Gardner from the University of British Columbia now believe the building was constructed by the Romans in defense of the Bar Kokhba revolt, a rebellion by the Jews of the Roman province of Judea against the Roman Empire, in 132 C.E.
“It certainly doesn’t have clear religious iconography like a menorah, for example, that would be typical of a synagogue,” Gardner told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Neither the layout of the structure nor decorations indicate it might have been a synagogue. Instead, it has several characteristics of a non-Jewish ritual complex—it has a raised paved court leading to a hall at the far end that was elevated on top of a vaulted substructure.”
At more than 4,000 square feet, the building more closely resembles Roman temples and sanctuaries in southern Syria, but so far the structure’s use has not be confirmed. The team is looking for inscriptions, statues, or other artifacts that might provide further context.
Additionally, this year, archaeologists discovered a large staircase that would have connected the temple’s raised courtyard to a series of underground vaulted rooms.
“Whatever structure had been above these vaults, unfortunately, didn’t survive,” said Peleg-Barkat. “Altogether the evidence indicates that the structure was built in the second or third century C.E.” Adding, “It seems that somewhere around the fourth or fifth century, it went out of use.”
The area around the temple, a 2019 study by Peleg-Barkat suggests, was heavily occupied by Jewish communities until the revolt, which left many of their villages abandoned or destroyed. The area was later resettled by the Romans, who paved the road between the capitol city of Jerusalem and Beit Guvrin around 130 C.E.