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Major Byzantine Period Church Uncovered in Israel

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By Aryeh Savir

Tazpit News Agency

2JERUSALEM – Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced today (Jan. 22) that it has uncovered a 1,500 years old church, with a magnificent mosaic and five inscriptions adorning its floors. The church was uncovered during Israel Antiquities Authority salvage excavations, prior to the construction of a new neighborhood at Moshav Aluma in the center of Israel.

According to archaeologist Dr. Daniel Varga, director of the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority: “An impressive basilica building was discovered at the site, 22 meters long and 12 meters wide. The building consists of a central hall with two side aisles divided by marble pillars. At the front of the building there is a wide open atrium paved with a white mosaic floor, outfitted with a cistern. Leading off the courtyard is a rectangular transverse hall (narthex) with a fine mosaic floor decorated with colored geometric designs; at its center, opposite the entrance to the main hall, is a twelve-row dedicatory inscription in Greek containing the names Mary and Jesus, and the name of the person who funded the mosaic’s construction.”

The nave has a colored mosaic floor decorated with vine tendrils to form forty medallions. The medallions contain depictions of different animals, including a zebra, leopard, turtle, wild boar, various winged birds and botanical and geometric designs. Three medallions contain dedicatory inscriptions in Greek commemorating senior church dignitaries:  Demetrios and Herakles. The two were heads of the local regional church.  On both sides of the central nave are two narrow halls which also have colored mosaic floors depicting botanical and geometric designs, as well as Christian symbols.

1A pottery workshop, mainly for the production of jars, was also uncovered during the excavations and yielded numerous finds, including amphorae, cooking pots, bowls and different kinds of oil lamps. Glass vessels typical of the Byzantine period were also discovered at the site. The finds indicate a rich and flourishing local culture.

This church is part of a large and important Byzantine community that existed in the region. The town was located next to the main road running between Ashkelon on the sea coast to the west, and Beit Guvrin and Jerusalem to the east. Excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority along this road have revealed other communities from the same period, but no churches have been found in them. The recently uncovered church may have served as a center for Christian worship for all the surrounding communities. Wine presses and pottery workshops found in the region attest to the economy of the local residents during the Byzantine period, who made their living from the production and exportation of wine via the coast to the entire Mediterranean region.

3The Byzantine period in Israel is dated 330-638 CE, from Rome’s adoption of Christianity to the Muslim conquest of Israel. Other archaeological findings from the period in Israel include a church in the Jerusalem hills, a street in Jerusalem and a 1,400 year-old wine press.

The site is to be covered and preserved for future generations. The magnificent mosaic will be conserved, removed from the site and displayed to the public at a regional museum or visitors’ center.

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