The ancient bathouse in Nazareth is an impressive archeological site that includes inside it treasures from more than one era, leading to disagreements about its origins. It was discovered by accident by a couple under their commercial shop in the city centre, and is beside one of the most sacred and historical places in Christianity, Mary’s Well, known for its pure and sacred water because the Virgin Mary drank from it.
The story of the bathhouse began in 1993 when Elias and Martina Shama bought a small shop and started renovating it and cleaning its black walls. In the past the place had been used for selling building materials. Elias and his wife could not have expected that the old shop would change their lives, and our understanding of history, the way it has done. Under their souvenir store they found an archeological puzzle whose origins have been intriguing scientists ever since.
The debate spurred by the discovery has drawn experts and scientists into a major controversy. A few still believe it dates back only to the recent Turkish period, while others claim it is pre-Roman, based on the opinion of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Another authority, Professor Tzvika Shaham, who works as director of a museum in the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, says the bathhouse probably dates back to the Crusader era. Yet others concluded, according to available evidence, that its origins go back even further, all the way to the Roman era, to the times when Jesus himself lived in Nazareth.
Professor Carsten Peter Thiede, a scholar in archeology and religion who spent 20 years excavating the area of Qumran and the Dead Sea with the Antiquities Authority, describes the place in his most recent book "The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus" (2005), in which he analyses the historical implications of the discovery. Prof Thiede says in his book:
“Returning to the discovery of the Roman baths in Nazareth, we realize that such an installation, should it really turn out to be Roman and to have been available to non-Roman inhabitants like Mary, Joseph and Jesus, would merely underline what we could have gathered from the sources anyway. The only real surprise to many may be the conclusion that Nazareth was anything but a nondescript village with a handful of poor Jews.”
For Martina and Elias, who were enthralled by the beauty and magic of the bathhouse, the issue was never in any doubt. They are now daily operating the site which is a major archeological and historical project of the first degree and expect to see it come to new life and be crowded with visitors from all over the world. The success of the bathhouse has become their top priority and first concern, and they have invested all their resources and money in excavating the site. The more the excavation advances, the more they discover new and interesting facts that help clarify the identity and origins of the bathhouse. According to all the known facts and technologies, the site is Roman.
Dating the bathhouse from its archeological features
Visitors who come to their shop stand in the first room of the bathhouse, the Caldarium (the hot room), in an area where they currently sell traditional embroidery and souvenirs to tourists. Steam emerged from vents fed by two terracotta pipes that are still visible and connected to a large furnace that produced the bath’s heating. The upper pipe provided steam to the Tepidarium (the tepid room) while the lower pipe channelled back the excess steam. (it should be noted that the lukewarm room is not located in the section of the bath owned by Elias and Martina.)
This old and interesting method, using all the thermal energy for distributing the heat is the same used in other Roman Baths in what were once various parts of the Roman Empire.
The bathhouse is distinguished by the presence of an additional heating method under the floor of the shop. Elias and Martina take visitors to see the Hypocaust, underground channels that were located beneath the hot and lukewarm rooms. The channels were made of terracotta tiles and have arches that were built with absolute architectural precision. They are in such good condition that it appears as if time has not touched them, only added to their beauty.
An ancient historical site amid Nazareth’s busy urban life
The bathhouse carries you swiftly along to ancient times. The building contains symbols from more than one era, such as the sculptured palm trees on one of the walls, a symbol expressing victory and consensus among the people who built the place. A lower room (where once the furnace’s ashes were gathered) is decorated with big circular, meticulously built arches. Close by the hall is the big furnace where you can there let your imagination roam free as you picture the workers feeding the insatiable fire with wood to keep happy a bath full of tired bathers. The furnace, one of the largest from the Roman period ever discovered, would have worked around the clock.
This astonishing find has led more than one scientist to argue that the city of Nazareth must have been an important Roman city, which would explain the presence of such an impressive Roman bath. No one really knows if that assumption is correct. But it proves that we must rethink the history of the region and especially of Nazareth.
Oustanding matters still waiting for further excavation
Elias and Martina, the owners of the archeological bathhouse, tell of an incident that happened in 1993. One day the ashes room filled with water reaching as high as half a meter, and then just as suddenly it drained off and air bubbles came up from the ground. Wondering what lay behind what they had just seen saw, Elias contacted antiquity experts. A group of scientists came from Harvard University in the US headed by Professor Richard Freud, who works on excavations in Israel every summer. An ultrasound image was taken to a depth of eight meters. The results suggested more than one explanation, including the possibility that there are yet deeper channels beneath the bathhouse; another hypothesis talks about the building of the bathhouse above a water reservoir.
However, the end of excavations in the bathhouse has so far prevented further discoveries from being made about the remaining parts of the site that are not owned by Elias and Martina. The total area of the bathhouse is about 1,300 meters square, while the couple own only around 150 meters square. The cold room and the tepid room are not inside the area of their shop and this of course obstructs them from achieving their big dream of recreating the bathhouse and making it operate once again.
The need for economic investment in an archeological site
Commenting on how he was able to preserve the bathhouse even though it is an archeological site, Elias said: “We have kept the place since 1993. If it hadn’t been for our personal attachment to the place, it would have been demolished. The initial findings of the Antiquities Authorities suggested that the building was of Turkish origins and therefore that it could be demolished and we could use the land for any purpose. We thank God that this did not happen because of our hunch. The law allows us to invest in it and because of that fact we have kept it and preserved it, and saved it for mankind.”
The importance of this place is in defining the historical identity of Nazareth. Because of it we now know that the city was home to several ancient civilizations which left their imprints in terms of valuable archeological sites that could become major tourist attractions if they were excavated.
These facts oblige me to appeal to international organisations and all those who have visited the bathhouse and expressed their admiration in the visitors’ book to transform their admiration into concrete support for the individual efforts of Elias and Martina. This couple preserved an archeological treasure and made their findings public to the world to the point that several international newspapers have written about it in their different languages because they appreciated how important it is to an understanding of our heritage and our civilization.