Bill Slott

A Roman sauna in the desert

Remains of the hypocaust (false floor) of the bath house. Photo: Aliza Strenger
Remains of the hypocaust (false floor) of the bath house. Photo: Aliza Strenger

A kilometer south of Kibbutz Yotvata, clearly visible from the highway, are the remains of a Roman fortress from the third and fourth centuries CE. The fortress sat in this remote and forbidding desert for over a thousand years, untouched, unnoticed and covered with sand and dirt until workers digging an oil pipeline happened upon it in the late 1950s. Sometime later, archaeologists found a stone with Latin writing on it, announcing the year of the building of the fortress, and dedicating it to the four co-emperors of the Roman Empire.

The fortress is a classic four-towered square “castellum” measuring 40 meters on each side, and it was one of a series of similar installations called the “Limes Arabicus.” This frontier line of fortifications stretched for a thousand miles from the Red Sea to the northern tip of modern-day Syria, with outposts spaced 70 miles apart.  It was probably the most important defensive line in late Roman history, facing to the East the only other superpower, the Persian Empire.  On top of the ruin sits a small stone building from the 1930s, a British police station. Depending on how one looks at it, the police station is either an odd distraction from the Roman ruin, or a helpful marker when searching for the fortress.

It is a remarkable little site, and there is no guard, no ticket booth and no souvenir shop. There it sits in the middle of the desert, half-excavated, inviting the visitor to imagine the 40 or 50 soldiers who were sent here in 290 CE, to what must have been considered a hardship post. The temperature regularly exceeds 100 degrees from May through September, and there is rarely more than an inch of rainfall in a year. Just building the fortress and manning the patrols and guard shifts while consuming enough calories to survive in such a far-flung wilderness must have been an overwhelming task.

And yet, about fifty meters north of the fortress is a small Roman bath. The site is found directly east of a small water source, the Yotvata Spring (Ein Radian), so getting water to the bathhouse was probably just one of the daily tasks of the soldiers. But building the structure itself must have been a challenging prospect. Like the fortress, the bath lies in ruins, but its ultimate purpose is as clear as if it had been discovered in some grand villa in Rome: a heated chamber for hygiene and relaxation. Like every Roman bath-house, this little version contains a hypocaust (the space under the false floor into which hot air is pumped from a fire), a caldarium (the sauna room itself) as well as the traditional tepidarium and frigidarium (which are what they sound like). This is a surprising window into the cultural mindset of the Roman Empire. Sent off to a post in which survival itself was a challenge, these soldiers invested the time, energy, and creative ingenuity to construct a sauna. This was a priority. Lavatories?: No need, just go behind a rock. Some primitive form of air conditioning? Beyond the imagination.  A library perhaps?: The soldiers were illiterate. No, what these men absolutely could not do without was a sauna.  Remember, the temperature outside regularly breaks 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many historians would argue that the purpose of this heat treatment was, among other things, to clean the body. The hot red skin would be scraped off with a special tool, and the user would emerge with a new pink layer of fresh skin. As such, this could be compared to soldiers in a remote area today building themselves a field shower.

But maybe what motivated these soldiers was not just a love of hygiene, but a love of home. The life of a soldier of the Caesars was a transient one, moving from place to place, guarding outposts, putting down rebellions and patrolling hostile borders. With luck, at the end of their military career, they might be given some land, but the concept of home was a lifetime away in time and distance. Human beings need to create a sense of place, even, or perhaps especially, when they are sent to the furthest wilderness. It is why penniless refugees saved the kiddush cup from their childhood, and why immigrants everywhere continue to go to great lengths to enjoy the recipes of long-lost parents and grandparents in their adopted countries.

When I was a soldier guarding a meaningless mountain, during a long and cold shift, a sweet letter from my girlfriend and a small box of homemade chocolate chip cookies got me through the night with a sense of warmth and comfort. Such was the motivation of the Roman soldiers at Yotvata, who took the time and trouble to build a sauna in a forbidding outpost so that they could have the occasional relaxing shvitz, and for a few brief moments, think about home.

About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.
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