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Sixth-century Byzantine church discovered near Jerusalem

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of sixth-century Byzantine church near Jerusalem. Dedicated to an unnamed “glorious martyr”, the site is decorated with spectacular mosaic floors and Greek inscriptions.

The Israel Antiquities Authorities announced the discovery last month at Ramat Beit Shemesh, which lies just west of Jerusalem. Archaeologists have been digging at the site for three years in advance of the construction of a new residential area.

They revealed the remains of an impressive Byzantine church founded some 1,500 years ago. The church was adorned with spectacular mosaics intricately designed with leaves, fruit, birds, and geometrical elements. The walls of the church were decorated with colorful frescoes and lofty pillars crowned with impressive capitals, some of which may have been imported.

Excavations in the center of the site revealed a church built according to a basilica plan – an elongated structure lined with two rows of columns that divided the internal space into three sections – a central nave flanked by two halls. A spacious courtyard (atrium) was found just outside the church’s entrance.

The primary stage of the church’s construction occurred during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century (527-565 CE). Later, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine, an exquisite side chapel was added. A fascinating inscription found intact in the courtyard dedicated the church to a “glorious martyr.”

Mosaics exposed from the floor of the church. Photos: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to Benjamin Storchan, director of excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “the martyr’s identity is not known, but the exceptional opulence of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that this person was an important figure. Storchan adds, “Only a few churches in Israel have been discovered with fully intact crypts. The crypt served as an underground burial chamber that apparently housed the remains (relics) of the martyr. The crypt was accessed via parallel staircases – one leading down into the chamber, the other leading back up into the prayer hall. This enabled large groups of Christian pilgrims to visit the place.” The crypt itself was once lined with marble slabs, giving it an impressive appearance.

According to Storchan, the site’s importance is affirmed by the expansion carried out under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (574-582 CE). A Greek inscription discovered at the site states that the expansion of the church was completed with his financial support. “Numerous written sources attest to imperial funding for churches in Israel, however, little is known from archaeological evidence such as dedicatory inscriptions like the one found in Beit Shemesh,” says Storchan. “Imperial involvement in the building’s expansion is also evoked by the image of a large eagle with outspread wings – the symbol of the Byzantine Empire – which appears in one of the mosaics.”

Excavations revealed thousands of objects, and what appears to be the most complete collection of Byzantine glass windows and lamps ever found at a single site in Israel. Additionally, a unique baptismal font in the shape of a cross was found in one of the rooms of the church, made of a type of calcite stone that forms in stalactite caves.

Top Image: Site of the church exposed in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Photo by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

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