The ancient site of Banias

Banias is located in the occupied Golan Heights, the area that Israel occupied from Syria in 1967. Banias is an ancient site. The area developed around a spring. And by this spring there was ancient worship of the God Pan. The name Banias still carries the name of the God Pan, but because in Arabic there is no letter P, the pronunciation became with the letter B, so instead of Panias it is pronounced as Banias.

Banias at the foot of Jabal es Sheikh or Mount Hermon

The spring is fed by melting snow from Jabal es Sheikh, or in English Mount Hermon. This is the highest mountain in the whole region. It is 2814 meter above sea level.

In the winter there is a lot of snow on the mountain and in spring the snow starts to melt and several rivers and springs can be found at the foot of Jabal es Sheikh.

The battle of Panium

The area of Banias is first mentioned around 200 BC. In that year the battle of Panium took place. It was a battle between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic armies. These were armies that came to fight each other after Alexander the Great had conquered Palestine on his way to Egypt and then he died and his army generals started fighting over the control of the region. The Seleucid Empire was founded by the Macedonian general Seleucus I Nicator. It covered the area that is nowadays Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and continued east towards India.

The Ptolemaic Kingdom was ruled from Ancient Egypt and it established by Ptolemy I Soter.

In this battle of Panias in 200 BC the Seleucids had a full victory and they took control of the whole of Palestine.

The Greek god Pan

The name Panias, after the God Pan, was given to it later, by the historian Pliny.

The God Pan was the God of the Wild, the nature, the fields, forests and mountains. He was considered to be the companion of the nymphs. The nymphs were female divinities, not immortal and not very important, but they were associated with fertility, growing trees and plants and with water.

The God Pan himself is depicted as half man half goat. And being a rustic God he was not worshiped in building, in temples, but in natural settings, usually in caves. In Banias there is a very big cave in the steep rocks and this cave was said to be his birthplace.

The Temple for Pan at Banias

Until today when you visit the site you can see the entrance to this big cave and this was considered the entrance to the Temple.

In the same time the big dark entrance to the cave and the unknown of what lay beyond, became the symbol of the gate of Hades, the gate to the underworld. The place where the fertility gods would rest in the winter.

In that time during the worship period of Pan the entrance to the cave was covered by a facade that made it look like a temple. So there was a structure in front of the cave, that looked like the typical Greek temples with columns and a triangular tympanum. You can find some artist impressions of that when you google for temple of Pan in Banias.

If you visit today you will see the entrance of the cave without any structures because they have not survived over time. But what you can still recognize in the natural rock of the cliff is man made niches and arches where they used to put idols and statues.

Worship, sacrifice and tragedy at Banias

Try to imagine the atmosphere there in the ancient time when people gathered to worship the God Pan. As it was getting dark they would light torches and you would smell the incense that burning at the sanctuary. Many people would visit to worship Pan to ask for fertility for themselves, for their crops and for their cattle.

And in order to please the God Pan they would bring goats to sacrifice. They used to throw them into the water of the spring. If the goat sank, it was accepted as offering, but if it didn’t then the next step was to toss in a child.

And that must have been quite a dramatic scene, with crying babies, panicking mothers and fathers and anxious temple priests and spectators. A lot of tragedy happened here.

Herod the Great builds a new Temple at Banias

In the year 20 BC Banias became part of the Kingdom of Herod the Great. We spoke about Herod in several episodes. He was considered a client king of the Roman Empire and he ruled over Idumea, Judea, Samaria and Galilee.

When Banias became under his rule, he erected a big white marble temple at that location, to honor the emperor Caesar Agustus.

Philip the Tetrarch turns Banias into Caesarea Philippi

After his death, the territory was ruled by one of his sons, Philip, who made it the capital of hist territory, the area of Gaulanitis (in which you can recognize today’s name, Golan) Trachonitis and Batanea, these were the areas to the east of the Galilee.

