Earliest Convent in Israel Found at Grave Site of Samuel's Mother Hannah

Monasteries abound in ancient Israel, but the 1,600-year-old nunnery and women's graveyard built where the miraculously impregnated Hannah, mother of Samuel, is believed to lie are unique

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Horvat Hani: Remains of an early Byzantine church and the first nunnery ever found in Israel
Horvat Hani: Remains of an early Byzantine church and the first nunnery ever found in IsraelCredit: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

At the top of a silent, pathless crest in central Israel lies Horvat Hani, where archaeologists have identified the ruins of the first convent ever discovered in ancient Israel, and a burial ground exclusively for women and girls. That cemetery would remain in use for over a thousand years, plied by both Christian and Muslim women in the region.

Horvat Hani: Remains of an early Byzantine church and the first nunnery ever found in IsraelCredit: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The ruins at Horvat Hani may go back as much as 1,700 years, to the days of early Christianity in the Holy Land. The nunnery and cemetery were built on what the faithful believed to be the grave of Hannah, who the bible says became mother of Samuel by divine intervention.

Horvat Hani’s old Arabic name is Khirbat Burj el-Haniyah (the “ruin of the tower of Haniyah”): Haniyah might well be a corruption of the name of the biblical figure of Hannah, the originally barren wife of Elkanah.

Very nearby Horvat Hani is a Palestinian village called Rantis, or Rentis. That name is intriguinely akin to "Remphis," the name early Christian Church fathers called the biblical village of Ramathaim Zophim, where Hannah and Elkanah lived:

Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim Zophim, of the mountains of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives: the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. (Samuel 1:1)

None of this proves that Horvat Hani is the site of Hannah's last rest, but it is powerfully indicative.

Anna presenting her son Samuel to the priest EliCredit: Gerbrand van den Eeckhout / Louv

Biblical soap

Hannah’s husband Elkanah loved her deeply, the Bible says. But Hannah seemed unable to have children and in those days, when life was short, procreating was the order of the day. So Elkanah had a spare wife, the baby-making Penninah. The sudsiest soap opera has nothing on this biblical story and especially later rabbinical embellishments, highlighting Peninnah’s cruel taunting of her sister-wife.

Finally, the sages say, after 19 years, Hannah's entreaties were answered at the ancient tribal center of Shiloh (1 Sam. 1: 13–15). She conceived and gave birth to Samuel.

Her unexpected fecundity made Hannah a symbol of the Jewish New Year, not only in terms of rebirth and new beginnings, but of the power of prayer, especially on Rosh Hashanah, when Jewish tradition says prayers from the heart are bound to fall on an attentive divine ear.

Christians apparently venerated this biblical Hebrew woman who quickened by miraculous means to the extent that they built a convent on her putative grave, and the cemetery.

While no sign of later Muslim construction has been found at the site, graves have been found of women and girls from the Mamluk to the early Ottoman period. Absent other indications, the archaeologists assume that the women buried there during this time were Muslim, mainly because the Christians were, at that time, gone.

The Byzantines rediscover Hannah

Horvat Hani was first discovered in the 19th century by British explorers Claude Reignier Conder and Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Over the ensuing decades, the site was surveyed but it would only be excavated under the wing of the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2002, in a dig led by Uzi Dahari and Yehiel Zellinger, after it was threatened by road-building.

Diagram of Horvat Hani based on the archaeological findsCredit: Courtesy of Uzi Dahari

The archaeologists say the earliest structure on the site was an arcosolium cave, or arched-ceiling tomb, which they dated by its style to the third century C.E.

Though we cannot know who was buried there, Dahari and Zellinger think a local tradition may have associated the arcosolium with the biblical Hannah, they write. That association would have attracted pilgrims, particularly women, and possibly women hoping for pregnancy, to the Byzantine church and convent built above the tomb.

The church built there in the late fourth or early fifth century became the main building at the site. During its construction, another entrance was added to the Hannah's putative tomb and a rolling stone to close it. Which was the norm. The whole family would, over time, be laid to rest in the tomb, which would have to be reopened each time somebody died. Indeed, several female skeletons were found in the tomb.

The church would remain in use for around 400 years; its apse is still clearly visible among the ruins. It featured three monastic cells, a two-story tower, and a toilet that drained into the wadi north of the complex.

A second building, across a courtyard with a storage cave and three cisterns, contained a kitchen, pilgrims’ hostel and dining room. Two olive presses, a winepress and ample evidence of nearby cultivated terraces round out the picture of working convent and a pilgrimage magnet in the Byzantine period.

>>Read here: Archaeologists find tomb of unknown saint in Israel

Plenty of monasteries have been excavated in Israel over the years. Though the existence and lifestyle of convents here are confirmed in ancient references, the one at Horvat Hani was the first convent to be found.

Actually, how do we know Horvat Hani was a convent?

