‘Masked’ Byzantine Weight Found in Hippos Indicates Ginger Relations Between Christians and First Caliphate

A cross on the bronze weight had been overlain with metal paste so Christians could use the weight under the Islamic regime, Michael Eisenberg and Haifa University archaeologists suggest

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Bronze Byzantine weight found in Hippos, with partially concealed cross
Bronze 7th-century Byzantine weight found in Hippos, with partially concealed crossCredit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A Byzantine weight with a largely concealed image of the True Cross, found in the ruins of a church in the Galilean city of Hippos, indicates that the new Muslim overlords of the Holy Land may have had more delicate relations with the Christian community in the seventh century than had been previously thought.

Discovered on the floor of the winery complex of a Byzantine church, the weight is about 4.3 by 4.5 centimeters (1.7 by 1.8 inches). Other decorations on the small, 170-gram (6-ounce) object had not been similarly concealed.

Illustration of the obverse of the 7th-century Byzantine weightCredit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

The weight with its secreted symbolism – an arch; below it two Corinthian capitals; and, between them, the cross erected on a semi-circular base – was discovered by Dr. Bradley Bowlin, wielding a metal detector.

“More or less by chance, we discovered a stain covering the cross on the obverse of the weight. At first we were convinced it was just dirt. But in fact the stain was made deliberately to conceal a cross – a Christian religious symbol used by the Christian population,” says Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, and head of the Hippos-Sussita Excavations. “This is the first time we have found a weight featuring this type of concealed element,” he adds.

Closeup of the Byzantine weight, showing the metal paste 'mask'Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

The cover-up was detected by Dr. Alexander Iermolin, head of the conservation lab at the University of Haifa’s archaeological institute. Its nature was analyzed by Prof. Sariel Shalev, an expert on metallurgy.

The young Islamic regime did not pull down the churches, judging by the absence of destruction signs. But the fact is that the elaborate Christian imagery – typical of Byzantine bread stamps, chancel screens and the like – engraved onto the brass weight and inlaid with silver and copper, was overlain with a paste containing tin and lead, say the archaeologists.

Why? Perhaps it passed to Muslim traders, though Eisenberg notes that as far as they know, the town remained Christian. Or, perhaps it was doctored by Christian administration itself, so the weight could continue to be used in contact with the new Islamic regime, he suggests.

‘Shameful characters’

Dr. MIchael Eisenberg, front, and Dr. Alexander Iermolin at HipposCredit: Zinman Institute of Archaeology

Hippos, also known as Sussita in Aramaic, has existed in some form for millennia, about 2 kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee (which is a freshwater lake). Fragments of pottery have been found from prehistoric eras, and evidence shows occupation throughout the Chalcolithic period (the Copper Age) and beyond. The city that the University of Haifa archaeologists have been excavating since 2000 was founded around 2,200 years ago.

The city’s occupancy reflected the times. Its original inhabitants would have been pagan. By the time of the Romans – who, as far as the Jews were concerned, were equally objectionable idolators – Hippos had become the dominant city in the area. It was part of the Decapolis, a region with 10 Roman cities along the empire’s eastern boundary. (Today, the area of the Decapolis is within Israel, Syria and Jordan.) Roman-era remains include a vast cultic sanctuary featuring a spectacular brass mask of Pan.

Dr. Michael Eisenberg holding up the bronze mask of Pan.Credit: Michael Eisenberg

Roman Hippos also had a community of Jews. Flavius Josephus (aka the former Jewish rebel once known as Yosef ben Matitiyahu) wrote regarding the Galilee and its people: “Of so great largeness, and encompassed with so many nations of foreigners, have been always able to make a strong resistance on all occasions of war; for the Galileans are inured to war from their infancy” (“Wars of the Jews,” Chapter 3).

In Chapter 10, Josephus colorfully describes the conclusion of the Roman campaign to quash the Jews, and describes the belligerents of Hippos as “seditious persons, and fugitives, who were of such shameful characters, that they preferred war before peace.”

Come the Byzantine period, the Christian community apparently became a power in the city: Hippos housed a bishopric as early as the fourth century. So far, the excavators have found the ruins of no fewer than seven confirmed churches (and possibly more), though they wouldn’t all have operated at the same time.

The archaeologists believe that at least some of the churches continued to function under the new regime. “The massive basalt crosses found in the excavations, which decorated the tops of the church gables, were also clearly not seen as problematic by the Muslim rulers,” the researchers write.

But the masked Christian imagery on the weight may reflect that relations were, after all, delicate.

Shameless characters

Following the Prophet Mohammed’s death in the year 632, a succession of Muslim caliphates would arise and rule the region from that year to the 14th century. The first caliph was Abu Bakr, father of Mohammed’s wife, Aisha. Abu Bakr would reign for two years and be succeeded by Umar, whose forces swept through Syria and Palestine; Tiberias would surrender in 635. Jerusalem fell three years later.

Hippos perches above the Sea of Galilee and was leveled by tremor in the year 749Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

To Hippos, perched on a hill across the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias, the preponderance of evidence indicates that the invading Islamic forces came relatively gently. In Hippos, no evidence of destruction that can be associated with the Early Islamic conquest of the region has been found, the archaeologists say.

The invaders did not bring new coinage and weights on their steeds; capturing the land, not the shops, was probably higher priority. They did start to mint coinage from their new capital of Tabariya, but continued to use incumbent artifacts.

In some cases, they left Christian symbols, including portraits of the Byzantine emperors, intact on objects. In other cases, such symbols were altered, removed or – as in the case of this weight – covered up. Thus, as local administration passed from Christian to Islamic authorities, the artifacts could still be used, the archaeologists surmise.

Pretty conclusive proof that the metal paste had been daubed on deliberately was found in the circular, slightly protruding silver inlay on the cross, which was partly covered by the mask.

Bits of this inlay are missing – but only in the area covered by that mask. Which is odd. One would have thought the silver would have survived better under the metal coating.

The archaeologists speculate that perhaps bits of the inlay were removed when the metal mask was added, so mass would be preserved and the weight would still be usable to reliably measure 6 ounces.

“The melting temperature of the paste was around one-third the melting temperature of the other components of the weight. Since people during this period had a strong mastery of craftsmanship, it was clear that the stain had been made deliberately [of tin and lead]. Moreover, small sections of the silver cross had been chiseled out in order to ensure that the weight of the object remained unchanged. In short – there was no chance that the stain was coincidental,” Shalev concluded.

After all those hundreds and thousands of years of existence and coexistence, however delicate at times, Hippos ceased to exist in the year 749, when a major quake struck the land – which sits atop the giant fault line known as Dead Sea Rift. That is when the church is believed to have collapsed. Other cities were rebuilt. Hippos never was. Maybe there's good reason for that, given the latest swarms of quakes, albeit small ones, around the Sea of Galilee in recent weeks.

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