By Jacqueline Schaalje
Banyas, lying at the foot of Mount Hermon in the Golan, is one of the prettiest archaeological sites in Israel. This is firstly because of its natural surroundings. The river Hermon, the eastern tributary of the Jordan, is born here. Visitors can make a walk along the river, leading along historic sites and ending at the Banyas waterfall.
Banyas' special atmosphere is also caused by its somewhat queer history. In classical times the beauty of the nature in Banyas must have been something special already. Wandering shepherds revered the cave where the spring of Banyas emerges. They determined it as the home of the god Pan; in Hellenistic times a sanctuary to him was established. The foundations of temples and courtyards have been excavated in the last century.
Pan is a figure of Greek mythology, the god of nature, flocks and shepherds. He appears with the lower body of a goat, while his upper half is human. His flute-playing entrances dancing goats. He is accompanied by a trail of nymphs.
The cult of Pan stayed popular until Roman times; the Romans added temples of their own at "Paneas." After the fashion blew over the sanctuary in Banyas was deserted. But in local folklore Pan and his daughter, the goddess Echo, lived on. A story told in the Golan explains how falling stones in the Hermon are heard twice in the valleys: Pan likes playing with rocks and causes a "pandemonium": Echo likes to play too and throws some stones of her own.
After the Arabs conquered the region, the temples and statues of Banyas were destroyed. The city next to the cult site was still called after Pan. Because the Arabs could not pronounce the 'p', this turned into Banyas.
At the same time that the cultic site was established, people also started living in Banyas. The area was first conquered by the Hellenistic rulers after Alexander the Great's death. In 200 BCE, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III - ruling over Syria - captured Banyas. In Roman times King Herod annexed it to his northern kingdom of the north of Israel and the Golan.
The city was re-named Caesarea Philippi when Herod's son Philip took up the rule. Philip was one of the first who made a serious attempt to determine the source of the Jordan. The story is related by Josephus (War 3: 512-13). Philip had chaff thrown in the nearby volcanic Lake Ram, and it appeared in Banyas. In reality there is no connection between the two waters; one of Philip's courtiers must have given nature a helping hand.
Around this time the city also had Jewish inhabitants. During the First Jewish War (66-70) they were imprisoned by the Romans. After the war Titus celebrated his victory over Jerusalem at Banyas; at the expense of the Jewish residents. Josephus reports how "many of the prisoners perished here, some thrown to wild beasts, others forced to meet each other in full-scale battles (War 7: 24)." However, the community survived; the Talmud mentions the names of learned Jews living in Banyas in later centuries.
Until the Arab conquest, Banyas was an important Christian centre. The Arabs made it into their capital of the Golan, equalling Damascus in wealth and importance. The Fatimids in the 11th century built fortifications in the city, which were strengthened and extended by the next conquerors, the Crusaders. They in turn were ousted again by Nur ed-Din from Damascus in 1164. The fortifications were destroyed by his descendants, together with other parts of the city and the shrine of Pan. After this, the city declined.
In 1920 the French and the English mandate contested the possession of Banyas. France won. In the 1960's the Syrians planned to divert the waters of Banyas to the Yarmuk river in order to prevent the water from flowing into Israeli territory. The Israelis sabotaged this plan, which was eventually one of the causes for a new war. On 10 June 1967, the last day of the Six-day War, Golani troops conquered the tiny village of Banyas.
After its illustrious past Banyas is now purely touristic. The only worship takes place at the tomb of Elisha, visited by Druze and Moslems.
From the parking-place, the route along the sites first leads to the cave of Pan. The round cave can be seen against the sharp cliff from way down. In classical times the water from the Banyas spring streamed forth from the cave. Today this is not the case. Due to one or several earthquakes the layers in the earth moved and the spring now gushes out to the light several meters lower.
Upstairs, the Pan cave is on the left. In front of the cave is a natural platform which leans against the cliff. In olden times temples were erected here. The temples and the Pan cave towered at a height of 80 meters over the north of the city.
Cave and Niches
To the right of the cave, niches are hewn in the rock. These probably formed the spaces for statues of Pan and his nymphs. On the left of the grotto stand the remains of a temple of white marble dedicated to Zeus, built by Herod in 19 BCE. A coin found in Banyas shows that this temple had a facade with four Ionian columns. An underground passage led to the Pan cave, which was used as the innermost sanctuary of Herod's temple.
