Roman bath – Emmaus


Roman baths were an integral part of a typical day in ancient times; Not only from the functional aspect, as a place to bathe, but mainly as a building block of the cultural-social environment of those days. We are in ​​the original city of Emmaus, and although we have a dedicated video on Emmaus, we will focus in this video on this Roman bath which is about 200 meters from the entrance to Emmaus Nicopolis.

Emmaus is a Greek name, and in Hebrew the city name is Hamat, named after its hot water springs, that were here in the past. During the Jews great revolt against the Romans between 66-70 CE, the fifth Roman Legion, named Macedonia settled in Emmaus. After the suppression of the revolt, the emperor Vespasian turned Emmaus into a colony and changed its name to Emmaus Nicopolis which means the city of victory – named after Nike, the goddess of victory. The hot springs at Emmaus, whose original wells are few hundred meters north of here, attracted many settlers.

A large Roman bath was built, which only part of it is visible due to the restriction not to enter it for fear of landslides. The healing properties of Emmaus springs are also mentioned by the Byzantine writers who associate them with Jesus’ visit here.

A typical Roman city included public baths; these were used by the visitors to bath together. The place had several rooms and usually included: a changing room & cloth storage (apodyterium), a cold-water room (frigidarium), a lukewarm water room (tepidarium) and a warm water room (caldarium). The location of the rooms could vary from one Roman bath to another, yet each location had a complex engineering system, which included, among other things, transporting water in aqueducts, distributing the water to the various rooms, heating under the floor based on a double floor concept and we will elaborate on this shortly, and sometimes, also heating walls. In the large cities, a multi-activity center developed around the bath that included a sports center, stalls, and more.

In the early days of the empire, the baths were mixed for women and men, but by the time the baths arrived here to the holy land, this was already forbidden. Sometimes there were separate baths for men and women, but most often the separation was done by time split.

The nudity itself did not bother the Romans, and sharing the bath at the same time while all are naked was perceived as a normal thing, and even in the eyes of the Jews, the Roman baths were accepted by Jewish society without a severe reluctance.

Roman bathhouse was a place beyond body care, it was a place for social life. It was a meeting place, a focal point of extensive social activity, and a place where Roman culture was fully manifested: a technological construction enterprise of those days, comfort and splendor, and leisure culture.

We will not expand, but there are quite a few stories about the sages of Israel, and the conversations that took place while bathing between them and their students, as well as laws regarding different aspects of bathing, these testify to the acceptance of the Roman bath in Jewish life.

This Bath of Emmaus was probably established after Emmaus was granted the status of a city (polis) by the emperor Elagabalus in 221. The baths were preserved despite or due to a number of events. With the Muslim conquest in the early 7th century, the Muslims destroyed the city. During the conquest of the country in the year 636, Abu Obeida, the commander of the Muslim troops along with 25,000 Muslim soldiers and residents, died here, and Emmaus was abandoned due to the plague. A severe earthquake that struck the area later led to its final abandonment and disappearance of the hot springs whose original location is two hundred meters from here on the north side of Highway #3.

Emmaus was resettled by the Crusaders, who found the baths empty and not functioning, and apparently used them as warehouses. The Mamluks who ruled the country from 1260 to 1517 sought to strengthen their connection to Islam at every site, making the Baths of Emmaus a sacred place, and naming the place Sheikh Obeid derived perhaps from Abu Obeida the commander of the Muslim troops at the beginning of the 7th century who died and buried here.

The place has undergone significant changes over the years, the functions of the bathrooms have also changed, so we will take the next few minutes to understand the construction concept of a Roman bath, which is based on the hypocaust heating system. The concept seems simple but the implementation requires in-depth engineering knowledge.

In a Roman bath the room had a double floor. On the lower floor were pillars about 50 to 60 cm high with stone slabs that formed the floor of the warm room. Adjacent to the walls of the warm room, on the lower floor level, fire burned. The hot air and flames flowed in the space between the lower and upper floor and between the pillars. In some cases, the walls of the room contained chimneys, which connected the space between the floors to the air above the roof so that the hot air and the smoke could flow up and out, while also maintaining the walls of the room hot. The concept of this double floor is the clearest archaeological feature of a Roman bathhouse.

As I already mentioned, A typical Roman bath included a system of rooms with different temperatures: a lukewarm room (tepidarium), a warm room (caldarium), and a cold room (frigidarium).

The order of moving from one room to another can be different between one Roman bathhouse to another, but from what I was able to see, a typical order was to first enter the lukewarm room, then move into the warm room, return to the lukewarm room and finish in the cold room.

The bathrooms were accompanied by additional rooms such as the wardrobes, a workout room and an oil massage room.

Regarding the bathhouse in Emmaus – Most of this Roman bath, which has four rooms, remained intact. The baths here are serial type baths, meaning that the bathrooms are adjacent one to another along one axis such that a visitor moves from one room to another, and at the end of the route he returns the same way and exits via the entrance. This bath has 4 rooms yet originally it contained additional rooms on its northern and possibly southern sides.

The entrance to the bath in the limited renovated layout was through room number 4 from the door in its northeast corner. Room No. 4 is the cold room, now, let’s move back to the southern part where it’s easier to explain about the other rooms. So, room 3, is the lukewarm room, room 2 was the warm room – a square niche was added to it on the west side, above the passage to the second heating room that was there.

The limitation of further digging due to concern of landslide did not allow the diggers to determine the time of its construction and the original plan of Room No. 1 built above the southern heating room. In any case, the room existed at the latest in the Byzantine period after a landslide covered the southern wall of the building up to the height of the windows. These 3 windows that were part of rooms 2 and 3 were designed to let plenty of light into the bathrooms which was contrary to what was customary in the Byzantine period.

At the southern wall and you can see the pipes leaning on the window. They carried water to a brick-lined niche in room No. 1. It seems that in or near the niche there was a water tank, so there were 3 water tanks, one for hot water above the heating room, one for lukewarm water next to it, and one to cool water outside the building.

The upper floor in Room 2 was installed on clay tiles carried on arches, then a layer of cast cement 35 cm thick and above it the flooring of marble slabs in a layer of plaster tiles. Leaning the upper floor on a system of parallel arches at a height of 1.6 m’ and not on columns is not that common in areas designated for earthquakes.

Back to the water pipes – a system of pipes for water supply and drainage surrounds the bath on all sides, mosaic and various carved items indicate that in this area there were various courtyards and complementary structures as is customary in Roman baths.

Emmaus received some of its waters from the springs at the foot of the Khirbet Aked which are at the top of the hills approx. 1Km south of us. The water was brought here through three parallel aqueducts which probably didn’t exist simultaneously.

I hope that I added some knowledge on Roman bathhouses, and as usual we will end with a question – What are the largest Roman baths and how many people did they contain? The answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. The new encyclopedia for archeological excavations in Israel

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