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1,500-year-old monastery uncovered in Negev Desert

Remains of 1,500-year-old monastery with spectacular mosaics uncovered in Negev Desert

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Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a 6th century monastery near the Bedouin village of Hura in the northern Negev Desert.  Amazingly, the Byzantine complex still contained almost completely intact mosaics covering the floor.

The monastery measures 20 by 35 metres and is arranged on an east-west axis, a common feature in Byzantine churches. Inside, they found the remnants of a prayer hall and dining room decorated with elaborate mosaics and four service rooms paved with white mosaic tiles. They also uncovered ceramic jars, cooking pots, kraters, bowls, glass vessels and coins strewn about the ruins.

The mosaics in the prayer hall and dining room have retained their vibrant colours and are made up of geometric patterns, leaves, flowers, baskets, jars, and birds. They include inscriptions in Greek and Syriac which provide the names of the monastery's abbots — Eliyahu, Nonus, Solomon and Ilrion — and the dates on which each floor was laid down during the second half of the sixth century AD.

Mosaic at Monastery - Negev Desert

An impeccably preserved mosaic found in the ancient monastery. Credit: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

However, hidden behind the Israel Antiquities Authority’s proud announcement of this discovery is a dark cloud.  The monastery was uncovered during the construction of a new interchange on the road to Hura, a village established in 1989 as part of Israeli plans to relocate and settle the semi-nomadic Bedouin.

For thousands of years, the Arab Bedouin lived as nomads in the desert rearing livestock. However, in 1858, the Ottoman Empire categorised much of the land the Bedouin inhabited as state land, a policy continued by the state of Israel, following its creation in 1948. The laws effectively rendered the Bedouins as “trespassers on State Land” and their settlements were classified as “unrecognised villages”. Without formal planning status, the villages are not provided with government services including electricity, running water, sewage, education, and health care, thus providing the Bedouins with strong ‘motivation’ to give up their ancestral land and relocate to government authorised villages like Hura.  

Under the ‘Regularization of Bedouin Communities in the Negev plan’ (Prawer Plan), in discussion for the last few years, all ‘unrecognised villages’ would be destroyed and up to 70,000 Arab Bedouins would be forcibly removed from their historic land and relocated to specially-designed villages. Although the Prawer Plan was suspended in December, 2013, it is believed plans are continuing to advance the legislation.

It is against this context that numerous archaeological discoveries, such as the latest finding of the Byzantine Monastery, have been made in recent years. As roads are prepared and new villages constructed for the relocation of Bedouins, the history of the land emerges. Perhaps then, the discoveries may be termed ‘bitter sweet’ as the unearthing of this history is paired with the suppression of another.

Featured image: An aerial view of the monastery excavated near Hura. Credit: Skyview Company, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

By April Holloway

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Bedouins in the State of Israel - Knesset

The Prawer Plan – T’ruah

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