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This lintel engraved with a cross was found during excavations at a Christian town in Galilee. Source: G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer

Excavators Find Christian Town in Galilee’s ‘Forbidden Territories’

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After years of investigations, Israeli archaeologists now believe that they have uncovered a Byzantine-era Christian town in Galilee. This site has yielded a host of remains and historic artifacts. It is believed that the settlement was probably destroyed during the invasion of the area by the Persians in the 7th century AD. This settlement is offering unparalleled insights into the Christian community during and the Byzantine Empire.

The settlement was discovered in 2007 during a construction project on a road in Pi Maẓuva Galilee in Northern Israel . This site was the subject of a salvage excavation before the completion of the roadwork. Archaeologists from The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), undertook the investigation. The researchers wrote in the journal Atiqot that excavations ‘revealed building complexes, some separated by an alley, dating from the Byzantine period’.

Ruins of a structure found at the Christian town in Galilee. (G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer)

Ruins of a structure found at the Christian town in Galilee. ( G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer )

The Unknown Christian Town Found in Galilee

A number of artifacts were uncovered, including a bronze cross and an ashlar limestone lintel. A great amount of pottery was uncovered and they ‘date to the late Byzantine period and comprise local and imported vessels’ reports Atiqot. Many shards of pottery had crosses inscribed on them and some other Christian iconography was also found. This all strongly indicates that it was a Christian town .

There is no Christian source that attests that followers of Christ occupied the area. However, a Hebrew source refers to this as ‘ being part of ‘forbidden territories’ and according to Jewish law (halacha), were not considered part of Jewish territory,’ reports The Times of Israel . This would seem to confirm that this area was settled by Christians and is aligned with the archaeological finds at Pi Maẓuva.

A bronze cross found at the excavation site. (G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer)

A bronze cross found at the excavation site. ( G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer )

Finding the Villa of Rich Christian Landowners

The site includes the remains of a storehouse and other dwellings and this suggests that it was a self-contained agricultural community. A large house was uncovered that had a hall, where presumably the owners received visitors. This was probably a villa owned by an affluent, landowning family. Some Christian objects were found, which led experts to believe that it may have been a chapel.

A remarkable mosaic that measures 16 by 16 feet (4.88 x 4.88 meters) was found in the presumed hall. CNB News reports that a ‘quality, colorful, seventh-century CE mosaic floor adorned with floral motifs, animal and human figures, and two fragmentary Greek inscriptions was unearthed.’ One of the lead researchers, Gilad Cinamon, is quoted by The Times of Israel as saying that it probably  “decorated the living room of a self-sustained urban villa owned by a very wealthy family.” This artwork was made by expert craft persons and is similar to other finds in the Galilee area, which shows that this region had a strong tradition of mosaics.

Part of a Byzantine-era mosaic unearthed in 2007 in the Christian town in Galilee. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Part of a Byzantine-era mosaic unearthed in 2007 in the Christian town in Galilee. ( Israel Antiquities Authority )

A Remarkable Mosaic

The researcher wrote that the mosaics’ ‘motifs are eclectic, pointing to a continuity of classical traditions, on the one hand, and turning away from them, on the other.’ It appears that it is similar to later mosaics that date to the period after the Muslim conquests . The team believes that this demonstrates that local Byzantine traditions continued to flourish long after the area was annexed by the Rashidun Caliphate.

Another of the interesting finds at the site was an exceedingly rare bronze weight. This was used to measure goods, especially agricultural produce. It is also believed that much of the pottery found was used to store foodstuffs, possibly for sale in markets. A number of Roman and Arab Byzantine coins were also unearthed. The picture that is emerging is one of a prosperous Christian town in Galilee.

The bronze weight is exceedingly rare. (G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer)

The bronze weight is exceedingly rare. ( G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer )

Destroyed in a Byzantine-Persian War

The experts believe that this settlement was most likely destroyed during the Persian invasions of the early 7th century AD. Between 602 and 628 AD, the Byzantine and the Sassanian Persian Empire fought a brutal war. At one stage, the Sassanians captured this area with the help of Jewish soldiers. The Jewish people had been persecuted by the Byzantines and they traditionally had good relations with the Persians.

CBN News reports that there were ‘about 140 Christian settlements in the region during this time and many in Galilee were destroyed in the Persian invasion’. However, the Sassanians were driven back by the Emperor Heraclius and the Byzantines reoccupied the area. They were soon expelled once again by the Arabs, after the Battle of Yarmouk (636 AD).

The mosaic has been moved to a local museum near Nazareth, where it is on public display. Experts are still studying the finds from the site. In particular, they are trying to decipher the mysterious Greek inscriptions on the mosaic.

Top image: This lintel engraved with a cross was found during excavations at a Christian town in Galilee. Source: G. Cinamon & Y. Lerer

By Ed Whelan

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