He renamed Banias, the new capital and called it: Caesarea Philippi, to honor the emperor and after his own name (this was also to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima on the coast). I did a podcast about Caesarea in January.

Caesarea Philippi became a large flourishing Roman city and a lot of new structures were built.

Besides the temple for Augustus Caesar there was also a temple for Zeus and a courtyard area to worship Pan. And some other temples for worship, the tomb temple of the Sacred Goats and the Temple of Pan and the Dancing goats. And the Court of Nemesis. Nemesis was the goddess of vengeance and Roman imperial justice. She was responsible for punishing those who were guilty of arrogance.

Jesus in Banias

Caesarea Philippi is also mentioned in the Bible. It is the furthest place to the north where Jesus visited with his apostles.

It is mentioned in the book of Matthew. Jesus took his apostles to this location for a reason. They must have felt uncomfortable coming here because of all the worship of pagan gods.

But Jesus came on purpose because he wanted to show the mission of his church and his power over what he considered evil.

In Matthew chapter 16 we can read the following:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

So imagine, right there outside the cave that was not only the place where they worshiped Pan, but also the place that was said to be the gates of Hades, of the underworld, right there Jesus confirms that he is the Messiah and that he has come to bring salvation to people, to conquer the evil and he says that the gates of Hades, of the underworld, will not overcome. That he will be victorious over the devil.

It is not written in the Bible that they actually entered into the capital, into the city of Ceasara Philippi. It seems that the setting of this story is really meant to be by the ancient holy site, by the Greek, pagan temples, where Jesus was making a very clear point about his mission.

Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor

And then after this visit Jesus started his last journey to Jerusalem before he would be crucified. And on his way south there is another story from the Bible that happened that is called the transfiguration. He takes three of his apostles, Peter, James and John, up on a high hill and then as it is written in the Bible he becomes radiant with glory. At that moment the apostles see two other figures, and they recognize them as Moses and Elijah. Moses was the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt and who received the law of God, the rules by which they should live. And Elijah was a prophet who had great trust in God and he had challenged the prophets of the God Baal of the Canaanites on Mount Carmel where they both built altars to their Gods to sacrifice animals and waited for their Gods to light the fire, which did not happen on the altar of the Baal worshipers but DID happen to the altar of the God of Elijah.

And during the story of the transfiguration it becomes clear that the old law and the time of the prophets are over and that now Jesus as the Messiah is the way that the people should follow for salvation by God.

Pilgrims have appointed Mount Tabor near the Lake of Galillee and near Nazareth as the location of the Transfiguration and if you visit the mountain you will find a Greek orthodox church and a Catholic church, designed by Antonio Barluzzi, I spoke about him before. The architect of the Franciscans who is famous for using symbolism in his designs to refer to the biblical story. In this church he designed three vertical elements on the facade that represent the meeting of Jesus with Moses and Elijah. And he originally had built an alabaster transparent roof to get as much light in as possible, to symbolize the transfiguration. But because it was leaking, they had to replace that with a water proof material.

Banias National Park

Banias is a National Park and requires an entrance fee.

There are actually two sites you can visit, the ancient site that I described with the cliff and the cave and the spring, and in the same area you can walk around the excavated site of the city of Caesarea Philippi where you can see the remains of the palace of Herod Agrippa and the main road, the Cardo, a bath house and a Byzantine period synagogue.

If you walk down the water stream you will also see some Ottoman time flour mills that used the water power to move the mill stones to grind grain to make flour for baking bread.

And a short ride from this ancient site you can visit the most powerful waterfall in Palestine, it is called the Banias waterfall. It falls ten meters down into a pool. You reach this area by walking about a hundred meters over the hanging trail that makes the waterfall accessible. It is not allowed to swim but you may feel the water drops when it splashes up.

It’s very green and refreshing and as most places in Palestine, it is most beautiful to visit in spring when everything is green and it’s not too hot.