A church dating to the sixth and seventh centuries CE with an impressive mosaic floor has been discovered in the Judean Lowlands.
Tunnels were uncovered under the church, located in Adullam Park, containing coins, stone tools, lamps and clay vessels from the first and second century CE. Based on the finds, Israel Antiquities Authority excavators believe the tunnels were used by residents of the large Jewish community that existed at the site during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE ).
The finds were unearthed in a salvage dig at ruins known as Horvat Midras, after an antiquities robbery at the site.
There has been no previous excavation at the site due to lack of funding, although in the 1980s archaeologists had identified a large decorated lintel protruding from the ground.
Over the past two months, intense excavations have been underway at a cost of over NIS 500,000, funded by the Israel Antiquities Authority and headed by archaeologists Amir Ganor and Alon Klein, from the antiquities authority's anti-theft unit.
Four meters of soil have so far been removed from the church ruins, which are 20 meters long and 16 meters wide.
Scholars believe the church was built at the end of the fifth century and abandoned following the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. In the eighth century it was destroyed by an earthquake, evidence of which can still be seen in the way the structure's walls and columns all fell in one direction.
Most of the church floor was covered with a complex mosaic, much of which has been well preserved, whose stones measure between seven and eight millimeters. "This is one of the most beautiful mosaics discovered in Israel in recent years, " Ganor says.
The designs include geometric patterns, plants and animals, including a spotted leopard, a fox, a bear, a peacock, a lion devouring an ibex, a bull and fish.
At its last stage, the church was constructed as a basilica, with a large entrance hall paved with stone slabs that led inward to the main hall, in which stood eight marble columns with ornate capitals imported from Asia Minor.
An empty underground tomb was also discovered at the site, which some scholars, among them archaeologists Dr. Uzi Dahari and Prof. Yoram Tzafrir, believe was venerated in the Byzantine period as the tomb of Zechariah the prophet, based on an inscription on the Madaba Map. The latter was a map of the Holy Land that was part of the mosaic floor of a sixth-century church in Jordan. It contains many names of sites and has been proven accurate in many cases.
"On the map a monument appears in this area marked as the tomb of Zechariah the prophet. A church appears on the map next to a horseshoe-shaped structure. When we came to the site we saw that the ancient tomb under the church had a horseshoe shape," Ganor said.
However, he also says this was one of many theories now under study.
If the tomb is that of Zechariah, according to Ganor, it could explain the grand exterior of the church, featuring carved crosses and other designs, which was unusual among Byzantine churches elsewhere in the country. However, the outer grandeur could also have resulted from competition between the archbishop of the city at nearby Beit Guvrin, and the archbishop of Jerusalem.
Horvat Midras was known to have been an important Jewish town Jewish town during Second Temple times and until the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, signs of which were found under the Byzantine church.
Ganor says one of the dig's big surprises was that the church was built atop an earlier building from the Roman period, beneath which were underground tunnels, typical of the first and second centuries CE. "At the moment we think that in its first phase, the building was a large public building from the Roman period. This may have been a community building or some sort of worship structure," he says.
In the coming weeks the mosaic floor will be covered for protection. The antiquities authority will then begin preparing a conservation plan for the site, so it will eventually be able to be opened to visitors.