Archaeologists digging in central Israel have uncovered the remains of a prosperous rural town from the early Islamic period. They unearthed luxurious homes decorated with mosaics and arches, plastered water cisterns, and once-bustling oil presses and glass workshops from about a thousand years ago.
All of which most people will never get to see, as the area has already been handed over to developers, and the ruins will soon be covered or destroyed by the construction of a new logistics center for the nearby city of Modi’in.
The decision by the Israel Antiquities Authority to allow development on the site has caused consternation among some archaeologists and residents in Modi’in, who say regulators are too quick to greenlight projects even when important ancient remains have been found. The IAA counters that it must strike a balance between protecting antiquities and the needs of Israel’s economy; in this specific case, it says the excavation it conducted at the site documented and preserved knowledge of the early Islamic settlement.
The remains, located on a hill known as Nebi Zechariah or Chorvat Zechariah, emerged in early 2018 during a salvage dig – an archaeological excavation that precedes all building projects in Israel that break new land.
“In a salvage excavation, you never know what you are going to get,” says Avraham Tendler, the IAA archaeologist who led the dig. “I was expecting to find Hellenistic, Roman or Byzantine remains, so this [early Islamic town] was quite a surprise.”
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Modi'in is a modern city built between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as a commuter town. It does not purport to be a reincarnation of the ancient town of Modiin, the precise location of which has been lost to time.
Nebi Zechariah, located northwest of the modern city, is surrounded by archaeological treasures, lining the ancient road connecting Jaffa to Jerusalem which ran by the site. Previous finds nearby include a Byzantine monastery, caves used by hermit monks from the same era, and an ornate burial from Roman times.
In this case, the archaeologists unearthed dozens of buildings in a well-planned town dated to the 9th-11th centuries, when the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates ruled the region.
The find is unexpected because the area around the modern-day city of Modi’in was thought to have been sparsely populated during the early Islamic period, Tendler explains. The dig, which extended over around 4,000 square meters, uncovered only a part of what must have been a fairly large settlement, he adds.
Even more interestingly, Nebi Zechariah may have been home to both Christian and Muslim communities. The archaeologists found crosses chiseled into the stones of the town’s olive presses and fragmentary Greek inscriptions, the written language commonly used by Christians in the region. In one of the homes they also found a clay pilgrimage token, a Christian souvenir that was probably brought back from Egypt, Tendler reports.
But the researchers also unearthed glass weights with Arabic inscriptions – which were used to weigh coins with great precision - and a partial Arabic inscription that may cite a koranic verse.
No signs of a church or mosque have been found, but there is enough evidence to suggest the town had a mixed religious identity.
The idea that Nebi Zechariah’s population may have been mainly Christian is consistent with what we know from the archaeological record and contemporary chroniclers, which tell us that, especially in the rural areas, Christian communities continued to exist well after the Islamic conquest of the Levant, Tendler says.
Missing signs of violence
There is a longstanding debate amongst scholars over how violent and destructive the early Islamic occupation of the Holy Land was, and how problematic the relations between the various communities were.
Finds like Nebi Zechariah point to a relatively peaceful transition after Muslim armies seized the region from the Byzantine Empire in the first half of the 7th century, says Uzi Dahari, an archaeologist and former deputy director of the IAA.
“When the Muslims arrived, power changed hands but not much else happened, except for a slow process of conversion to Islam by part of the population, especially Christian Arabs and some Jews as well,” says Dahari, who was not involved in the dig at Nebi Zechariah.
Whoever the locals were, they certainly achieved a modicum of prosperity, given that Tendler’s team also unearthed jewelry and large homes with mosaic floors and arched ceilings. The large number of warehouses and workshops that produced oil, glass, wine and other commodities suggests that Nebi Zechariah served as an important farming and industrial center for Jerusalem and nearby Ramle, which was the provincial capital during the Caliphate, Tendler concludes.
The town declined during the Crusades, and was briefly revived in the Mameluke period between the 13th and 14th centuries before being definitively abandoned.
The name Nebi Zechariah refers to the father of John the Baptist – who is mentioned in the Gospels and the Koran – rather than the biblical prophet of the same name. However, the name dates to the Mameluk period, after the town was abandoned, and was probably linked to a burial place attributed to this holy figure, so we don’t know how the inhabitants of the early Islamic period called the place, Tendler says.
