Caesarea Philippi was a Greco-Roman city located near the ancient city of Dan, in the northern part of Israel, by Mount Hermon and the Jordan River. As you follow the Banias stream to the cliff area, you can tell immediately you are in a unique place. There is a rocky face that rises 100 feet above you and 500 feet wide, centered by a foreboding cave with temple ruins strewn about. It was here that Herod the Great built the Temple of Augustus (Augusteum) in 19 B.C. to honor his Caesar.
The temple sat in front of the cave that was believed to be the gateway to the underworld, and where the Greek god Pan lived. This was one of three temples Herod constructed to honor Caesar Augustus in Israel–Caesarea Maritima by the Mediterranean Sea, Samaria-Sebaste in the south, and Caesarea Philippi. Herod willed the region to his younger son Philip when he died in 4 B.C., who then built this city up to be his capital and to honor his Caesar, Tiberius.
Josephus records the spot in the following: “And when Caesar had further bestowed upon him (Herod) another additional country, he built there also a temple of white marble, hard by the fountains of Jordan: the place is called Panium (Panias, Caesarea Philippi), where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth: it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anybody lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it. Now the fountains of Jordan rise at the roots of this cavity outwardly; and, as some think, this is the utmost origin of Jordan.” Prior to the Romans, the Greeks under Alexander the Great had conquered the area. They were so enamored with the spot Greek sanctuaries were built here to worship the god Pan. The Greeks called this place Panias, and the cave was the main attraction for Hellenistic pagan worship. Animal sacrifices were thrown into the bottomless pool inside. If the sacrifices sank, the gods were appeased.
Next to the Pan cave are five niches with indented scalloped areas cut into the face of the cliff for their idols. These niches had elaborate temples attached to worship Pan, Zeus, Nemesis, and a sanctuary to the cult of the “dancing goats.” Pan was the god of the goats and his flute music would entice the goats to dance in a ritual of fertility. d. The worship on this site was so wicked that rabbis forbade Jews to come here. Still, Jesus brought his men here and revealed to them that He was the promised Messiah (Matthew 16). Why here? It was a simple way to let the world, both seen and unseen, know that there would be a coming battle for the souls of men.
This mountain’s other significance is as the traditional site of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8).
Today you can see this cave, the rubble of the temples, and the shrines that were carved into the cliffs where Jesus acknowledged Peter’s revelation at Caesarea Philippi (today called Banias, most likely an Arab corruption of Pan, Panias). There are huge sections of carved stone from the Temple all around the area, and King Agrippa’s Palace nearby. Overall, a fascinating stop that even brought Mark Twain here in 1867. He described Caesarea Philippi like this: “…scattered everywhere, in the paths and in the woods, are Corinthian capitals, broken porphyry pillars, and little fragments of sculpture; and up yonder in the precipice where the fountain gushes out, are well-worn Greek inscriptions over niches in the rock where in ancient times the Greeks, and after them the Romans, worshipped the sylvan god Pan.”
FROM THE SCRIPTURES
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-19 ESV).