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Youth participating in the Byzantine Church excavation. Source: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

Byzantine Church Built for a Mysterious Martyr Found in Israel

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Israeli archaeologists have made a stunning discovery from the Byzantine period . They have uncovered a Christian church, that is elaborately decorated with breath-taking mosaics. The church was dedicated to a martyr, whose identity is a mystery.

Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the church after it was uncovered during work on a housing development in the city of Beit Shemesh . The church dates from the 6th century when the region was ruled by the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire .

According to Haaretz, the shrine “has been undergoing salvage excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority for three years”. Many of those who worked on the project were high-school kids.

Massive Byzantine Basilica

The church was designed based on a “basilica plan, with a central nave flanked by two halls” according to Haaretz. This site measures approximately 4500 square feet (1500 square meters). The complex consisted of the basilica and several ancillary buildings.

The Byzantine church complex exposed at Beit Shemesh. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Byzantine church complex exposed at Beit Shemesh. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

At the front of the church is a large courtyard. The dig leader, Benjamin Storchan, stated that “both the basilica and the courtyard are massive for the period – larger than most Byzantine churches found in the Holy Land,” according to Haaretz.

Remarkable Mosaics Discovered in the Byzantine Church

In the church was found an underground crypt, lined with marble and a rare cross-shaped baptismal font . Many thousands of Byzantine-era objects were recovered including glass windows and lamps.

The Jerusalem Post reports that in the ruins are “spectacular mosaic floors, featuring imaginative, nature-inspired decorations such as leaves, flowers, and vivacious birds”. Wall mosaics have also been uncovered.

Mosaics discovered on the Byzantine church floor. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Mosaics discovered on the Byzantine church floor. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

Some mosaics have the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, the winged eagle. The church was first built during the reign of Justinian (527-565 AD) and was completed in the 540s. It was further enlarged by Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (540-582 AD). It is possible that the church’s chapel was built during his reign.

Eagle, part of the mosaics in the Byzantine church. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Eagle, part of the mosaics in the Byzantine church. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

The winged eagle symbols appear to show that the basilica found in Beith Shemesh was an Imperial church. There is little known about these churches, that were favored by the emperors. The discovery means that researchers can now better understand the role of these places of worship in the Holy Land.

The Byzantine Church Was Built for a Mysterious Martyr

Christian churches are commonly dedicated to a saint or martyr. According to Haaretz “researchers uncovered an intact Greek inscription dedicating the sacred site to the memory of an ‘endoxo martis’ – a glorious martyr”.

Inscription found in the Beit Shemesh Byzantine church. (Asaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Inscription found in the Beit Shemesh Byzantine church. (Asaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

This martyr was possibly interred in the marble crypt that was found at the site. Storchan, is quoted by The Jerusalem Post , as saying, “two separate sets of stairs lead to the crypt, allowing large groups of pilgrims to visit it at the same time”.

Pilgrims would have traveled to the church to seek the intercession of the martyr, who was probably a very important figure in the history of local Christianity. However, no one really knows the identity of the revered Christian.

Scholars are searching for ancient documents to try and identify the mysterious holy person. It is likely that he or she was connected to the local region and the church may have been built on the spot where they were martyred or buried, which was a common Christian practice, at the time and since.

The Islamic Conquest of the Byzantine Church

The archaeological site also offers researchers an insight into the early history of Muslim rule in the Holy Land. Experts have found a large number of earthenware lamps used by pilgrims from the early years of the Arab Caliphate . This would suggest that “after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the first half of the 7th century the complex continued to be used and the martyr worshipped” according to Haaretz.

Traditionally, the decline of Christianity in the Holy Land was attributed to the forced conversion of members of that faith by Muslim warriors . The evidence from the church, dedicated to the ‘glorious martyr’ suggests that this was not the case. Instead, Christianity probably declined because of the gradual voluntary conversion of the local population to Islam.

Abandoned Holy Place

The site was probably abandoned because of the drop in the number of local Christians in the 9th century AD. It was not destroyed by local Muslims.

The basilica was sealed by large stones, at some point. This was possibly done by Christians who believed that they would return to the church - but they never did.

The basilica of the ‘glorious martyr’ is being preserved by the Israeli government. They are turning it into an archaeological park, which will be open to members of the public.

It is hoped that it will draw many tourists to the area. An exhibition based on the ‘ Church of the Glorious Martyr’ is currently running in Jerusalem.

Top image: Youth participating in the Byzantine Church excavation. Source: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority .

By Ed Whelan

Comments

That is stunning, I would hope that at some point we can find out who the martyr was.

We don't really see many mosaics today. Certainly not in the churches. They were everywhere in the Byzantine churches. Maybe it's just a Mediterranean thing.

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