The City of Eleutheropolis

by Amos Kloner

The city of Eleutheropolis is depicted in the Madaba mosaic map as a large settlement to the southwest of Jerusalem. Only a portion of the representation of the city remains, and its toponym has almost completely disappeared. The only remnant of the inscription is four black tesserae which can be identified as the lower part of an Epsilon, slightly larger than other letters of the map's inscriptions. The location of the depiction is geographically correct.
Eleutheropolis (Bet Guvrin) was located some 53 kms south-southwest of Jerusalem, in the midst of the Judaean Shephelah (hilly region), 39 kms east of Ascalon (Ashkelon). The scale of the Madaba mosaic map is accurate and quite precise in the area south, southwest and west of Jerusalem. A line running from Gaza to Mampsis delineates the change to a different scale further south.
In addition to its depiction in the Madaba Mosaic Map, there are four other main sources of information about Eleutheropolis in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.

1. Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestium, XIV, 8: 11-2), the fourth-century historian, gives a description of Palestine and identifies five Cities of Excellence in the province, including Eleutheropolis. Jerusalem is not included in the list, although he mentions the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the attempt of the Emperor Julian to restore the temple in 363 CE (Ammianus Marcellinus XXIII, 1: 2-3; Stern 1980: 600-611 and bibliography there).
2. The expositio totius mundi et Gentium, dated approximately 350 CE, displays a more detailed knowledge of the cities of Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine. Besides the Cities of Excellence, other places of special importance are mentioned (Stern 1980: 495-8). Eleutheropolis is included in both lists as a City of Excellence in Roman Palestine.
3. The mosaic pavement in the church on the acropolis at Ma'in depicts eleven towns in the band around the nave. It seems that some other ten or eleven town depictions have disappeared. Three towns are depicted in its southern belt, including Eleutheropolis (De Vaux 1938: 245; Piccirillo 1985: 345-9; 1986: 58-60).
4. In the Church of St. Stephen at Umm al-Rasas eight western Palestinian towns are depicted in the northern belt of the church's mosaic floor (Piccirillo and Alliata 1994: 177, 182, 217-224). Eleutheropolis is depicted, according to its geographical location, below Diospolis and above Ascalon. As this belt of the mosaic is complete it seems that these were the important civic and Christian centers in Byzantine Palestine.

The inhabitants of Beth Guvrin-Eleutheropolis included Jews, Christians and pagans. During the Roman and Byzantine periods it became the largest Roman city territory in Palestine. (For the churches and the synagogue see Avi-Yonah and Kloner 1993: 195-201; for a collection of the historical sources see Tsafrir, Di Segni and Green 1994: 118).
The late Roman-Byzantine city of Beth Guvrin-Eleutheropolis (199/200 CE) covered an area of 650 dunams, consisting of two major topographic elements: the southern hill, located south of the modern Beth Shemesh/Hebron - Qiryat Gat - Ascalon road; and the much smaller northern area of the city, built on a low plain to the north of the modern-day road. This road passes over the southern moat of the Crusader city, which was dug into and thoroughly destroyed the line of the main east-west street of Eleutheropolis (the decumanus).
The city expanded northwards during the second century CE. It was here, after the Bar-Kokhba war and especially from the second half of the second century CE onwards, that large public buildings for the administration of the city and daily life were constructed. The expansion at first probably consisted of a military camp and other installations, such as the amphitheater and the walls adjacent to it.

Four large structures have been revealed along the northern side of the decumanus. They are, in order from east to west:
A building of the late Roman period, made of large ashlar blocks, adjacent to the modern road, where a wide double arch rising above the road is still visible. Doubled arches were exposed also in the public bath, a typical architectural innovation of the late second and third centuries CE, which is found in other sites of the period. This structure was also used as a public building during the Byzantine period, probably with some civil or religious function. It has been identified by several scholars as part of the "northern fortress" (Abel 1924: 589).
West of this building is a second large structure. Because of an inscription on the structure's architrave block and a frieze, which is dated from the second half of the fourth century CE, it is thought that this building was an inn (Dagan, Fischer and Tsafrir 1985: 33-4; Kloner 1993: 195-6). It was probably square in plan and had a portico of columns crowned with Corinthian capitals. It was built during the late Roman period on undisturbed soil and continued in use during the Byzantine period.
Further west of these two structures is a 2200 sq. m. bathhouse that revealed three phases of use. Initially a Late Roman period bath was built of large ashlar stones, carefully designed with doubled arches over the central openings. The Byzantine phase, from the fifth century CE, is represented by the well-preserved heating system (hypocaust) and sections of the mosaic floor still in situ. The frigidarium of the bathhouse consisted of a pool surrounded by mosaics. An extensive sewage system was also revealed below the floors. Finally, during the seventh century CE changes occurred which indicate that only a limited section of the bath still functioned.
The fourth building is the Roman amphitheater, which was built on flat land on the northwest outskirts of the city. The elliptical structure has maximum dimensions of 71 x 56 m; its total area is 3000 sq m. The amphitheater consists of a walled arena with subterranean galleries, girded by a rather small cavea resting on a series of connected barrel vaults which form a large ambulatorium used as a service corridor (Fig 3). The round ambulatorium is interrupted at both ends of the major (north-south) axis by two large access galleries leading to the arena. Ten rectangular doorways lead from the ambulatorium (service corridor) to the arena, three arched openings to the outside, and two low openings connect the service corridor with the tribunes (pulvinaria) located at each end of the minor (east-west) axis of the arena. Four vaulted vomitoria admitted the public to the cavea.

