The remains of five marble statues have been rescued from anonymity and placed standing using a special frame between the southern portion of the basilica and the odeon, a small covered theater.
Five spectacular marble statues of Roman godesses and gods have been raised up from a pit where they were languishing and put on display using a special metal frame at Tel Ashkelon National Park.(photo credit: IRINA DUBINSKY/INPA)
For almost one hundred years after they were first excavated at Tel Ashkelon, the magnificent marble statues of Roman gods and goddesses languished virtually neglected in an excavation pit.
Now, as part of the continued conservation and development at the Tel Ashkelon National Park archaeological site, these five massive Roman statues have been raised from the dead, in a sense, and put respectfully on display at the park for the first time since their discovery.
“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.”
Zeev Margalit, director of the conservation and development department of the INPA
The impressive marble sculptures include two almost complete statues and three partial statues. In one statue, the Greek goddess of victory—the winged Nike—is depicted standing on the world, which is itself carried on the shoulders of the god Atlas. One hand of the goddess holds a laurel wreath, the symbol of victory.
Another statue depicts Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility as Tyche, often depicted as a city’s goddess of fortune. At the time many religions adopted beliefs and modified their own religious practices as they came into contact with other religions. Both Greek and Roman religious beliefs were influenced by religions of the east, including the Egyptian cult of Isis.
The restored and reconstructed odeon complex in Tel Ashkelon National Park. (credit: IRINA DUBINSKY/INPA)
The Tel Ashkelon National Park has been undergoing a large-scale renovation project, funded by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), the Ashkelon Municipality and the Leon Levy Foundation and conservation and restoration work has been carried out on the statues as well as on a large Roman basilica and odeon—a small covered theater of sorts.
Following a year of work, the odeon and the statues were officially inaugurated on June 27 by founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, Shelby White. Reconstructed tribunals and orchestra platforms were built in the odeon.
Restoration of ancient relics
The statues, whose beauty once graced the basilica, were raised up and placed standing between the southern part of the basilica and the odeon, using special frames.
“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,” said architect Zeev Margalit, director of the conservation and development department of the INPA. “They 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.”
Located on the main trade route from Egypt to the north, the city of Ashkelon was a very important commercial center for trade, with a 5,000-year history that stretches back to the Early Canaanite period, and on to the Philistines where it was one of their five cities mentioned in the bible, and continuing to the Hellenistic and Roman periods through to Crusader times.
In Judges 1:18 the bible recounts how Ashkelon, along with Gaza and Ekron, briefly fell into the hands of the tribe of Judah, but by 2 Samuel 1:20, the Philistines had already regained control of the city.
Ribbon cutting ceremony at the inauguration of the odeon plaza in Tel Ashkelon National Park. (credit: JORGE NOVOMINSKI)
Later, during the time of Herod, the city especially flourished during the Roman period, and Herod built the grandest of basilicas—which were more for communal gatherings and not religious in nature at that time—ever constructed in this part of the ancient world. Some sources say Herod’s family even hailed from Ashkelon.
The first excavations of the ancient city were led by the famous adventurer and traveler Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope in 1815. The niece of British Prime Minister William Pitt, Stanhope shirked societal conventions of the time and came seeking treasures in the Middle East, making Lebanon her home base. And to there she returned, after having found nothing that glittered in Ashkelon.
The first scientific excavations of the site were held by John Garstang of the British Palestine Exploration Fund in 1920-1922 during the British Mandate. During these excavations, Herod’s basilica, the odeon and remains of the statues were discovered. Garstang created an open-air museum for his finds, but with time the area was abandoned and neglected, noted Margalit.
More recent excavations in 2008-2012 and 2016-2018 fully uncovered the basilica, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 363 CE, and revealed over 200 marble artifacts including monumental columns and capitals from the basilica.
Currently, restoration and conservation work continues on the basilica complex and is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 or mid-2023, said Margalit, and will include new and accessible paths around the heritage and landscape sites of the park.