Altar to Ancient Greek God Pan Found Embedded in Wall of Byzantine Church

Christians in what is now northern Israel may have repurposed the basalt structure as a deliberate affront to pagan worshippers

Banias Pan altar
The altar's inscription suggests pilgrims traveled great distances to reach the religious site. Jonathan Orlin / Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Researchers excavating a Byzantine church in northern Israel have uncovered a second- or third-century altar to Greek pastoral god Pan. Incorporated into a church wall, the basalt pillar sheds light on the intertwined nature of early Christianity and pagan beliefs, reports Hannah Brown for the Jerusalem Post.

In full, the altar’s Greek inscription reads, “Atheneon son of Sosipatros of Antioch is dedicating the altar to the god Pan Heliopolitanus. He built the altar using his own personal money in fulfillment of a vow he made.”

Heliopolitanus is a name typically linked not with Pan, but to the Greek god Zeus (Jupiter in the ancient Roman pantheon). A major temple in the Lebanese city of Baalbek, for instance, honored a version of the god known as Jupiter Heliopolitanus. Pan Heliopolitanus may have been a deity with aspects of both Pan and Zeus, or simply another name for the god of the wild.

Excavation leader Adi Erlich, a researcher at the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology, tells the Jerusalem Post that the carving’s reference to Antioch, located about 250 miles north of the Israeli church, suggests the religious site was associated with “pilgrims coming from afar.”

Speaking with Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster, Erlich adds that the inscription’s author “was no pro.” Though the individual had traveled a significant distance to reach the church, he failed to plan out his message and appears to have run out of space, with letters shrinking in size and extending beyond their intended frame.

Banias waterfall
The Banias waterfalls were associated with Pan long before the temple's construction around 20 B.C. Chadica via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

The Times of Israel reports that the church was built atop of an earlier temple to Pan, who was often depicted with the legs and horns of a goat, around 400 A.D. The region became an important Christian center around 320 A.D. and even had its own bishop. Though ancient builders often reused materials from earlier structures, Erlich points out that the altar’s repurposing as part of a wall may have been a deliberate insult to local worshippers of the “old” gods.

Per a separate Times of Israel report by Amanda Borschel-Dan, the original open-air temple to Pan stood in Banias National Park, which is known today for its dramatic waterfalls. By the time of the house of worship’s creation around 20 B.C., the falls had already been associated with Pan for centuries.

Constructed in classic Roman style, the temple featured a small pool in its center. Christians later added a floor mosaic featuring small crosses, which became a widespread symbol of the religion following the reign of Emperor Constantine.

Erlich says the church may have been built to commemorate interactions between Jesus and Saint Peter. Some Christian traditions hold that this was the region where Jesus gave the apostle, previously named Simon, his new name, which means “rock.” According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told Peter, “On this rock, I will build my Church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

The excavation is part of a larger effort to conserve archaeology across lands supervised by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Iosi Bordowicz, the agency’s head of heritage and archaeology, tells the Times of Israel. He says Banias National Park is home to important archaeological sites spanning the Roman period to the Crusades.

According to Bordowicz, the new finds will be conserved and displayed for visitors who travel to the park to take in its waterfalls.

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