Israel has a long and varied history, which included a period or Roman rule. In 63BC, Roman triumvir Pompey the Great captured Jerusalem as part of a period of expanding their authority in Asia. What remains of this period of occupation are a collection of fascinating ruins which offer an insight into the different cultures and belief systems which existed alongside such political upheaval.
Some of the best sites are Caesarea, Beit She’an, and the ruins of Avdat. Here’s a collection of 10 of the best.
Caesarea was perhaps the most important Roman city in what is now modern day Israel. Originally built more than 2,000 years ago by the infamous King Herod, the city was dedicated to the Emperor Augustus.
Today, Caesarea is a popular ancient archaeological site boasting extensive and well-preserved ruins. Its most impressive structure is the large and picturesque ancient theatre, which overlooks the deep blue ocean. Other sites, such as the imposing Aqueduct, are also well worth visiting. With its pastiche of Roman, Byzantine and Crusader architecture and its prime position on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Caesarea is simply stunning.
2. Beit She’an
Beit She’an in the northern Jordan Valley is an immensely impressive archaeological site with remains dating back mostly to the Roman and Byzantine period. The city itself had its roots far in antiquity and was at one time or another occupied by the Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines.
It was under the latter three that the ruins we see today trace their roots, with many impressive Greek and Roman ruins dominating the site. Visitors can explore the remains of the colonnaded main street, parts of the defensive walls, the reconstructed Roman theatre, an ancient amphitheatre, Byzantine bathhouse and even structures dating back to the Egyptian and Canannite periods. The remains of the Crusader castle can also be visited as well as a Mamluk-era mosque.
Avdat is an ancient city in Israel which houses the pretty remains of a Nabatean city which was later inhabited by the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs. It initially formed part of the trading route known as the Incense Route which ran from the Mediterranean to south Arabia.
In addition to well-preserved fortifications, the ruins at Avdat include a caravanserai, homes, a Roman military camp, fourth century churches, a street, and a bathhouse. Many of the ruins are Roman, but the Nabatean influence can still be seen, including the ruin of a temple.
With its breathtaking views over Israel’s desert and the Dead Sea, Masada is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Israel. Masada was originally built as a palace fortress around 150BC and is most famous as the site of the Roman siege of Jewish Zealots, which took place in 66AD.
Fortunately for posterity, the remains of the fortress have survived the centuries in relatively good condition and Masada is now a popular tourist destination. The best way to view the remains of the fortress is to rise early, when it’s still dark and the air is cool, and hike to the top. There you will be treated to a sunrise to remember.
Mamshit was an ancient Nabatean city which formed part of the Incense Road, a trading route of various spices in the Mediterranean and south Arabia. Founded in the first century BC, this ancient city was later occupied by the Romans, after which its prosperity began to decline.
In addition to a caravanserai and several large homes, Mamshit’s remains include a bathhouse, a market, and many intact frescoes and mosaics.
6. The Caesarea Aqueduct
The Caesarea Aqueduct is a well-preserved ancient Roman aqueduct which served the nearby Roman city of Caesarea. Constructed during the reign of King Herod, the aqueduct was built to provide the increasingly necessary water supply to this major ancient settlement and was further expanded as the city grew in the following centuries.
In later years the city’s importance diminished and, though the aqueduct fell in to disuse, it has remained in a good state of preservation to become a popular tourist spot.
Arsuf, also known as Apollonia, contains the remains of an ancient settlement on the Israeli coast that has stood for over 1,000 years. Arsuf is best known for the remains of a once-mighty Crusader castle which was once home to the Knights Hospitaller, but the site also contains the remains of a Roman villa, which highlights the diverse nature of the settlement.
Visitors to the site today can see the remains of the Crusader fortress and a host of other ruins all while taking in the picturesque clifftop setting.
8. Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is holiest site in Christianity due the fact that it encompasses what are thought to be the last five stations travelled through by Christ, ending in his crucifixion.
Built in 325/6AD by Roman Emperor Constantine I, it was Constantine’s mother Helena who went to Jerusalem and identified the site. Prior to the building of the church, the land on which it stands had been a temple to the deity Aphrodite, built by the Emperor Hadrian.
9. Church of the Annunciation - Nazareth
While the structure of the Church of the Annunciation is a twentieth century one, two previous churches – one Roman, one Crusader – have been excavated there, with the earlier one probably dating back to the fourth century AD.
The basilica today is a 20th century one, built in the 1960s in a style known as Italian Brutalism. The new basilica is one of the largest Christian churches in the Middle East, and remains under the watchful eye of the Franciscan friars. Today, it’s an important place of pilgrimage for many.
10. The Coenaculum - Jerusalem
The Coenaculum in Jerusalem is a room built by the Crusaders in the fourteenth century, later taken over by the Franciscans and then transformed into a mosque by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. However, for Christians, it is best known as the “Last Supper Room”, the upper room where Jesus Christ had his final supper before being crucified.
Situated on the second floor, the Coenaculum also sits above the site where Jews believe King David was buried, King David’s Tomb.