A wide assortment of spaces
In the foreseeable future, any further study of the ancient town will be confined to the finds that the archaeologists were able to remove from the site during their hurried four-months excavation last year.
As of last week, a sign perched atop Nebi Zechariah announced the upcoming construction of the new industrial and logistics center, offering “a wide assortment of spaces for industry, storage and logistics.”
Modi’in takes its name from the ancient village traditionally believed to have been the place of origin of the Maccabees, who in the 2nd century B.C.E. led the revolt against the Greeks celebrated by Jews during Hanukkah.
“But after the Greeks and the Maccabees and the Romans, people still lived here, though not a lot of attention has been paid to them,” says Marion Stone, a local preservation activist. “A lot of evidence has been found, and a lot of remains have been destroyed.”
Given the many archaeological sites already found nearby, the area should never have been zoned for development, says Stone, who urged authorities to stop the destruction of the early Islamic town and make it accessible to visitors instead.
“This is a special site, it’s an amazing place, and to destroy something like that is just criminal,” Stone says.
The salvage dig, and the planned construction, only cover a small part of the much larger site, which will remain not only untouched by private development – but unexcavated, says Doron Ben Ami, the IAA’s chief archaeologist for Israel’s central district.
“Every excavation is a destructive act,” Ben Ami says. “The moment you dig, even if you don’t release the land for development, the remains themselves begin to suffer from erosion processes, so the less we dig, the more antiquities are preserved.”
As for the area that was investigated, it was well documented to preserve as much knowledge of it as possible, Ben Ami says.
Most of the remains will be covered and built over so that, theoretically, they might be unearthed again by future generations once the planned logistics center is no longer in use, he says. “This is the balance we have to find between preserving archaeological sites while being aware of the development needs of the country,” says Ben Ami. “The easiest thing to do would be to say categorically: ‘No, everything is important, don’t touch anything.’ It’s more complicated is to find a way to say yes, with certain limitations.”
But archaeologists interviewed by Haaretz say cases like Nebi Zechariah have less to do with a delicate balancing act between the needs of the past and the present, and more to do with the underlying problems of the system governing salvage excavations in Israel.
The Israel Antiquities Authority is underfunded and would never be able to conduct digs at the myriad of building projects across the country on its meager state budget, explains Dahari, the former IAA deputy chief.
These excavations, including the one at Nebi Zechariah, are instead funded by the developer, creating an instant conflict of interest for the archaeological authorities.
While the IAA theoretically has the right to prevent works from going ahead, its financial dependence on the developers means there is pressure on it to release the land as quickly as possible, Dahari says.
Almost nothing gets saved
One might think that the Israeli authorities would favor preserving Jewish sites over Christian or Muslim ones. But when it comes to salvage excavations, there seems to be little room to save sites linked to any particular group or time period, says Yonatan Mizrahi, an archaeologist and CEO of Emek Shaveh, an NGO that works to protect cultural heritage. In almost all cases, the same fate awaits anything from prehistoric remains to coveted ruins from the time of the First or Second Temple.
“From the beginning, it is well understood by all parties that, after the excavations, the land will be released for development regardless to what is found at the site,” Mizrahi says.
It takes a really unique find to stop the bulldozers in their tracks. This happened, for example, when road works led to the discovery of a spectacular Roman-era mosaic in Lod in 1996.
But these exceptions are few and far between, says Mizrahi. “The IAA has no policy regarding what to save and what not to save, how to protect unique sites that are found,” he says. “Development is destroying antiquities and we haven’t prioritized any places to save.”
Where the cultural identity of a discovery does come into play is in mobilizing public pressure that can sometimes push authorities and developers to adapt their plans to the finds or give up on construction altogether, he notes. This may yet be the case with the First Temple remains that were recently uncovered in a huge salvage dig in Beit Shemesh ahead of a road expansion and which are now at the center of a roaring debate between scholars, residents and conservationists.
But there is much less interest in saving sites from the early Islamic period like Nebi Zechariah. “In Beit Shemesh they found a layer from the 7th century B.C.E., from the First Temple period, so people are now saying ‘this is part of our history.’” Mizrahi notes. “In cases like Nebi Zechariah there is much less pressure: no one says ‘it’s part of our history’ – but it is very much part of our history as well.”