The remains of the
city of Banyas (Arabic pronunciation of Panias) are located in northern Israel, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Here, below a steep
cliff, the cold waters of the Banyas spring, one of the sources of the Jordan River, gush forth.
According to written
sources, Banyas was first settled in the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemaic kings, in the 3rd century BCE, built a cult center
to counter the Semitic one at Dan to the south, which indeed gradually declined. Then, in 200 BCE, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus
III defeated the Ptolemaic army in this region and captured Banyas.
Almost 200 years later,
in 20 BCE, the region which included Banyas was annexed to the Kingdom of Herod the Great and was ruled by his successors
until the end of the first century CE. In the year 2 BCE, Herod Philip founded a pagan city and named it Caesarea Philippi
(in honor of Augustus Caesar). It became the capital of his large kingdom which spread across the Golan and the Hauran. Contemporary
sources refer to the city as Caesarea Panias; the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi. (Matt. 16:13)
During the Roman period,
the center of the city spread over a plateau measuring 300 x 300 m., with natural features protecting it on three sides. At
its peak, it extended even beyond these natural boundaries.
From the fourth century
and until the Arab conquest, Panias functioned as an important Christian center. During the Arab period, the city was the
district capital of the Golan in the province of Damascus and its name was changed to Banyas. During Fatimid rule in the 11th
century, fortifications were constructed. Then the Crusaders, who ruled the town from 1129, surrounded it with a massive ring
of fortifications. However, after repeated attacks, the city was conquered by Nur ed-Din of Damascus in 1164. Fearing that
it might again serve as a Crusader fortress, the fortifications were dismantled at the beginning of the 13th century and are,
therefore, only partly visible.
Banyas gradually lost
its importance. Today there is a Druze holy place (Weli Sheikh Khader) in a whitewashed building on the cliff overlooking
Since 1967, but mainly
during the last ten years, major excavations at the site have focused upon two areas: the remains of the sanctuary complex
to the god Pan; and the center of the city the latter continue to the present.
The temenos (sacred
precinct) dedicated to Pan was constructed on an elevated, 80 m. long natural terrace along a cliff which towered over the
north of the city. At its western end is a large grotto which has been regarded as sacred to Pan since the Hellenistic period.
At the foot of the sacred precinct is the spring, a major component in the sites sanctity. The cult site to the god Pan derives
from the juxtaposition of natural features which include forest, spring and cave. From time immemorial, the site had been
visited by wandering shepherds who worshipped at the cave and the spring.
The excavations uncovered
remains of a cult center dedicated to the god Pan which developed in several phases during the Roman period. The temenos included
a temple, courtyards, a grotto and niches for rituals. Several decorated niches were cut into the rock cliff, in which statues
probably stood in the past. Inscriptions, mentioning donors, were carved between the niches. Of the temples which stood here,
only the foundations survived. Following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, this pagan cult center which had existed
throughout the Byzantine period was destroyed and the ashlars of the walls removed for re-use.
The Temple of Zeus
Opposite the entrance
to the sacred grotto, Herod the Great, in 19 BCE, built a temple in honor of his patron, Augustus Caesar, described by the
contemporary Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (The Jewish War I: 404-405). This temple was 20 m. long and had two parallel
walls, 10.5 m. apart. Cult niches which once contained sculptures were found along the inner faces of the walls, which also
served as retaining walls. This semi-subterranean building also provided access to the sacred grotto behind the temple. This
temple, only partly preserved, is depicted on contemporary coins minted by the city, showing a facade decorated with four
The Court of Pan
and the Nymphs
During the first century
CE another shrine, dedicated to Pan and the Nymphs, was constructed east of the Temple of Augustus. This building consisted
of three especially thick walls with cement foundations; it abutted the cliff on its north, creating a rectangular enclosure
measuring 15 x 10 m. which apparently served as an open-air shrine. A small grotto was cut into the rock cliff behind it and,
in a later period, niches for statues were added. A Greek inscription indicates that these niches date to the year 148: "The
priest Victor, son of Lysimachos, dedicated this goddess to the god Pan, lover of Echo."
The Temple of Zeus
and the Nemesis Courtyard
Around the year 100
(the 100th anniversary of Panias), during the reign of Trajanus Caesar, a Temple of Zeus was built at Banyas, east of the
previous one. The temple consisted of two rooms: a hall measuring 8.25 x 7.6 m. which was originally covered with colored
marble slabs and a 4.25 m.- wide front porch. The facade of the building was decorated with four columns with Corinthian capitals
of especially fine workmanship. It has been suggested that rituals were also carried out on the roof of the building, opposite
the niches cut into the cliff face. A 4 m.-wide paved courtyard, approached from the south by a broad staircase, was dedicated
to Nemesis, goddess of revenge and justice, whose cult was popular in the region. A carved niche in the rock cliff above it
bears the inscription: "For the preservation of our lords the emperors, Valerios [Titi]anos, priest of god Pan, dedicated
to the lady Nemesis and her Shrine which was made by cutting away the rock underneath... with the iron fence in the month
Temple Tomb of the
In the third century,
a cultic building for the burial of the bones of the sacred goats was erected at the eastern end of the sacred precinct. The
structure was divided into three long halls oriented north-south. Along the walls of the central hall (which measures 12.5
x 6.6 m.) were two low galleries supported by rectangular niches (0.6 sq. m. each) opening onto the central hall. The niches
contained sherds and a large quantity of animal bones, mainly of sheep and goats, bringing to mind the cult of the sacred
goats related to the god Pan, as depicted on Roman coins of the city of Panias. These finds suggest that the structure was
used as a temple-tomb for the interment of the bones of the sacred goats, whose cult was probably practiced in the buildings
excavated at Banyas.
The temple was found
covered by a mound of debris with an abundance of fragments of statues and statuettes, among them Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite,
Apollo, Dionysos and Pan. The best-preserved statue (restored from two fragments) is that of a half life-size Artemis with
a hunting dog attacking a hare at her feet. The statues and statuettes were probably offerings brought to the sacred precinct
and destroyed as an act of anti-paganism at the end of the Byzantine period or in the early Arab period.
The Banyas National
Park, which includes the excavated and restored archeological remains, is a unique tourist attraction, with a combination
of wild natural beauty: cliffs, mountains, forest and an abundance of flowing water.
The excavations were
directed by Zvi Maoz on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.