By December 1, 2015 Read More →

Estee Dvorjetski. “Healing Waters.” Biblical Archaeology Review 30, 4 (2004).

Hammat GaderThe Social World of Hot Springs in Roman Palestine

Some of the most famous hot-spring spas in the ancient world lie along the Syrian-African rift. This great gash in the Earth’s mantle extends from Asia Minor in the north to east Africa in the south, with the Jordan Valley in between. The hot springs are a byproduct of the volcanic activity and earthquakes along the rift.1 Dating mostly from the Roman and the Byzantine periods (37 B.C.-638 A.D.), some of the springs are still operating, and if you plan a visit to the Holy Land, try one. I recommend Hammat-Gader, near the Sea of Galilee, which I will discuss in detail in this article.

Another notable spring in the Galilee is Hammei-Tiberias, where the Emperor Caracalla (who ruled from 211 to 217 A.D., and who was known by the nickname Antoninus in the rabbinic literature) may have sought relief for his chronic health problems.2 Located on the western shore of the sea, Hammei-Tiberias (also called Hammat-Tiberias) was well known in ancient times; Pliny the Elder called it a “salubrious hot springs.”3

Still another hot bath, Hammatha de Pehal (now Hammat Abu Dable), was located at a site north of the Decapolis city of Pella (where Christians are said to have fled during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which effectively ended in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple). Pliny called it “the springs of salvation.” There the Roman emperor Vespasian tried to cure his gout, a disease that plagued the entire Flavian family.4

Hammat, Hammatha, Hammei and Hammam, in Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic and Arabic respectively, are variants of an adjectival noun meaning “hot springs” that is commonly part of the name of places with hot springs. Emmaus, where Jesus appeared to two of his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24), is a Hellenized version of Hammat. It, too, had a hot spring. Christian historians5 tell us that the hot springs at Emmaus are good for animals as well as people.6 A magic amulet discovered at Emmaus (see drawing) and dated to the third century A.D. is inscribed with an Aramaic incantation to cure the patient of afflictions of his head, muscles, phallus and ears. The amulet also depicts a snake, the attribute of Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing (known to the Greeks as Asklepios), which emphasizes the therapeutic qualities of the springs.7

Hot springs were of great importance in classical medicine. Hippocrates (460–377 B.C.), the so-called father of medicine, systematically prescribed hot baths (the technical term is thermal balneology) to cure his patients, sending them to the Greek island of Kos. Other famous early doctors, such as Galen (129-c. 210 A.D.), developed and extended the ideas of Hippocrates and recommended hot springs for treating ailments of the urinary and digestive tracts, chest pains, weakness, nerve problems, joint pains, vaginal infections and diseases of the skin and eyes.8
When Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.) was dying, he went to immerse himself in the Kallirhoe hot springs on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, pursuant to his doctors’ recommendation. The ancient historian Josephus tells us its waters are also therapeutic to drink.9 Pliny the Elder notes that “the very name alone, Kallirhoe [which means a beautiful flowing], attests to its celebrated and renowned waters.”10

Johannes Rufus, a pupil of the fifth-century A.D. monk Petrus of Iberia, relates that his master went to the Hammei-Bar’arah hot springs (east of the Dead Sea) to heal his body, which had grown feeble from abstinence.11

Arguably the most important bath in the Holy Land, and one of the largest spas in the Roman world, is Hammat-Gader, near the Sea of Galilee. The emperor Caracalla came here (in addition to Hammei-Tiberias), as did Hadrian (117–138 A.D.), who had dermatological problems.

