In Ancient Holy Land, Biblical Wonders Are Still Being Uncovered

From Christ’s ‘city on a hill’ to the ‘pilgrim’s road’ from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount, archaeological endeavors in Israel hold historical promise for contemporary believers.

Visitors will soon be able to walk down the central throughfare of Hippos, Christ’s ‘City on a Hill,’ traversed here by site manager Nissim Mezzig and a visiting journalist.
Visitors will soon be able to walk down the central throughfare of Hippos, Christ’s ‘City on a Hill,’ traversed here by site manager Nissim Mezzig and a visiting journalist. (photo: Jonathan Liedl / National Catholic Register)

JERUSALEM — Christians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the time of St. Helena in the fourth century, and the most significant sites of Christian interest — from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — are already well-known.

But despite this ancient familiarity with the land where Christ carried out his earthly life and ministry, new sites of interest to Christian pilgrims continue to be uncovered in Israel, with the goal of soon opening them to the interested public. 

Perhaps the most remarkable instance lies beneath the streets of contemporary Jerusalem, where archaeologists with the Israeli Antiquities Authority are slowly unearthing an ancient urban thoroughfare that Christ himself likely walked.

The road in question, which dates to the time of Roman occupation of Jerusalem, leads from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount. In ancient times, Jewish people coming to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God would’ve entered the city near the pool, where they would’ve ritually purified themselves before heading up the hill to the Temple. Small shops along the wide, stepped street likely sold animals for sacrifice.


Pool of Siloam

One of Christ’s miracles is also associated with the Pool of Siloam. As St. John recounts in his account of the Gospel, Jesus completed the healing of the man born blind by sending him to the pool to wash after the Lord had spit on the ground to make clay and smeared it over the man’s eyes. Archaeologists have also excavated a nearby church with foundations from the seventh century A.D., believed to be associated with Christ’s miracle at the pool.

The Pool of Siloam itself, first built in 2,700 B.C. by King Hezekiah, was rediscovered in June 2004 during excavation to repair a sewage pipe. Before that discovery, a smaller pool 70 meters (almost 230 feet) closer to the Temple was wrongly believed to be the one referenced in Scripture. 

“It’s like exploring,” said Shlomo Greenberg, one of the archaeologists working at the site, which is part of the larger City of David complex, the original settlement core of Jerusalem. “You never know what you’re going to find, right under your nose.”

Although portions of the Pool of Siloam have been excavated and exposed to open air, the pilgrim’s road up toward the Temple Mount is entirely underground, mostly running beneath a present-day neighborhood that lies outside of Jerusalem’s walled Old City to the southeast. Reinforced metal structures provide support, creating a visual juxtaposition between the ancient stone pathway and the modern innovation keeping it uncovered.

A portion of the pilgrim’s road at its beginning is already open to tourists, but excavations are still being carried out. Of the more than 2,500-foot-long street, about 165 feet still need to be uncovered, and it’s slow — and expensive — work. According to Greenberg, every meter excavated costs $100,000 and can take more than a week to complete.

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Shlomo Greenberg, an excavation director with the Israel Antiquities Authority, discusses progress in uncovering the 800-meter-long ‘pilgrim’s path’ that leads from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount. (Photo: Jonathan Liedl)

“We’re trying to protect the people underground and above,” he said, explaining the deliberate nature of the work.

Archaeologists expect excavation to continue for at least another year, but the hope is that eventually pilgrims will be able to walk the entire way from the Pool of Siloam up to the Temple Mount, just as the Jewish people did 2,000 years ago. The experience promises to be a significant expression of faith for contemporary Jews, but also Christians interested in retracing the steps of the Lord and better understanding the Judaic religion from which their own emerged.


