Rain Exposes 1,600-year-old Marble Column in Ashdod Dunes

The column may have come from the splendid early Byzantine basilica in Ashdod Yam, Israel - or another early Christian church in the town

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Ashdod municipal inspectors Itai Dabush and Sagiv Ben Gigi with their discovery.
Ashdod municipal inspectors Itai Dabush and Sagiv Ben Gigi with their discovery.Credit: Shira Lifshitz/IAA
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s been raining cats and dogs in Israel, leading to flash flood warnings and exposing a large ancient marble column in the dunes of Ashdod.

The column was noticed by Ashdod municipal inspectors Itai Dabush and Sagiv Ben Gigi during a recent routine patrol in the dunes. They called the find into the city municipal hotline, which then called the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Avi Levy, Ashkelon archaeologist with the IAA, suggests the column may have come from the splendid early Byzantine basilica discovered in Ashdod Yam in 2017.

That extraordinary edifice may be the reason why Ashdod Yam appears on the Madaba Map, a sixth-century mosaic of the Holy Land – in fact, the earliest known map of the Holy Land, Levy says. The map was part of an ornate church floor in Jordan.

The Madaba Map, itself discovered in 1884, shows for instance the church of the Theotokos in Jerusalem, which was dedicated in the year 542, but no buildings in the city postdating the year 570. Scholars therefore believe the mosaic was created before 570.

Aerial detail of the Byzantine basilica in Ashdod.Credit: Slava Pirsky and Sergey Alon

Among the many names on the Madaba Map, which is written in Greek, is Azotos Paralos – Ashdod Yam, the ruins of which are in the south part of modern Ashdod and about 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) from Tel Ashdod. (Ashdod and Ashdod Yam were adjacent but considered separate entities.)

The column was discovered just a few hundred meters from the ruins of the church, which is why the IAA cautiously associates it with that structure, Levy explains. But because it is by itself, its archaeological context is not clear even after 1,600 years of sand were washed off by the rain.

However, Dr. Alexander Fantalkin of Tel Aviv University who has been excavating the magnificent basilica doesn't think the column is from it, but from another locally built church that had been quite close to where the column is now, or was before it was moved. It hasn't been excavated yet, he adds.

The pillar exposed by the rains at Ashdod dunes, southern Israel. Credit: Shira Lifshitz/IAA
Dedicatory inscription in Greek to Gaianos the priest and Severa the Deaconess, on the sixth-century Madaba Map.Credit: Sasha Flit

What could have moved a giant marble column hundreds of meters from its original site, if that did happen? In the course of about 1,600 years, anything, natural or unnatural. Possibly the vagaries of extreme weather, possibly robbers who gave up on moving it further, Levy says.

Ashdod Yam has been under excavation since 2013. The basilica, under exploration since mid-2017, may actually date to as early as the third century, making it one of the earliest Christian structures in the land. It is certainly one of the biggest and grandest in the Holy Land – and decidedly unusual, partly because of its female ministers, as Haaretz reported last November.

Another strange thing is that the basilica’s tombs seem to have been reused: researchers uncovered jumbled bones from dozens of people that had been dumped in and limed during the sixth century. The archaeologists also found the burial of a martyr in the central apse.

When exploration of the Ashdod Yam basilica began, the archaeologists assumed it was a small early church. As they dug they realized its dimensions and classic Byzantine structure, with three naves and attached chapels. It bears adding that Byzantine churches typically featured soaring spaces with the ceiling supported by grand columns.

HOLY WORK: The pillar being excavated from Ashdod dunes.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Sadly, the ancient house of worship cannot be revealed in all its glory because a modern house was built decades ago on part of the site. As for the second church that the column may have come from, nothing much can be said at this point.

Eli Escozido, director of the Antiquities Authority, applauded the vigilance of the inspectors and the director of the municipal hotline, Shlomit Katan, who called in the antiques experts.

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