Byzantine Bathhouse Provides Shelter Amid Rocket Attacks

The Israel Antiquities Authority found a bathhouse dating back to the Byzantine period in the Negev - and used it as a rocket shelter.

Contact Editor
Avraham Zuroff,

Byzantine bathhouse
Byzantine bathhouse
courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

...back then, the Byzantines didn’t have Kassams.
Despite Kassam rockets, a team of archaeologists has nearly completed the excavation of a Byzantine village containing the largest bathhouse ever discovered in Israel.

The Israel Antiquities Authority started excavating the site of a large Byzantine village this past January. A few weeks ago, archaeologists found a bathhouse dating back to the Byzantine period. The excavation, which is expected to be completed in a week’s time, is located in the Shaar HaNegev region near Kibbutz Gevim, at the site of Horvat Lasan.

The area was excavated following the government's decision to lay new railroad tracks between Ashkelon and Netivot in 2003. As part of the plan, the Israel Antiquities Authority presented their recommendations in order to preserve ancient relics. Using their expertise, archaeologists identified potential archaeological sites along the tracks. Ancient reservoirs in the area led to the moving of some of the track five meters away from their intended location.

Archaeologist Gregory Serai, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, stated that the Byzantine village reveals an economy based on the production of wine and the manufacturing of pottery vessels. The site was situated on a road that linked Be’er Sheva with Gaza, and probably began as a road station during the Roman period. 

Serai is convinced that a Byzantine church is in the area, although he hasn’t found it. The granite flooring of the enormous bathhouse, according to Serai, testifies to the residents’ high economic status. “The bathhouse, which covers an area of 20 by 20 meters, was apparently destroyed in a cave-in," Serai said, "and was later used as a rubbish dump that was filled with household refuse.” Following its destruction, the structure served as a source of building material, as evidenced by the stone walls that were robbed. A number of residential buildings were discovered in this part of the site and they contained storage jars that were still in situ.

The furnace (hypocaust) of the bathhouse was dug into the natural soil and its ceiling was built of a cement-like material that was lined with ceramic tiles. The ceiling was supported by means of one-meter high colonnades built of mud bricks. Bathers would enter the changing room (apodyterium), passing from there into a room with cold water (frigidarium) where there were probably stepped tubs. From there they would enter a room containing a bath of warm water (tepidarium), proceeding to the equivalent of a modern-day sauna, a bath containing hot water (caldarium). The floor of the caldarium was paved with marble flagstones, some of which were as large as a square meter. According to Serai, evidence of the ceiling’s destruction is confirmed by the manner in which the columns supporting the roof of the furnace were toppled in different directions.

Close Calls
Archaeologists at the site, which is near Sderot and the Gaza border, had temporarily altered their work when 60 Kassam rockets exploded in Sderot during Operation Cast Lead. “We have 10, at most 15 seconds to look for cover,” Serai told IsraelNationalNews. “We initially used sand bags, like in the First World War, to provide our staff protection, and we received clear directives from the Home Front." 

He added that the Byzantine site is being used in a way that the ancient villagers could never have fathomed. “Now that we have areas within the site that are sufficiently deep, we use them for protection – but back then, the Byzantines didn’t have Kassams,” Sergai laughed in irony.

Serai remembers one narrow escape at the Byzantine site when a Kassam rocket exploded a mere 50 meters away from where he was standing. Nevertheless, Serai is resolute to continue digging. Since 2001, Serai has served as an archaeologist in the Gaza region. “I’ve had my share of rocket attacks. I’ve gotten used to it,” Serai commented.