Visiting Banias National Park
The Banias River is one of the three main tributaries of the Jordan River. The river flows out of karst springs. Unlike the Golan Heights, which is made of different types of volcanic rock, Mount Hermon is made of limestone. The rainwater slowly dissolves the limestone and creates underground spaces into which more and more water drains. The water flows underground until it makes its way outside.
Banias – History
In an arid land like Israel, in which the long hot summers are dry, human settlement has always occurred next to water sources. The first evidence of human remains is from the Canaanite period, 4,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until the Hellenistic era, 2,200 years ago, that the site became an important settlement area where the people worshipped Pan, god of shepherds and flocks. The word panic derives from the name of this god, as mythology relates him scaring people and flocks and making weird noises in the wild. The name Banias is an Arabic variation, since in Arabic the letter ‘P’ doesn’t exist and is often replaced with a ‘B’, hence the Greek name Paneas becomes Banias.
King Herod the Great and his son Philip the Tetrarch erected a city here in honor of the Roman Emperor Augustus and changed its name to Caesarea Philippi. The city flourished during the Roman era. Away from the water, the Banias area comprises a moderate ascent to the Golan Heights and lies close to the main road leading in from the coastal cities – Jaffa and Acre to Damascus.
The city is mentioned a few times in the New Testament. Jesus came to the city with his disciples and it is here that St. Peter, the “Apostle of the Apostles”, recognized Jesus as the son of God. Jesus said to St. Peter that he would be the rock on which he would build his church. Jesus gave St. Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and appointed him as his successor. The Catholic Church considers St. Peter to be the first Pope, which is why the papal symbol is a set of keys. In the Byzantine era a church was built to commemorate a miracle that Jesus performed. A sick woman touched the clothes of Jesus and was immediately healed. In the 9th century the church was destroyed. Later the Crusaders built a fortress in the Banias. The Muslims suspected that the fortress would be used as a front base to attack Damascus and laid waste to it. Since the 12th century a small village has stood on the ruins of the archeological site. Mark Twain visited it in 1869 and wrote about the small neglected village next to this little bit of heaven.