Christ’s ‘City on a Hill’

Another site soon to be opened to the public can’t claim that it was ever visited by Christ, but it may have played an important role in his ministry on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Hippos, also known as Susita, was an ancient city built on a saddle-shaped mountain, which is how the settlement possibly got its name: Hippos means “horse” in Greek. Overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the east, Hippos was part of the Decapolis, a region of 10 cities of predominantly Greek-speaking Gentiles referenced in Scripture.

Given that it was the only known settlement built atop a hill in the region during the time of Christ, scholars hold that it was quite possible that Jesus visually referred to Hippos when he compared his followers to a “city on a hill” that cannot be hidden, recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel account.

Additionally, Hippos is also believed to be the town where the Gerasene demoniac, exorcised by Christ on the shores of Galilee, likely hailed from. After this healing, Christ told the man, “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity had done for you,” as recounted by St. Mark (5:1-20). Mark goes on to describe how the man “went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.”

Thus, Hippos was likely the first non-Jewish community to hear the Gospel. In later decades, it would become a regional bastion for Christianity. At one point, during the Byzantine era after Christianity became legally accepted in the Roman Empire, the hilltop town had eight churches within its walls, including a cathedral that was the seat of a bishop.

Today, Hippos is in ruins, after an eighth-century earthquake destroyed the city and led to its abandonment. But, after first being rediscovered in 1883, significant excavation work has been devoted to the site, especially in the past 20 years.

Led by the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, the international archaeological endeavor has uncovered many important discoveries that help paint the picture of how ancient Christian inhabitants of Hippos lived and believed. Discoveries include a giant baptistry, inscriptions revealing biographical details of ancient residents, and even an ancient mosaic of Christ’s feeding of the 5,000.

According to site manager Nissim Mezzig, the plan is to officially open Hippos up to the public in mid-March, even as excavation work continues alongside. There are plans in the works to convert an old Israeli military building on the site into a visitor center and to set up an educational theater in the cavernous cistern that lies beneath the city. Even though Jesus likely never came to Hippos, visitors will likely be intrigued to visit the ancient city he referenced and that his Gospel eventually shaped.


The Hometown of a Great Disciple

Across the Galilee from Hippos lies another ancient site that has recently received significant archaeological attention: Magdala, better known as the hometown of St. Mary Magdalen.

What first began as a construction project for a seaside retreat center in 2009 soon turned into much more, as workers unearthed a first-century synagogue and something even more incredible inside: a stone depicting the Second Temple in Jerusalem, complete with the oldest carved image of the seven-branched menorah ever discovered.

Archaeological exploration of the ancient fishing town, believed to be one the largest on the Galilee at the time of Jesus’ ministry, has continued apace since that initial discovery, and archeologists have uncovered ancient shops, mansions, warehouses and even another synagogue. Another important discovery for those interested in ancient Judaism are four mikavot, or ritual baths, the earliest discovered in the Holy Land to use ground water.

Today, Magdala is home to not only an archaeological site, but also a rather lavish hotel, as well as a spiritual and cultural retreat center. Known as the Magdala Center, the complex is administered by Regnum Christi, a movement associated with the Legionaries of Christ.

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A first-century synagogue in the hometown of Mary Magdalene bears special significance to both Jews and Christians, explains Legion of Christ Father Eamon Kelly, vice director of the Magdala Center. (Photo: Jonathan Liedl)

Although Magdala is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture as a place that Jesus visited, given its prominence, position on a major ancient road on the western shores of Galilee, and proximity to other scripturally referenced places like Capernaum, it’s likely that Jesus visited this ancient town and even prayed in the same synagogue that has been unearthed today. It’s probable that Christ’s exorcism of seven demons from Mary, recorded in Luke 8:2, occurred here. 

Despite the incredible finds Magdala has already yielded, archaeologists believe that as much as 90% of the ancient town has yet to be excavated. One possible discovery that could come in the near future: the ancient Christian church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, referenced in historical literature, but eventually abandoned and lost over the centuries.

If so, it will only be the latest in a plethora of recent archaeological finds in the ancient, but ever-interesting Holy Land.