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Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi was a Roman city in northern Galilee.


Caesarea Philippi (modern Banias), located 40 km north of the Sea of Galilee in the southwest foothills of Mount Hermon, was known for its grotto, red-rock bluff, forests, and springs. As Pan, the Greek god of pastoralism, was often worshipped in caves, it was perhaps natural that the first reference to this location (around 200 BCE) calls it “Panion,” a sanctuary to Pan. This location developed under different rulers, including King Herod and his son Philip. According to some gospel accounts, it was during Philip’s rule that Jesus and his disciples visited the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?,” and Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah (Matt 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30).

Every ruler of this location left his own mark. In 20 BCE, Emperor Augustus granted this location and the surrounding region to King Herod (40-4 BCE), who in gratitude built a marble temple near the grotto of Pan to honor the emperor. After Herod’s death, the region passed to Philip the tetrarch (4 BCE-33 CE), who established his capital here in 2 or 1 BCE. Philip, also seeking to honor Augustus, renamed the site “Caesarea”; in order to distinguish it from other cities named Caesarea, this site became known as “Caesarea Philippi” (that is, Caesarea of Philip). Because the sanctuary of Pan remained important in the city’s religious life, it was also called “Paneas.” Philip enlarged the city, and, during his rule, Caesarea Philippi served as an administrative center for the surrounding region.

The area was administered by the Romans (33-37 CE) until Emperor Caligula granted it to Agrippa I (37-44 CE). Like Philip, Agrippa minted coins with images conveying his kingdom’s prosperity, his close relationship with the imperial family, and the importance of the temple dedicated to the emperor. After another period under Roman administration (44-53 CE), Emperor Claudius granted this region to Agrippa II (53-93 C.E.), whose building projects at Banias included a magnificent palace. In 61 CE, Agrippa renamed the city “Neronias” in honor of Emperor Nero. This name was rarely used, and, after Nero’s death, the city was known as “Caesarea Philippi” or “Panias.” In the second and third centuries, the city was called “Caesarea Panias” and from the fourth century on, it was known simply as “Paneas” (Arabic changes the “p” to “b,” giving the modern name “Banias”).

During the early Byzantine period (fourth through sixth centuries CE), Banias was a Christian pilgrimage site; however, the city experienced a decline by the mid-fifth century CE. In 638 CE, Banias came under Muslim rule, with the exception of a short occupation by the Crusaders (1129-1163 CE). After the Crusades, Banias descended into obscurity until the nineteenth century. Modern explorations of this site began with U. J. Seetzen in 1806 and continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since 1988, systematic archaeological excavations have been conducted in two areas: the sacred district (under the direction of Dr. Zvi Ma‘oz) and the city center (under Dr. Vassilios Tzaferis). Excavations have revealed that both areas saw construction and renovation projects over several centuries that reflected the settlement’s changing civic and religious life.

What has been discovered through the archaeological excavations at Banias?

The excavations at Banias have largely focused on the sacred district and the city center. At the west end of the sacred district is the natural grotto. Additions were made during the first through third centuries CE to the grotto’s east. These included: a limestone and marble temple (probably the one built by King Herod for Augustus); the Court of Pan and the Nymphs; the Temple of Zeus and Pan; the Court of Nemesis; the Tripartite Building (a building with three halls); and the Temple of Pan and the Goats. Finds included clay lamps, table vessels, and cooking vessels left by worshippers of Pan. Statues of Athena, Artemis, and Zeus or Asclepios once stood in the sanctuary and their marble fragments were discovered in a refuse pit.

The city center includes the first century CE Colonnaded Street and Agrippa II’s palace. In the second and third centuries CE, the palace was converted into a Roman bathhouse and an aqueduct of more than 3 km was constructed to supply the growing city with water. A cemetery (first to second century CE) and a Roman villa (third to fourth century CE) have also been excavated. Archaeological discoveries from later periods include the medieval synagogue/mosque and the Crusader citadel


What deities were worshiped at Banias?

Banias was quite religiously diverse. From at least the time of King Herod, several Jewish communities lived in the district of Banias. Frequent mentions of Banias in rabbinic literature reveal that several rabbis, including Rabbi Jose ben Kisma, Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, and Rabbi Abbahu, made their homes in this city in later centuries. The gospels place Jesus and his disciples in this region, and there is both literary and archaeological evidence that points to the presence of Christian groups at Banias from the late first century CE onward.

Banias, however, was better known for the worship of various Greek deities. The primary place belonged to Pan, who was worshiped at Banias from the third century BCE until the fourth or fifth century CE. Deities associated with Pan were also worshiped at Banias, including Pan’s father Hermes and the nymphs Maia and Echo. Zeus, Tyche, and Nemesis were honored at Banias, too. Given the loyalty of Banias’s rulers to the emperors, it is unsurprising that the Imperial Cult was prominent, as well.

  • choi-agnes

    Agnes Choi is Associate Professor of New Testament at Pacific Lutheran University.