Issue P022 of 15 June 2002

The Secrets of Byzantine Castra in Modern Israel

Residential QuarterThe North-Eastern ChurchA Church LintelFloral Decoration
Incense BurnerByzantine CoinGlass Juglet'Almond' Beaker

Norman A. Rubin
Journalist, Ind. Scholar

The site known as Khirbet Castra lies to the south of Haifa, at the base of western flank of Mount Carmel, some one and half kilometers from the coast. It covers an area of some two hundred and fifty dunams (approximately sixty acres) in the region of Kfar Samir, an Arab village, which was built on its ruins. The ancient city of Castra was one of the most important places in the reign of the Byzantine era; it combined the advantages of its location on the coast with flourishing economy of the Carmel range.

The name Castra is to be found in Jewish sources of the fourth century AD, where it is described as a hostile and alien city adjacent to the Jewish city of Haifa.

The Lord said unto Jacob: your enemies surround you, as does Halamish to Neve, CASTRA TO HAIFA, Susita to Tiberias, Jericho to Naaran, Lydda to Ono..(Midrash* (Commentary to the Song of Songs)

In the Christian sources of the sixth century AD, the title `Castra of the Samaritans' appears in the text of his travels by the pilgrim Antonius Placentinus (Piacenza), who describes the route from Acre to Haifa.

From Ptolemais (Acre): The road runs in view of the Jewish city of Sycamina (Shikmona) for a half a mile, and then along the shore for six miles.... Castra of the Summerians lies one mile from Sycamina, at the foot of Mt. Carmel.

Its proximity to Haifa, and the assumption that the Arabic name, Kfar Samir, derived from the name 'Samaritan', led researchers to identify the site with Castra referred to in the record of the pilgrim and other sources**. But evidence of idol worship of the Romans in the pre-Byzantine era, which dominated the city, eliminates the possibility of it being of Samaritan origin, so there is reason to reconsider whether one can identify this Castra with the Castra of Christian sources.

To date, no traces have been found of a Roman settlement, though the rich findings from some of the tombs are very definitely of Roman provenance. From the fourth century till the beginning of the seventh century, in the Byzantine era, the site was continuously inhabited, and the city grew and flourished.

CITY PLANNING. Castra, like most of the Byzantine cities in Israel was not constructed to a master plan. The streets do not run parallel, and buildings are not arranged in quarters. During that time cities expanded to adjust to overcrowding. Industrial buildings are not relegated to a specific area, but can be found throughout the city, amid the houses, near the churches, and even in the burial area.

A network of internal roads had been discovered, with parallel drainage systems, some of them paved with stone. The topography of the site, a series of rock levels extending from east to west, dictated the pattern of roads and the city plan. The general grid of the central routes runs from east to west, intersected by smaller roads leading north and south. The lateral roads descend the slopes, some having constructed stone steps from level to level.

Dwellings in Castra were built of local stone, both hewn and rough. Floors were made of compressed earth, coarse plaster, limestone or mosaic. The mosaics in the main rooms were colored or designed while the mosaics in the other rooms were plain white. Most of the houses are large and spacious and had internal patios surrounded by rooms - the 'communal courts' as mentioned in the Talmud and the Mishnah, the books of Jewish law and tradition. A few of the buildings uncovered have the courtyard in front. Various artifacts, that have been found, gives a picture of the busy household: cisterns, troughs, baking ovens, mortars and pestles, a few small wine presses for domestic uses, basalt millstones, etc.

Water for the city was obtained, at first, through a nearby spring; it had apparently dried out during the Byzantine period, which prompted the digging of a large reservoir of a capacity of 900 cubic meters in order to collect rainwater. Three other pools were also found: near one of the churches, one beneath the houses to the north of the city, and the city's southern reservoir. In addition, some of the private homes had bell-shaped cisterns for the storing of rainwater.

Evidence of sanitation is of the discovered drainage system, which conducted wastewater from the houses to a canal, which was apparently covered with stone slabs. This ran to a non plastered canal on the outskirts of the town.

THE CHURCHES OF KHIRBET CASTRA. Two churches had been uncovered, each with a colored mosaic floor with geometric and floral motifs, a baptismal font, and a reliquary. Capitals, lintels and bars of the churches were decorated with crosses, geometric patterns and plant forms, and with other architectural elements. The first church builders, the Byzantines were careful not to incorporate pagan motifs, and limited themselves to these geometric and plant forms. Only as of the mid-fifth century AD are living people and creatures depicted. From archeological evidence it is possible to present the architecture of the early Christian churches. They are of the basilica type, a rectangle divided by rows of pillars into three areas. The central area, the knave, is higher than the aisles on either side. The double slope of the roof is usually constructed of wooden beams and tiles. The eastern wall ends in a semi-circular apse covered by a half-dome.

