Conserving Ashkelon’s Roman Basilica and Odeon
Located 12 miles north of Gaza, along the Mediterranean coast, ancient Tel Ashkelon was a powerful city for thousands of years, built and rebuilt under Canaanites, Philistines, and Romans. Now, a project is underway to present the archaeological remains of this impressive site in a manner fitting its former glory. A major goal is to restore the site’s monumental Roman basilica and Odeon.
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Tel Ashkelon National Park includes many incredible features, such as the Canaanite walls and ramparts, which includes one of the oldest city gates ever discovered in Israel. Despite the impressive archaeological park, however, many of ancient Ashkelon’s features have been neglected since their discovery in the 1920s. Now, those features are being preserved and opened to the public once more. Recent work has succeeded in restoring the Roman-era Odeon, a small theater used primarily for musical performances. The work has included reconstructing the theater’s tribunals and orchestral platform. The project is being carried out by the Israel Nature and Heritage Foundation of America (INHFA), the Israel National Parks Authority (INPA), and the Leon Levy Foundation.
In addition to the Odeon structure, the project also finished the restoration of five massive marble statues of various gods and goddesses worshiped during the Roman period (37 B.C.E.–324 C.E.). The statues include depictions of Nike, Atlas, and Tyche, among others. “[The statues] were ornamental and decorated the basilica. It is now a very impressive feeling to see the statues standing once again, though some are broken, and you can understand the quality of the work and the high level of skill used to sculpt the marble,” said Zeev Margalit, director of the INPA Conservation and Development Department, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. “They had been left and ignored for a long time. We rescued them and cleaned them and put them in a very nice way to present to visitors.”
Work on the Roman basilica of Tel Ashkelon is still ongoing but is expected to be completed in 2023. The basilica, which served as a public meeting hall, is the largest ever discovered in Israel and was the center of civic life in ancient Ashkelon. The floors and walls of the basilica were constructed of marble, while the roof was supported by several long rows of towering marble columns. The team aims to remount many of these columns as the site is prepared for visitors. Additional work in the archaeological park includes updated signage and a brand-new interactive visitor center.
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