The Greek biographer Eunapius (fourth century A.D.) wrote that the baths of Hammat-Gader “are second only to those at Baiae [in the Bay of Naples] with which no other baths can be compared throughout the Roman world.” Eunapius tells us that even people from Athens flocked to Hammat-Gader in search of a cure.12

The Roman-period bath is a monumental structure (see photos). Roughly rectangular, it occupied an area of nearly 54,000 square feet. The excavators, Yizhar Hirschfeld and Giora Solar, who uncovered the well-preserved bathhouse buildings, found it magnificently built, with a branched network of channels, pipes and tunnels that conducted the mineral and fresh water, and drained the pools.a They gave the various rooms in the building names like the Hall of the Fountains, the Hall of the Inscriptions and the Hall of the Pillars. Each contains a large pool connected with the others. The water emerges at a temperature of 125ÞF from the hottest spring in the southwestern part of the thermal complex. It’s called ‘Ain el-Maqle, the Spring of Burning, and its water circulated via channels into various other pools. One pool that is not connected with the others is the so-called Lepers’ Pool. It was located in a separate architectural unit that had entrances that could be closed off. In this pool a large quantity of clay oil lamps was found, all very similar in style, and all free of the soot that clings to a lamp after use; these lamps had never been used as lights, but were intended as part of the midnight ritual to cure lepers.

A pilgrim named Antoninus, from the Italian town of Placentia, visited the spa in 570 A.D. and recorded in detail how lepers were healed at Hammat-Gader—then known as Thermae Heliae, the Baths of Elijah. In his Itinerarium he describes the practice of “incubation,” which was common at the ancient centers of Aesculapius:

In front of the basin [ante clibanum] is a large pool. When it is full, all the gates are closed, and they [the lepers] are sent in through a small door with lights and incense and sit in the pool all night. They fall asleep, and the person who is going to be cured sees a vision. When he has told it, the springs do not flow for a week. In one week he is cleansed.13

A public hospice was built in order to provide therapeutic services and entertainment for the visitors.14 Hammat-Gader probably also had a pagan sanctuary, as was typical at most hot springs. Religion was intimately connected with the waters’ curative powers. Although the Hammat-Gader temple has not been found, we know about it from a silver ring from the first half of the third century A.D. discovered in the ruins of Gadara, the mother city of Hammat-Gader (see photos). On the ring are the Three Graces, or Charities, graceful and beautiful Greek goddesses associated with Aphrodite. They also symbolize good health, and in this sense they were associated both with Aesculapius and with his daughter Hygieia (the patroness of the spas). The Graces are represented on the ring as naked maidens holding each other’s shoulders, symbolizing the forces of growth. And they are standing in a temple, presumably that of Hammat-Gader.15

In the Greco-Roman world, temples and curative baths were commonly linked. The ailing emperor Caracalla undertook a “temple tour” around the empire, which included sacrificing to the healing deities at medicinal baths. Vitruvius (c. 90–20 B.C.), the great Roman architect and military engineer under Augustus, argued that temples should be built in the vicinity of springs. “For all the temples,” he wrote, “the healthiest place with the most suitable springs will be chosen … In these sites holy places will be erected … particularly in the case of those to Aesculapius and Salus, by whose healing powers great numbers of the sick are apparently cured.”16

Hot springs were dedicated not only to Aesculapius and Hygieia, but also to Athena, Apollo, Mercury, Sol, Minerva, the Nymphs and Hercules.

On one of the most famous coins of Tiberias (on the Sea of Galilee), from the reign of Emperor Trajan (c. 100–109 A.D.), Hygieia appears seated on a rock from which water is flowing (see photo). She holds a serpent, the sign of healing, which she feeds from a bowl. The depiction is undoubtedly of the hot springs that issue as steam between the rocks at Hammat-Tiberias. Their healing quality is emphasized by the image of Hygieia. This and similar coins served as publicity vehicles to lure people to the Tiberian thermo-mineral springs.

Coins of Caracalla (211–217 A.D.) and Elagabalus (218–222 A.D.) display Hygieia and Aesculapius standing opposite one another, holding serpents in their hands. Statues of Hygieia—both seated and standing beside Aesculapius, as they appear on the coins—may have been placed in temples in the vicinity of the baths, where supplicants could have prayed to them.17

Often a deity of local repute was combined with the parallel Greco-Roman deity. Thus, the Gallic and Germanic gods of healing were identified with Apollo the Healer. At Bath, England, Sulis-Minerva was created by a compound of the Celtic goddess Sulis and the Roman goddess of crafts, Minerva. And in Palestine, Roman Aesculapius could easily be identified with the local gods, such as Sarapis or Baal.