OIL AND WINE PRODUCTION. The fourteen wine presses with a total of capacity of 20000 liters per pressing and eleven olive oil installations producing 8000 liters per pressing indicate that the city's economy was based on these industries. Oil and wine were important commodities in the Near East during the Byzantine era. The numerous oil and wine installations confirm that Castra was an important industrial town producing these commodities. However there is no doubt that most of the produce was intended for export, both by sea and overland. The extent of this trade is seen by the large number of amphorae, both locally produced and imported, found at Castra, that was used in the export oil and wine trade.***

BURIAL GROUNDS. To the west of the city lie the burial grounds with individual tombs, burial niches, burial chambers, and pottery sarcophagi. Most of these are from the Late Roman and Byzantine era. The earliest findings were a tomb from the Chacolithic era of the fourth millennium BC, and a number of pit burials dated to the Middle Bronze period (c. 2200-2000 BC); most of them had been vandalized, apparently in antiquity.

The burial customs of the people, Roman, Christian or pagan were very similar. Generally, the body was laid in a pit or in a sarcophagus. All ceramic coffins discovered at the site are from the Roman period; they were imported from Cyprus or Turkey, with simple designs of rope or geometric patterns painted in shades of red wash.

BURIAL OFFERINGS. A wealth of burial offerings have been found in the tombs: complete glass vessels, articles made of stone or bone, stone figures, gold jewelry, bronze and iron implements, artifacts of bone, coins, and some fine ceramic vessels.

The dead was usually interred adorned with their jewels, and with other articles beside them. Jewelry pieces were made of various materials, including gold, silver, bronze and iron, glass, bone and stone. Each jewel was created by means of techniques adapted to the materials used, and according to the prevailing fashion. Typologically, the jewels of Castra must be attributed to the late Roman period, although they were found in mixed burial areas together with Byzantine oil lamps and coins. One can then assume that some of the valuable jewelry found in the tombs was inherited, and is consequently of an earlier date than the actual burials. The range of jewels discovered is modest by comparison with those found in the centers of the Byzantine empires, and is characteristic of the eastern provinces. Local artisans crafted some of the pieces, while others were imported.

Hundreds of undamaged glass vessels have been found in the graves of Castra, as part of the burial offerings. They were found in tombs dating from the Early Roman Period to the Late Byzantine era. All of them were blown glass, a technique invented in the early Roman era. Roman and Byzantine shapes and ornamentation on the glass artifacts uncovered were extremely varied which display the great technical ability and artistry of the craftsmen.

The largest group of finds in the tombs was bone and ivory pins used for fastening clothes, for ornamentation, of for the hair. They are long up to 13cm. with decorated heads-balls, lozenges, pine-cones and other patterns. These pins have been found beside the skeletal remains in the tombs, sometimes in the region of the chest, or near the head, indicating that the dead was probably buried fully clothed.

CONCLUSION. In the early Islamic period (c. 7th to the 13th centuries AD), the inhabitants of Castra converted to Islam, and the site of the city decreased considerably from that of the original Byzantine city. At the end of the tenth century, it was abandoned. During the Ottoman rule a small settlement named Kfar Samir was established here.

THE EXCAVATIONS AND THE EXHIBITION. In anticipation of the 'Carmel Tunnel' project****, salvage excavations were conducted at Khirbet (ruins, Arabic) Castra, the site of the ancient Byzantine city of Castra, by the Israel Antiquities Authority from 1993 - 1998 (and onwards). The works were led by the archaeologists Dr. Zeev Yevin and Dr. Gerald Finkielszejn, and funded by the Netivei Carmel Corp.

The findings from the site had been presented for the first time at the National Maritime Museum at Haifa, Israel Avshalom Zemer, chief curator. The findings in the exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Israel, created a picture of life in the ancient city of Castra, and underlined the historical importance of Haifa and its surroundings.

Occupying a modern four-storey building located near the entrance to Haifa from the south, this museum, founded by Arie Ben Eli, chronicles over 5000 years of maritime history, with emphasis on the Eastern Mediterranean, cradle of shipping in the Western world. In spacious, well-lighted galleries, the sea and seafaring, from ancient times to the present, take center stage. The museum's program includes lectures and seminars, and research and restoration work is conducted in its laboratories. A library of some 5000 volumes dealing with history of seafaring and with under-water archaeology is open to students and researchers by appointment. For additional information on the museum, contact:

The National Maritime Museum
198 Allenby Road, Haifa 35472,  Israel - Telephone: 972-04-8536622

* MIDRASH: an early Jewish interpretation or a commentary on a Biblical text.

** Early historians place Castra six or seven miles from the town of Porphyriona (Porphyrion),
    located approximately a half a mile below the Monastery of Saint Elisha on Mt. Carmel.

*** A cooperative experiment to make wine at the site was conducted by the 'Carmel Mizrachi'
     winery, the Archaeological Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority at Acre, and the 
     excavation team. The resulting wine tasted like ordinary table wine, though that which was 
     fermented in the vat was marginally more acidly.

**** The `Carmel Tunnel' project will link the southern part of the city of Haifa with the
     north of the country.

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