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1,500-year-old mosaics uncovered at ruins of a Byzantine basilica

Archeologists working in the Golan Heights have uncovered mosaic floors dating back to the sixth century. It is believed to be part of a Byzantine basilica that was originally the legendary Church of the Apostles.

Since 2016, the Kinneret Institute for Galilee Archeology at Kinneret College, and Nyack College, New York, have conducted excavations at the site of Beit HaBek (al-A’raj) in an attempt to identify the lost city of Bethsaida. Previously they discovered a large and previously unknown Jewish village dating to the Roman period but also a large basilica that measures 27x16m from the Byzantine period.

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This year’s research uncovered the mosaics. According to archeological director Mordechai Aviam, “We identified a large apse in the east and uncovered two inscriptions. While the smaller one mentions a deacon and a building project, the larger inscription is a half medallion and speaks of the bishop and reconstruction of the building.”

The archaeologists believe this basilica was built over an early Chrisitan site known as the Church of the Apostles, which was said to be the home of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. In the year 724, a Bavarian bishop named Willibald visited holy sites along the Sea of Galilee in his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He reported: “And thence they went to Bethsaida, the residence of Peter and Andrew, where there is now a church on the site of their house.”

Stone cross discovered in a previous year’s archaeological work – Photo courtesy Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins

Next year, work on the site will resume, buildings from the Roman period village will be excavated, and the entire church will be cleared with the aim to answer the question: “Who buried the Byzantine Church of the Apostles?”

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To the surprise of the excavators, although the outer walls were preserved to a height of one meter, not a single opening was identified. It is possible that directly on the same walls of the church, a sugar factory was erected in the Middle Ages. Its builders had no interest in the mosaics and so the interior area was filled with dirt, inadvertently burying the church.

It is also possible that the remains of the church were intentionally enclosed by a wall after it was destroyed in an earthquake that struck in the year 749. It was cleaned and renewed in such a way that the church was preserved and commemorated. Other churches in the region were also abandoned, but perhaps because of the great importance attached to this site, the basilica in Bethsaida was specially preserved.

The archaeological work is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins (CSAJCO) and the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

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Top Image: Photo courtesy Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins

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