A pool at Ein Hanya nature park in the Judean Hills, near Jerusalem. Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

First Temple-era, Early Christian Ruins Featured in New Archaeological Park Near Jerusalem

Ein Hanya treasures include earliest coin found in Israel, Iron Age Proto-Ionic pillar fragment and a nymphaeon, but local Palestinians may find it hard to access

Ruins spanning from the eighth century B.C.E. to the early Byzantine period 1,500 years ago are on display at the new archaeological and nature park dedicated Wednesday at Ein Hanya, in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem.

The site features a newly discovered pool, part of a whole pool system possibly used by early Christians for baptism, as well as partial restorations.

Another feature is a home that apparently belonged to Jews even after the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 B.C.E. during the siege of Jerusalem.

But the most significant find from remote antiquity is a rare silver coin, one of the most ancient so far discovered in the Jerusalem area – a drachma, minted in Ashdod by Greek rulers between 420 and 390 B.C.E.

Located in the Valley of Rephaim, the park is among the most beautiful in the Jerusalem area, says Dr. Yuval Baruch, the head Jerusalem District archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Technically, the Iron Age is loosely defined as spanning from the 12th or 11th century B.C.E. to the sixth century B.C.E. The First Temple period is loosely defined as starting in the eighth century B.C.E.

Watered by a natural spring, Ein Hanya has been occupied for thousands of years – from the First Temple period through to the seventh century, the late Byzantine era, Baruch tells Haaretz.

Symbol of Iron Age Judean kings

One of the most profound finds at Ein Hanya is a fragment from a Proto-Ionic capital, an artistic pillar capping typical of royal structures and estates in the First Temple period.

There are three classic capital types: Ionic, a Phoenician prototype; Dorian; and Corinthian. But there is another: the Proto-Ionic, Baruch explains.

Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“We find the Proto-Ionic kind at several sites throughout Israel, like Megiddo, Jerusalem, Samaria – dating to the ninth and eighth century B.C.E. Proto-Ionic capitals are always found in the context of palaces or estates belonging to kings,” Baruch says.

Asked how we know this, he explains that the capitals are found only in the architectural context of royal-type palaces and estates, not humdrum rural estates.

“In Israel, they have been found exclusively in places where kings ruled – Megiddo, Hazor, which were major cities in the Kingdom of Israel, Jerusalem’s City of David, Ramat Rahel by Jerusalem,” where a palace from the time of the last kings of Judah was found, Baruch says. “Therefore, the accepted thesis – and I believe it – is that the Proto-Ionic capital is one of the symbols of the dynasties.”

He points out that the Proto-Ionic type has been found at sites associated with ancient royalty in Syria and Jordan – the lands of Moab, Ammon and Phoenicia. “That was the artistic style of the time,” Baruch says, rounding up the dating argument. “Also, we found it at three sites along a whole stretch of the stream from the spring. It seems that the whole stream and its lands were part of a Judean king’s estate.”

The Proto-Ionic capital is, in fact, so important to Jewish heritage that it appears on the modern State of Israel’s 5-shekel coin, Baruch adds.

Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Royal estate of Judean kings and early Christians

The site at Ein Hanya may well have been a royal estate during the First Temple period, archaeologists believe.

The coins, pottery, glass, roof tiles and multicolored mosaic tesserae unearthed in the excavation from the Byzantine period, roughly the fourth to sixth centuries, attest to the village reaching its zenith at about that time, Baruch says.

Ein Hanya’s magnetism for Christians has been known for some 80 years. In the 1930s, an archaeologist affiliated with British Mandatory Palestine found a Byzantine church there with mosaics, Baruch says. Apparently, though, the archaeologist or someone else covered it up with earth and we don’t know where it is today, though it had been a respectably large building, some 200 square meters (2,150 square feet) in area. “It was documented in the scientific literature. I have a theory where it is, but we haven’t found it yet. We will in the future,” he vows.

“During the Byzantine period, apparently there was a settlement based on a monastery consisting of perhaps a few dozen people,” Baruch adds, but begs to dispel any illusion of rural simplicity: This was a royal estate, on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza. Today, part of the park is owned by the Armenian Church.

Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Some early Christian commentators identified Ein Hanya as the site where the Ethiopian was baptized, as described in Acts 8:26-40, Baruch says. The baptism of the eunuch by Philip was a key event in the spread of Christianity, and scholars have been trying to locate the place where it occurred for generations. It also became a common motif in Christian art. These days, religious rites are held at the site by both the Armenian Church and Ethiopian Church, he notes.

Anyway, throughout the ages Ein Hanya housed royal estates and at most a small village, archaeologists think.

Baptismal font, or maybe laundry

The archaeological excavations, conservation and development have taken four years. An exciting find in 2017 was an unknown pool located higher than a known pool. Though dried out, it too had presumably been fed by the spring. To refill the pool system, the antiquities authority says it drilled down, ran a pipe to the existing spring and allowed water to flow through the ancient water channels.

The upper pool led to a magnificent nymphaeon – a Byzantine-era fountain, the first of its type ever found in Israel, says Irina Zilberbod, the excavation director for the authority. From there, the water flows into the previously known lower pool. “It’s difficult to know what the pool was used for – whether for irrigation, washing, landscaping or perhaps as part of baptismal ceremonies at the site,” speculates Zilberbod.

אסף פרץ, רשות העתי

The pool had been the deepest of any fed by springs in the Judean Hills, but the restored version is only 70 centimeters (27 inches) deep. The authorities preferred to reduce its level, so it could allow people to visit without needing to keep a lifeguard on the payroll.

Restoration work was carried out to reconstruct the traditional agriculture in the area, including rebuilding terraces on the hillsides. Two ancient structures will also be restored in the future and serve as the entrance to the park and a restaurant or café. A bridge over the Rephaim stream is also planned.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, who also holds the Jerusalem portfolio, both participated in the Tu Bishvat tree planting ceremony that officially inaugurated the new park on Wednesday.

Impeding access for Palestinians

The park is also a very popular site for hikers and families from the nearby Palestinian village of al-Walaja, and local farmers take their sheep and goats for water at the spring. However, about 18 months to two years ago, the site was fenced off (like all national parks are, Baruch says). A water trough was set up outside the park for Palestinian shepherds, but the spring itself is unlikely to continue to serve Palestinian farmers.

אסף פרץ, רשות העתי

Despite promises from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that Palestinians will still be able to use the site, access will likely become challenging.

Another new hurdle facing Palestinians reaching the site is a plan to move the Ein Yael checkpoint at the southern entrance to Jerusalem. This will make it much easier for hikers and other visitors from Jerusalem to reach the park, but harder for Palestinian families to drive there.

Last week, Haaretz reported that local Palestinian farmers received warnings after they placed scarecrows and rain shelters above the spring.

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