Diagram of Horvat HaniCredit: Courtesy of Uzi Dahari

Between the architecture, the bone finds and one of the mosaic inscriptions found here, the archaeologists feel they're on pretty solid ground. The vaulted, two-story tower, built in the fifth century, could be locked from the inside to protect particularly vulnerable inhabitants (whose number the experts put at around 30). So could the monastic seclusion cells, which are a common feature of monasteries, but have never before been found with inside locks.

A second feature indicating the women-only nature of the site are the bones: The skeletal remains of at least 11 females were found, four in the tomb under the church, and seven alongside the ruins.

Human bone expert Yossi Nagar of the Israel Antiquities Authority says that male bones are generally better preserved than those of females or children, and so more male remains at any burial site are the norm.

But at Horvat Hani, only infants, girls and adult females were found, underscoring the theory that the site was a convent, as well as a special attraction for burial of women.

Even after the nunnery was abandoned in the ninth century, infants and girls some found with their glass jewelry and beads, continued to be buried here as late as the 1500s.

The third piece of evidence, contained in one of the three inscriptions found in the church compound. The wording of inscription in question, which in the upper pavement of the church, shows that a woman had been in charge.

The inscription was laid carelessly during the final, eighth-century phase of the main building, atop part of a sixth-century mosaic of human and animal figures that had been defaced by both Christian and Muslim iconoclasts. In black letters on a pink background are the crudely executed words “Remember, o Lord, Anasia,” with a word following that could be read either “the abbess” or “the most pious.”

Inscriptions mentioning women, presumably donors, have been found in churches before, but this one is different, because the role of Anasia (an unknown name, possibly a misspelling of “Anastasia”) is specifically stated.

Diagram of Horvat HaniCredit: Courtesy of Uzi Dahari

Ironically, the poor execution of the inscription is an indication that Anasia was in charge of the convent, or at least of the church repairs. Inscriptions expert Leah di Segni concluded that no ordinary benefactor would be honored so carelessly.

The many Hannahs

Among the Hannahs of interest to interfaith history, only Samuel’s mother is associated with this geographical region.

Later Muslim tradition adhered to the belief that the site is associated with the biblical Hannah. The site's name in Arabic is Khirbat Burj el-Haniyah – the “ruin of the tower of Haniyah.” That name Haniyah, according to excavators Dahari and Zellinger is a remnant of the Hebrew name Hannah.

Also, take the name of the nearby village, Rentis. The early church father Eusebius placed Hannah’s home town, Ramathaim-Zophim (1 Sam. 1) in the region of Lod (nine kilometers from Horvat Hani) and called it “Remphis,” explains archaeologist Eitan Klein. Somewhat later, the Slovenian theologian Jerome, who lived in the fourth century C.E. (347-420 C.E.) and wrote in Latin, called it “Remfthis.”

Considering Horvat Hani’s location only a kilometer from the ancient road connecting Lod to Rentis, and that the Byzantines were in the business of building sacred spots and associating them with an Old Testament characters, it’s no great leap to identify this spot as strategically located for a prayerful interlude in sight of Ramathaim-Zophim.

Could the "Haniyah” in the old Arabic name have harked back to a different Hannah? Besides the biblical Hannah, Samuel's mother, there are two Hannahs in the New Testament, where they appear as "Anna." One is the grandmother of Jesus (mother of Mary) and the other is Anna the prophetess who lived in the Temple.

Theoretically the Hannah of the site could be one of those, but sites associated with the mother of Mary are all in the Galilee, while this is in central Israel. Also, Anna of the Temple never left the Temple Mount in Jerusalem her whole life long. Hence the conclusion that if the site is named for a Hannah, it's Samuel's mother.

The long-suffering, supplicating Old Testament Hannah was among the many biblical characters who served as role models for early Christians. Mary's praise poem, the Magnificat (Luke 1:25–35), which she uttered in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant, reflects Hannah’s thanksgiving.

As for the Islamic connection, while Hannah is not mentioned in the Koran, Samuel appears anonymously there as the prophet who anointed Saul (Sura 2:246). This might explain the attraction of a grave associated with the prophet’s mother for Muslim women and girls in medieval times.

Finding Horvat Hani is not for the weak of chassis – the road has been chewed up by quarry vehicles and the site is not signposted. But on Rosh Hashana, it may feel well worth the slog to spend a moment in memory of Hannah, whose story – as rabbis decided centuries ago - is the Haftara reading for Rosh Hashanah.

According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a), Hannah conceived on Rosh Hashnnah, and so did the matriarchs. In biblical terms, God “remembered” Hannah (1 Sam. 1:19) as we would like God to “remember” us, that is, answer our prayers, on the New Year, also known as “the day of remembrance.”

Horvat Hani: Remains of an early Byzantine church and the first nunnery ever found in IsraelCredit: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh
Horvat Hani: Tradition has it that this is where Hannah, Shmuel's mother, liesCredit: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh



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