Christian Town Destroyed by Persians 1,400 Years Ago Found in Northern Israel

Great house with Christian symbols in the Byzantine town of Pi Metzuba also had a mosaic with pagan motifs, including animals and a goddess

Ariel David
Ariel David
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A face peeks through the acanthus decoration in the Pi Metzuba mosaic
A face peeks through the acanthus decoration in the Pi Metzuba mosaicCredit: Danny Syon on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Ariel David
Ariel David

The remains of what was once a prosperous Christian town that was destroyed by Persian forces about 1,400 years ago have been uncovered in northern Israel, archaeologists say.

The Byzantine rural settlement of Pi Metzuba in the Western Galilee seems to have met its end in the early seventh century when Persia invaded the region as part of its broader conflict with the Byzantine Empire.

The highlight of the excavation was the discovery of a building marked with Christian symbols – that housed a high-quality mosaic decorated with floral, animal and human figures inspired by pagan iconography.

This and other treasures were unearthed in a salvage dig after the ruins of the Byzantine town were discovered during works to widen the road connecting the town of Shlomi and Kibbutz Hanita, just south of Israel’s border with Lebanon, researchers reported last week in Atiqot, a journal published by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

While the excavation was conducted in 2007, it took several years for experts to study and publish the finds from the Byzantine town, says Gilad Cinamon, the IAA archaeologist who headed the dig.

A rabbit (left) and a boar depicted among acanthus leaves in the border of the Pi Metzuba mosaic
A rabbit (left) and a boar depicted among acanthus leaves in the border of the Pi Metzuba mosaicCredit: Howard Smithline on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The site does appear in past archaeological surveys but hadn’t been thoroughly excavated before. It is not known from Byzantine sources but researchers believe it is the town of Pi Metzuba, which is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, the compendium of Jewish religious law compiled in the fourth-fifth century in the Galilee.

The name Metzuba or Metzub was preserved in Crusader, Mameluk and Ottoman settlements in the area, and is today carried on by the nearby Kibbutz Metzuba, Cinamon notes.

Crosses on the doors

The Talmud lists Pi Metzuba among a group of Western Galilee towns that are not considered part of the land of Israel but whose Jewish residents must still keep all the commandments prescribed for inhabitants of the holy land. However, what archaeologists uncovered there were the remains of a markedly Christian settlement from the late Byzantine period, with crosses adorning door lintels, pottery and other everyday use objects.

“While for now we have no documents from Christian sources about this settlement, all the evidence points to an almost entirely Christian population,” Cinamon tells Haaretz.

The central figure in the mosaic at Pi Metzuba, a wreathed woman holding a cornucopia - possibly based on the goddess Tyche
The central figure in the mosaic at Pi Metzuba, a wreathed woman holding a cornucopia - possibly based on the goddess TycheCredit: Howard Smithline on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Pi Metzuba was relatively large for a rural village, sprawling over at least 50 dunams (5 hectares or 12 acres), he says.

Only a small part of the site has been excavated so far. Most of the buildings uncovered were small, modest houses connected by tight alleys, with the exception of one large, well-built structure in the middle of the town. It was within that building that the archaeologists recovered the large mosaic, as well as a bronze cross, which may have been part of a chandelier, and a door lintel decorated with a cross.

Byzantine cross found at Pi Metzuba
Byzantine cross found at Pi MetzubaCredit: Howard Smithline on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority

These finds, along with the scale of the building, initially led the archaeologists to think they were excavating part of a monastery or a church, Cinamon says. Apparently not, though.

“It is now well understood that the mosaic decorated the living room of a self-sustained urban villa owned by a very wealthy family,” he concludes. “And this is quite a rare find for this area in the Byzantine period.” The mosaic, measuring around five by five meters (16 by 16 feet), is only partially preserved and was studied by Rina Talgam, an art history professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The motifs in the mosaic suggest the space was used for entertaining the guests of this affluent family, Talgam reports in Atiqot. Within a border of acanthus leaves, various images of country life are depicted: a rabbit eating grapes, a boar, pecking birds and a hunting scene, among others. In the center of the mosaic is a wreathed woman holding a cornucopia, pomegranates and yellow fruits.

There are a few Greek letters surrounding the central image but the inscription is fragmentary and cannot be deciphered. Still, this figure can be interpreted as a personification of agricultural abundance and fertility, and could well be a representation of Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune, Cinamon says.

A weight, decorated with a cross, found underneath the mosaic’s bedding
A weight, decorated with a cross, found underneath the mosaic’s beddingCredit: Danny Syon on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Tyche functioned as a tutelary deity for towns and cities in the Greco-Roman world. Like many elements of pagan culture, she was absorbed into Christian iconography not as a goddess per se but as a personification of cities and remained a popular motif in the Byzantine period.

The enemy arrives

We don’t know who lived in the lavish villa of Pi Metzuba, but the owners likely did not enjoy their mosaic for long.

Under the tesserae, archaeologists found a rare, silver-plated weight that was used until the end of the sixth century, as well a coin from the beginning of the seventh century, meaning the stunning floor-piece must have been laid around the year 600. But just over a decade after that, the entire region was engulfed in a conflict that likely led to the destruction of Pi Metzuba. The Byzantine Empire and Sassanian Persia fought a long and bloody war from 602 to 628, during which the Persians invaded and occupied the Galilee and the rest of the Holy Land starting in 613.

Eventually, the Byzantines defeated their foes and regained their lost territories in the Levant, but the war exhausted the two empires and left them vulnerable to the rising Islamic Caliphate in Arabia, which launched its invasion of the Levant just a few years later, in the 630s.

While we cannot be sure what caused the destruction and abandonment of Pi Metzuba, the site was only sparsely inhabited after the Persian occupation and in the early Islamic period, making it likely that the settlement had been badly damaged in the Byzantine-Persian war, Cinamon says. In the Galilee alone, out of roughly 140 Byzantine settlements, around 60 were destroyed during the Persian invasion, the archaeologist says.

Conversely, while archaeologists still debate how violent the subsequent Arab conquest of the Levant was, in the Galilee there is no evidence of widespread destruction at the hands of the Muslims.

“The Islamic conquest was not involved in any destruction, as they were well aware of the economic value of the agricultural hinterland in this area,” Cinamon says.

 partially preserved mosaic recovered at the villa in Pi Metzuba
Partially preserved mosaic recovered at the villa in Pi MetzubaCredit: Howard Smithline on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority

After being unearthed in 2007, the mosaic was removed from the ruins of the villa in Pi Metzuba and is now on display at a local archaeology museum at Kibbutz Ein Dor, near Nazareth. The ruins of the ancient Byzantine town underwent conservation work and were then covered back again, Cinamon says.

This is not unusual in Israel, a country where any construction project that breaks new ground must be preceded by a salvage excavation, which invariably tends to uncover some vestiges of the past. When authorities cannot – or do not wish to – alter development plans and muster the funds needed to preserve an ancient site, “backfilling” it is seen as the best way to protect the remains from looting, vandalism and erosion.

“The road was widened and the rest of the site is covered by an olive grove,” Cinamon says. “It is well-preserved underground and hopefully future generations will be able it to uncover it again, one day.”