Pagan burial altar unearthed in Israel

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Washington, May 29 (ANI): A 2,000-year-old altar has been found in an Israeli cemetery, according to archaeologists.

The 24-inch-high granite structure, decorated with carvings of three bull heads, ribbons, and laurel wreaths, was discovered May 17 while salvage excavations were being carried out for a new hospital emergency room in the southern Israeli city of Ashqelon.

One of the oldest port cities in the Holy Land, Ashqelon could have had human settlements as early as the Neolithic period, which began around 9,500 B.C.

The prosperous city, which flourished during the Roman period (first and second centuries A.D.), had a strong Hellenistic culture and a sizeable minority Jewish population, according to Yigal Israel, chief archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority in Ashqelon.

The cemetery where the altar was unearthed served Ashqelon's general pagan population, said Israel, adding that altars were "found everywhere, in cemeteries, in town squares, and also in temples."

Worshipers and mourners burned myrrh and frankincense on similarly designed "incense altars" across the Roman Empire, Israel pointed out.

The newly discovered altar could well have been brought to the city from elsewhere in the Roman Empire by an upper-middle-class family and placed at their family burial plot, Israel said.

"Just like you see in today's cemeteries, well-to-do families in ancient times also showed off in accordance with their style, status, and financial means," National Geographic News quoted Israel, as saying.

The altar's bull heads - a symbol of "strength and power" - could have represented the god Zeus, according to Israel.

At the time Pagans worshipped the Syrian goddess Atargatis, among other gods such as Isis, Apollo, and Hercules.

Pagan burial ceremonies in the Roman period were also similar to modern-day Bedouin and Jewish rituals, Israel observed.

Designated mourners accompanied the family funeral procession to the burial site, where the dead were laid out amid candles and wafting incense.

At times the body was covered by burial shrouds, adorned with jewellery, and in some cases even surrounded by perfumes.

Israel and colleagues also discovered numerous family burial structures at the Ashqelon site, including cist tombs - a type of pit tomb overlaid with stone slabs - and a large limestone sarcophagus. (ANI)

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