Megiddo prison, surrounded by prison guards on horseback supplemented by guard dogs, is not a place that many people would care to approach. But if a plan now in the final stages comes to fruition, it could become a tourist attraction drawing Israelis and tourists from around the world.
Behind the prison walls, the remains of the oldest Christian house of worship ever discovered were unearthed four years ago in the course of prison renovations. The plans that are coming together call for the relocation of the prison to a site a short distance away so that the archaeological site can be opened to the public.
Some prisoners, including both common criminals and security prisoners, were allowed to dig below the prison - jailbreak style - as part of the archaeological research. The ancient finds on the site have led to an agreement in principle involving the prison service, the Megiddo Regional Council and the Antiquities Authority for the relocation of the detention facility.
In 2005, work was undertaken to replace a tent encampment for prisoners with detention cells, and because the Megiddo area is known for its rich archaeological finds, the Antiquities Authority required a salvage dig be carried out.
At the edge of the site, a magnificent mosaic floor featuring important inscriptions, including a reference to Jesus, was found, along with the foundation of a building from the 3rd or 4th century C.E.
The finds were evidence that the site was used for Christian religious worship before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, and it is thought to contain the remains of the oldest church in the world.
Officials involved in the dig explained that the finds show a link between the Roman army that encamped there then and communal Christian activity. At the center of the site remains of an altar or prayer table were found.
The site is also identified with the Talmudic-era Jewish village of Kfar Otnai, mentioned in Hebrew sources. The headquarters of the sixth Roman legion was established there along with the town of Maximilianopolis, which is mentioned in historical sources.
According to Hanan Erez, head of the regional council, "the discovery of the finds created great excitement in the Christian world and among researchers of early Christianity. The discovery was even a main topic of a conference of researchers in Washington three years ago."
Shortly after the discovery at the site, the Antiquities Authority quickly recommended the relocation of the prison so the site could be opened to the public. An agreement to that effect is now being worked out.
Megiddo council head Erez said: "On the site, a tourism complex is to be built, the central focus of which will be the ancient house of worship, alongside, of course, the Tel Megiddo archaeological site, which is also a significant site for the Christian world."
He noted that the plans for the funding of the project have been presented to the Finance Ministry. The plan calls for the state to guarantee the financing package.
The construction of the new nearby prison is part of a larger plan to build new prison facilities around the country.