Hercules was also an important deity in the pantheon of Hammat-Gader. On a coin from Gadara from the days of Elagabalus, Hercules is seen standing in front of a column (perhaps in the temple) as a lion jumps up against it. Hercules also appears on a number of engraved gems from Hammat-Gader dated to the first to second centuries A.D.18

We do not know who was responsible for the building program at Hammat-Gader. But we do know that throughout the Roman Empire considerable military resources were diverted to the building of installations at health resorts. Sick and wounded soldiers were sent to these places, which also served as rest and recreation centers even for healthy soldiers. A further reason for suspecting that the Roman military may have had something to do with the construction of the facilities at Hammat-Gader comes from a coin found there that depicts the Three Graces naked (see photo). This depiction departs, however, in one detail from their customary depiction: They are wearing military helmets. It is a reasonable guess that the Tenth Roman Legion (Fretensis) was responsible for building baths at Hammat-Gader for their own use and for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of the region, and the Legion perhaps also constructed a temple to the Three Graces there.19 Other evidence includes an inscription found at Gadara with a dedication to Hadrian from the Tenth Legion Fretensis. Talmudic literature also associates Hadrian with a military presence in the Hammat-Gader area. From an analysis of the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Shabbat), we may conclude that a pagan festival was held at Hammat-Gader honoring the Three Graces.

As might be expected, the baths were not solely for healing or for the worship of the gods. The Greek biographer Eunapius described the ambience of pagan mysteries prevalent at Hammat-Gader, noting that two of the most highly prized springs were called Eros and Anteros.20 The Church Father Epiphanius described the colorful atmosphere at Hammat-Gader during the annual festive assembly and objected to the low morality during the festivities. Women, men and hermaphrodites bathed there not only for medicinal purposes but also for enjoyment.21

The rabbis, too, were aware of what was going on. In Ecclesiastes Rabbah, a rabbinic commentary from the Talmudic era, Rabbi Meir noted that “The populace comes to buy and to sell at Hammat-Gader,” no doubt at the annual fair. From the days of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the redactor of the Mishnah—the vast volume of Jewish legal tradition (second-third century A.D.)—Hammat-Gader was known for its immorality. One text deals with “religiously blemished” infants who were common at Hammat-Gader, presumably the result of this immorality. Rabbi Hanina advised his son “to have no contact with the women there.”22

Despite the perceived immorality of hot springs, both Christian and Jewish leaders clearly availed themselves of their curative powers. When the rabbis were considering the immorality of the place, they regarded the heat from the springs as coming from the “the fire of the underworld.” But they nevertheless sought the curative powers of the waters. For example, Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai and his son were cured at Hammei-Tiberias when “their bodies produced rust.” In rabbinic literature the term Hammei-Tiberias does not signify a place, but is a general term for thermo-mineral baths. These springs were known for medicinal value, and were thought to cure a person who merely drank the water. Special glasses were used for drinking, large at the base, constricted at the rim, transparent and very thin.

The rabbis were especially lenient about indulging in these baths despite potential religious restrictions on their use. Rabbi Yasa permitted a person suffering from rashes to bathe on the Sabbath. “Even on the Ninth of Ab [a day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the Temple] and even on the Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur] it is permitted.”23

Hammat-Gader also served as a kind of conference center for the rabbinic sages. When a difficult question was posed, the answer was, “Let us wait until the Elders of the South come here [to Hammat-Gader].” Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, who compiled the Mishnah, permitted the use of figurative ornamentation in the tombs of Beth-Shearim and also immersion in the baths at Hammat-Gader. In the Jerusalem Talmud we read of Rabbi Aha bar Yitshak and Rabbi Abba bar Memel, who went to a bathhouse named after the Three Graces. Thus we get a picture of the thermo-mineral springs acting as a sort of nature preserve of classical culture, where the rabbinic sages did not hesitate to come and bathe. Indeed, they sometimes even came with their physicians.24