On the right of the platform archaeologists dug up several other temples. To the east lies a temple from the Roman period, dedicated to Pan and the Nymphs. This has also a small hewn grotto behind it, and niches for statues.
A newer temple to Zeus also dates from Roman times. This had a nice coloured marble floor red and white slabs, which may still be seen. A staircase to the south of the temple led to the courtyard which was dedicated to the goddess of revenge and justice, Nememis, who also had a popular cult in the region. She is commemorated in an inscription in the rock cliff.
When archaeologists opened an area on the far east of the temple area they were quite surprised to find a heap of animal bones laid in niches. They turned out to be from goats and sheep. Probably they are the last resting place of Pan's sacred animals. The 3rd Century building was identified as a temple, courtyard and tomb, all directed towards the worship of goats. The goats are also seen on antique coins from Banyas. In the same area statues of gods were dug up. One of the best finds was a statue of the hunting goddess Artemis.
From the Pan cave a path leads to the top of a small cliff, on which stands the tomb of Elisha.
The Druze call the prophet Nebi Kader; "kader" means green. A small white building harbours the grave, covered in cloth.
The rest of the archaeological sites can be reached by following a path around the former city of Banyas. There is also a lot of nature to be enjoyed. One trail leads to the 10 meter high Banyas waterfall, not famous for its height but for its location in a deep canyon overgrown with shrubs.
A few minutes after the start of the walk a Roman aqueduct is passed. Little stalactites formed of spring water hang from the ceiling of the bridge. A wooden bridge - without rails - is lain in the arch of the bridge.
When coming out of the arch the white storminess of the water is a terrific site: in this corner the fast-streaming Hermon comes together with the still water of the river Govta. Near the cross-point are laurel and fig trees.
The Hermon keeps on flowing fast along the rest of the route, which descends 190 meters along 3.5 kilometers. The energy of the water was used to power flour mills. The last remaining flour mill in Israel is still working today, although it is only maintained for the tourists. The Matruf mill is managed by a Druze family who live in a nearby village. They are not only millers but also bakers.
Visitors who reach the flour mill are kindly invited to enjoy pita. A Druze woman bakes the bread - the flour fresh from the mill - in the steaming oven. Her husband stands at the courtyard the corner in wait for the tourists, a thick smile under his raven-black moustache. His customers huddle on the stone benches and chew on their pitas.
The next stop is the Officer's Pool. This is one of the rare reminders of the Syrians who possessed the Golan. Syrian officers bathed here from 1948-1967. It is possible that the Syrian pool was built on ancient foundations. It is a good place for a pool as the hot spring of Ein Khilo bubbles up inside the pool. Two rare species of fish also enjoy the pleasant water.
When the waterfall is reached that’s the end of the
archaeological sites at this end of the trail. The connection to the excavations of the city Banyas is reached from the flour mill. The route passes the remains of Banyas from the Crusader period, at which time there was a large fortress. A Crusader tower, indicating the south-west corner of the city, is obscured by an iron bridge which has an older bridge under it, blown up by the Syrians in 1967.
A little further down on the route, a Crusader tower can be climbed. After a few meters there are remains of an abandoned flour mill.
A domed building contains the grave of Sheikh Sidi Ibrahim, the controller of weights and measures in Banyas during the Ottoman empire. Arabs and Druse of Israel make pilgrimages to his grave and hold festive meals; sheep's hooves and intestines hanging in the trees around the grave are leftovers from this.
On the right stands the Crusader gate-house, the entrance to the Medieval city of Banyas. Inside is a large room with walls of 2 meters thick. The ceiling is a cross-vault: two crossing arches support the stone roof. The gate-house has two entrances. An Arabic inscription is carved in the wall over the southern entrance. Two large rooms from the Arab period are attached to the gate-house; one is a mosque with a makhreb, a niche in the wall facing towards Mekka. The medieval bridge which spanned to the other shore of the Nahal Sa'ar was destroyed in the beginning of the 20th Century.
The path from the gate-house continues along the northern bank of the stream, along the wall of the Crusader fortress, until another tower is reached. The trail winds around the tower, and heads north in a moat of 8 meters wide. On one side of the moat rests the fortress wall, the other bank holds a supporting wall. On the northern corner of the wall stands a destroyed Syrian mansion. After this the parking place is reached again by crossing the road.
from the July 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine