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THE VILLAGE -description

The ruins of ancient Capharnaum cover approximately an area of 6 hectares (60,000 square m). The village stretched for about 300 m from E to W along the lake shore, the easternmost limits being in the area where the Greek-Orthodox church is built, and for some 200 m from S to N, i.e. from the lake shore to the hills.

A view

In the maximum expansion during the Byzantine period, Capharnaum could easily number some 1,500 inhabitants. Any assessment of the population is still premature as far as the other periods of occupations are concerned. To be sure, Capharnaum was by far inferior to the large cities of the lake; for example, according to Josephus Flavius, Magdala held a population of more than 40,000 persons during the first Jewish war. Yet, the village enjoyed a privileged position, its economic resources being fishing, agriculture, industry and trade. To start with, Capharnaum was a border-town provided with customs (Mc 2:13-15) along the main imperial highway leading to Damascus. It was also the only settlement on the NW shore of the lake, 5 km from the upper Jordan river which marked the border between the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas and the Golan across the river assigned to Philip.

Most probably the imperial highway bypassed the N flank of the village; in fact some 100 m NE of the synagogue and close to a monumental mausoleum a milestone was found in 1975 bearing the following inscription:

IMPERATOR - "The Emperor
CAESAR DIVI - Caesar of the divine
TRAIANI PARTHICI - Traianus Particus
FILIUS DIVI NERVAE - son - of the divine Nerva
NEPOS - TRAIANUS - nephew, Traianus
ADRIANUS AUGUSTUS...- Adrianus Augustus..."

Capharnaum was commercially linked in a prominent way with the northern regions, i. e. upper Galilee, Golan, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Cyprus. This conclusion is based on the study of the coins and of the imported vessels so far found in Capharnaum. To the contrary, contacts with central and southern Palestine were surprisingly scanty.

The presence of a detachment of Roman soldiers at Capharnaum (Lc 7: 1-10; Mt 8: 5-13) stresses the importance of the village as a crossroad for many travellers leaving and entering the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. Besides, Capharnaum controlled at least 8 km of the lake shore, from the springs called today et-Tabgha to the upper Jordan river. Even today this side of the lake is particularly rich for fishing. It is perhaps not by chance that many disciples of Jesus were fishermen. It is also significant that Peter and his brother Andrew left their hometown Bethsaida across the lake and settled in Capharnaum as a more fitting place for their fishing activity.

Agriculture was highly developed. Excavations have brought to light olive presses, grinding stones for wheat and cereals, mortars, stone bowls and craters etc. These tools mostly of basalt stones were made in Capharnaum itself, as can be proved by several unfinished pieces; and they were considered as a precious family heritage. Another industrial activity of the village was the manufacture of glass vessels.

Excavations

An appreciable portion of the ancient village has been excavated since 1968, providing an insight to the living quarters. The private houses so far excavated are rather unpretentious but by no means poor, al least according to the living standard of an ancient village. They also betray no sharp economic differentiation. Local volcanic basalt stones in their natural state were used to build walls and pavements. Walls were built without true foundations, and the one storey rooms could hardly reach more that 3 m in height, judging from several staircases leading to the roof. Fairly regular courses were levelled with small pebbles and soil, but with no help of strong mortar, at least in the Hellenistic and Roman periods; even in the Byzantine period mortar was employed only in some cases, and not as a rule.

Light roofs made up of wooden beams and of beaten earth mixed with straw covered the squat rooms, and they were reached from open courtyards through a flight of stone steps.

Dwellings of Capharnaum

The private houses consisted of several units following a fairly standard pattern with minor differences; several roofed rooms clustered around a large open courtyard. Actually the open courtyard was the focal point of a house. Its conspicuous size in comparison to the small roofed rooms was dictated by the climatic conditions of Capharnaum where in summertime the temperature lingers around 35 degrees. The squat roofed rooms received light from a series of windows facing the inner courtyard. They were used as shelters, for sleeping at least in the rainy season, and as a place where the inhabitants kept their belongings; whereas many daily life activities took place in the courtyard. Grinding stones and ovens for instance are always found in the courtyard. Here women fixed the meal; here the artisans worked and probably here too people used to sleep in the summertime on stretched mats on the floor.

Hygienic facilities, such as wash-rooms, drainage systems etc., did not exist. Neither can we find in Capharnaum water cisterns as in Korazin, or underground silos as in Nazareth. The proximity of the lake is responsible for this lack. A house of this kind with many roofed rooms around a common courtyard entered from the public street through a single doorway, most probably was shared by two or more kindred families living in a patriarchal fashion.

Courtyard

Not all the buildings of the village follow this standard pattern; several structures were uncovered along the E side of a large NS street flanking the synagogue where the characteristic hovens and stone steps set in the large courtyards are missing. Most probably many of these units facing the main street of the village are to be interpreted as shops.

The general layout of the houses by no means conveys an image of a haphazard rural settlement; to the contrary, we can visualise a large village where merchants, artisans, farmers and fishermen built their dwellings according a harmonious plan. The main streets run in a NS direction and are intersected at right angles by small alleys, in a Hellenistic-Roman pattern of "cardo maximus" and "decumani". Finally the intersection of the NS streets and the EW alleys created several blocks or city-quarters which we call "insulae".

plan of excavations



© copyright 2001. Text written by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda ofm. Reproduction, retrieval or redistribution of this material is not permitted without prior permission of the author reachable at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (sbfnet@netvision.net)



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