In the fifth-century A.D. synagogue at Hammat-Gader, a number of mosaic dedicatory inscriptions mention a meinuk, the Aramaic word for “baby.” These appear to attest to the cures effected on children brought by their parents to the baths of Hammat-Gader. Prayer-like synagogue inscriptions at Hammei-Tiberias, dated to the end of the fourth century A.D., read: “May he be alive” and “To survive safely.”25

Those who were healed customarily expressed their gratitude to the divinities of the springs by leaving a variety of offerings, such as coins, artifacts, pillars and terra-cotta votives. Inscriptions are particularly common. The bathhouse at Hammat-Gader yielded nearly 70 Greek inscriptions, most of which began, “In this holy place may x be remembered.” The inscriptions faithfully tell the history and daily life of the thermo-mineral spa. Most of them are from visitors in whom the baths inspired both wonder and gratitude. No less than 16 inscriptions are decorated with one or more crosses. Many of the names are clearly Christian, like Marcus, Theodoros, Antoninus, Paulus, Euthymia, Epiphanius, Maximinus, Gregorius, Eusebia, Elias, Procopia, Theodosius, Juliana and others. Apparently the healing powers of the site were regarded as God-given.

Some of the visitors mention their homeland—an inspector from Gaza, a notary from Damascus, a lawyer from Tyre, a family from Bostra (the capital of Provincia Arabia) and a patriotic citizen of Perge (the capital of Pamphylia in southern Anatolia). Several visitors indicate their title, rank or profession—army officers, public servants and an aristocratic family. The stage professions represent the largest group: a dancer, a piper, an actress, a juggler and perhaps a strolling actor. These performers were permanent or visiting members of the staff in the Roman theater of Hammat-Gader, which was still active in the Byzantine period. Two engravers (of precious stones and seals), two marble workers, a scribe and public weighers are also mentioned. Governors are referred to as being responsible for construction works in several inscriptions in the bathhouse.26

The most important inscription at Hammat-Gader bears the name and title of Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II (408–450 A.D.). The poetic inscription, written in the Homeric style, glorifies the hot springs “for those in pain.” It contains several names and also mentions parts of the baths, such as pools and fountains. Three figures of Greek mythology are also mentioned in the inscription: Hygieia, Galatea (a nymph associated with springs and water sources) and Paean (the physician of the gods). The poem was composed on the occasion of the empress’s visit to the baths, perhaps to be cured of some illness. It reads:

In my life many and infinite wonders I have seen,
But who, however many his mouths, could proclaim, O noble Clibanus [a personification of an oven],
Your strength, having been born a worthless mortal? But rather
It is just that you be called a new fiery ocean,
Paean and life source, provider of sweet streams.
From you is born the infinite swell, here one, there another,
On this side boiling, but there in turn cold and tepid.
You pour forth your beauty into four tetrads of springs.
Indian and Matrona, Repentius, Elijah the Holy,
Antoninus the Good, dewy Galatea and
Hygeia herself, the large lukewarm pool and the small lukewarm pool,
The Pearl, the old Clibanus, Indian, and also another
Matrona, Briara and the Nun, and the (spring) of the Patriarch.
For those in pain your mighty strength (is ever constant).
But (I will sing) of God, famous for wisdom, (that he may save you),
For the benefit of men and (everlasting usefulness).27

The thermo-mineral springs in the Levant were places of bathing, of ritual, of therapy and of entertainment, including that of the licentious variety. They were social institutions, with a wide range of activities. The aggregation of sacred springs, therapeutic baths and cultic installations offered a combination of religious, medicinal and social conveniences to the many peoples—pagans, Jews and Christians—who visited the sites during the Roman and Byzantine periods.28

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