A gardener weeding a lot in northern Israel has found a bronze ring from the Middle Ages bearing the image of St. Nicholas, the bishop of ancient Myra, Turkey, and the inspiration behind the tradition of Santa Claus. Nothing quite like it has been found in Israel before.
In one of those bizarre coincidences, the finder, Dekel Ben Shitrit, 26, was born on Christmas Day. His girlfriend’s name is Nicole, he adds.
The ring was not discovered in situ, which means its provenance has to remain a mystery. Ben Shitrit simply noticed the thing among the weeds last Thursday in Moshav Hayogev, a farming community in the Jezreel Valley.
Naturally, he did what anybody would do after making a rare archaeological discovery: he uploaded a picture of it to Facebook.
Ben Shitrit actually lives in nearby Kibbutz Hazorea, where his neighbor is Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef, who heads the northern heritage department in the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Noticing the post and realizing the significance of the discovery, Ben-Yosef inveighed on Ben Shitrit to contact the Israel Antiquities Authority, which notes his good citizenship for complying.
The ring was examined by the IAA’s Dr. Yana Tchekhanovets, an expert on Byzantine-era archaeology. The superbly preserved artifact bears the image of a bald man bearing a stick, whom Tchekhanovets believes represents St. Nicholas holding a bishop’s staff.
It could date to any time between the 12th and 15th centuries, which were times of upheaval in the Holy Land. The Christian empire reconquered Jerusalem from the Islamic forces that had ruled the city for 450 years in 1099 – but surrendered it in the year 1187, never to regain it.
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In other words, this ring of St. Nicholas – assuming that’s who really is shown – could date from an era of Islamic control over the Holy Land.
Dr. Yotam Tepper, an expert on the ancient Roman road system in Israel, points out that even after the last Crusader knights had departed, Christian communities continued to exist and Christian pilgrims continued to visit Jerusalem and the Galilee.
Nicholas was the patron saint of wayfarers, including pilgrims and sailors in the eastern Christian world, Tchekhanovets explains. Christian pilgrims coming from all over the Byzantine Empire – including Turkey, the Balkans, Greece and Russia – would often wear icons of Nicholas to hopefully ward off trouble, she says: This ring could well have belonged to a pilgrim.
Nicholas was chiefly famed for miracles, which also won him the soubriquet of Nikolaos the Wonderworker (thaumaturgós), and he was also the patron saint of pawnbrokers. But his popularity in modern times is chiefly because of his legendary habit of secretly giving gifts – which morphed into the tradition of Santa Claus rewarding children for their good behavior with presents on Christmas.
Moshav Hayogev is just east of Megiddo (known in Christian lore as Armageddon) and is very near Legio, which has sites from the ancient Roman and later Byzantine periods. In fact, Legio is where archaeologists recently unearthed a monumental gate and dedicatory inscription in Latin from the Roman army encampment there in the second and third centuries. They also found the cremated remains of a Roman legionnaire in a clay cooking pot.
“We know that the main road from Legio toward Mount Tabor passed by Moshav Hayogev,” says Tepper. “It seems the road also served Christian pilgrims heading for holy sites on Mount Tabor, and in Nazareth and around Lake Kinneret.”
The ring was collected from Ben Shitrit by the IAA’s Nir Distelfeld, who thanked the young man for handing it over rather than sticking it on the mantelpiece or on girlfriend Nicole’s finger.