The time of Jesus is the time when Roman entertainment facilities were first introduced in the Holy Land. The promoter of these public buildings was King Herod the Great who admired Roman culture and adopted much of it. From the archaeologist’s point of view Herod will be remembered as Herod the Great Builder. Throughout the country he initiated numerous building projects—palaces for himself, and public buildings for the masses. His biggest enterprise was the Temple Mount inJerusalem where he renovated the Jewish temple on a scale previously unseen anywhere in the world. Another building project created a huge artificial harbor and city on the coast at a site he named Caesarea, 30 km north of Tel-Aviv. The main historical source for Herod and his history is
Josephus Flavius. Josephus mentions that Herod also built entertainment venues at various sites such as Jerusalem and Caesarea. Other inscriptions mention theatres, amphitheatres, hippodromes and stadiums in the Herodian realm, and though not said explicitly, they also were probably built by the king. The theatre on the south side of Caesarea has been known for a long time, and to this day some of the most impressive cultural events take place at that site. About ten years ago a hippodrome was discovered next to it, matching Josephus’s statement that such an installation was also built by Herod at Caesarea.
However, Jerusalem entertainment facilities remained a mystery. Despite the long period of research in the city, and large scale excavations at various locations, to this day no remains of the structure had been found, at least not in their original location. But during recent years along the southern wall of the temple mount, archaeologists Dr Ronny Reich and
Yaakov Bilig have found remains of what originally may have been a theatre. South of the Temple Mount, they found stone slabs which had been re-used in palace walls from the Eighth Century AD. There was no doubt that the stones had been previously used as a drainage system in the palace or near it. But when the archaeologists turned the stones over they noticed a strange pattern of cuts and chisel marks that did not seem to make any sense. Only when they put them together did they realize that before the stones had functioned as part of a drainage system, they had been used as seats in a round public structure. Some of the stones even indicated the passage between the rows. But it gets even better. On some of the stones, Greek letters were chiselled, most likely indicating the row and seat number. About 30 years ago, Prof N Avigad excavated the “Herodian quarter” under the present Jewish quarter. Among the very rich belongings of a wealthy family, he found tokens with mysterious depictions and Greek letters. His interpretation was that these were tickets for the theatre, with the seat number reserved. Amazingly the very same numbers are chiselled on the stone seats recently exposed!
It appears that the stone seats were from the theatre of ancient Jerusalem. We still don’t know the location, but we’ve found the theatre tickets, and the matching theatre seats! A few weeks ago archaeologist Moshe Hartal of the northern district of the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that he had found another hippodrome or stadium from the days of Herod—this time at Tiberias. This city was founded by one of Herod’s sons, Antipas, who named the city after the emperor Tiberius. This new structure is important evidence for the Romanization of the Herodian dynasty. Like the hippodrome in Caesarea, it was built on the seashore. This is important for finding the level of the Sea of Galilee in antiquity, and can assist in locating and reconstructing the harbours of the villages along the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was active.