Aerial view of the excavations at Beit Gibrin

The excavation results suggest that the structure was erected during the second half of the second century CE and served its original function for about 200 years, until the late fourth century CE, presumably falling into disuse in the wake of the severe earthquake of May 363 CE. Architectural alterations ascribed to the Byzantine period indicate that the structure was adapted for use as a public building. Dismantling of the cavea seats probably started in the Byzantine period and was completed by the Early Islamic period (seventh-eighth centuries CE). The outer wall of the amphitheater presents the unusual phenomenon of large roughly cut limestone blocks protruding from the facade. These are arranged in groups of two or three, at intervals of about 4 m, and are irregularly and asymmetrically spaced. While it might be suggested that these features are evidence for planned building extensions, it is more probable that the protrusions were intended to break the monotony of the facade. They should be regarded as a stylistic device, and not as evidence that the outer wall was left in an unfinished state (Kloner and Hubsch 1996: 87, fig. 4). Eleven columns 0.48 m in diameter were found, broken but still in situ 3.3 m from the arena wall. A pavement of square and rectangular limestone slabs between the arena wall and the columns was found, with evidence that it had been repaired at least twice. The columns and pavement are dated by the associated ceramic material to the Byzantine period, and indicate that the amphitheater was adapted to serve a new public function, possibly as a marketplace. The arena would have been circled by a roofed gallery with the service corridor housing shops or storerooms.

The depiction of Eleutheropolis in the sixth century Madaba mosaic map includes a domed and colonnaded circular building (Avi-Yonah 1954). It is not inconceivable that this building could have been intended to represent the amphitheater, transformed into a public building with a roofed portico during the Byzantine period.

Seven roads met at Eleutheropolis. Five of these roads were marked by milestones: the roads leading to Hierosolyma-Aelia, to the Hebron mountains (southbound), to Ascalon, to Gaza, to Lod-Diospolis and Emmaus-Nicopolis. The other two roads lead to Hebron (northbound) and to the larger villages of the southern Shephelah: Kislor, Thella and Rimmon.
Two aqueducts supplied the water needs of Eleutheropolis. The eastern aqueduct, 25 km long, came from the Hebron mountains; the northern aqueduct, 3 km long, came from Tel Goded. A third system of water supply was cut underground into the rock, bringing water to the city in a tunnel from the nearby eastern vicinity.
Cemeteries were found all around the city (Dahari, Avni and Kloner 1987; Kloner 1994: 198-200; Oren and Rappaport 1984). They consist of clusters of rock-cut burial caves dated to the Early Roman period and mainly to the late Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic (eighth century CE) periods. Since the cemeteries of each period encircled the area of the then-contemporary city, another criterion for studying the town limits is thus created.


Ammianus Marcellinus
1971 Res Gestium. An English translation by John C. Rolfe. The Loeb Classical Library, Vol. I.

Abel, F.-M.
1924 Decouvertes recentes a Beit Djebrin. RB 33: 1.

Avi-Yonah, M.
1993 Mosaics at El-Maqerqesh. Beth Guvrin. Pp. 197-198 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Vol. 1, E. Stern ed. Jerusalem.

Avi-Yonah, M.
1954 The Madaba Mosaic Map with Introduction and Commentary. Jerusalem.

Dagan, Y., Fischer, M., Tsafrir, Y.
1985 An Inscribed Lintel from Bet Guvrin. IEJ 35: 28-34.

Dahari, U., Avni, G., Kloner, A.
1987 The Jewish Necropolis of Beth Govrin. Qadmoniot 20.3-4 (79-90): 97-102. (Hebrew)

De Vaux, R.
1938 Une mosaique byzantine a Ma'in (Transjordanie). RB 47: 227-258.

Donner, H.
1992 The Mosaic Map of Madaba. Kampen.

Kloner, A.
1993 Beth Guvrin. Pp. 195-201 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Vol. 1, E. Stern ed. Jerusalem.

Kloner, A. and Hubsch, A.
1996 The Roman Amphitheater of Bet Guvrin: A Preliminary Report on the 1992, 1993 and 1994 Seasons. Atiqot 30: 85-106.

Oren, E. D. and Rappaport, U.
1984 The Necropolis of Maresha-Beth Govrin. IEJ 34: 114-153.

Piccirillo, M.
1985 Le antichita bizantine di Ma'in e dintorni. LA 35: 339-364.

Piccirillo, M.
1986 I Mosaici di Girdania. Rome.

Piccirillo, M. and Alliata, E.
1994 Umm Al-Rasas - Mayfa'ah I, Gli scavi del complesso di Santo Stefano. Jerusalem.

Stern, M.
1980 Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. 2. Jerusalem.

Tsafrir, Y., Di Segni, L., Green, J.
1994 Tabula Imperii Romani-Iudaea Palaestina. Jerusalem.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary 1897-1997, Jerusalem 1999, 244-246.

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