Archaeologists said they found a major early Christian church, based on the discovery of extraordinary mosaics, crucifixes and iconic Christian architecture at a site in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh.
Based on the ceramic finds and coinage, the church was probably built in the 4th century C.E., and survived – even expanding, it seems, into a whole monastery complex – for about 300 years, through to the 7th century.
The discovery began with plans to expand Beit Shemesh, and as always when digging for new construction, archaeologists were called in to survey the site, which they do by digging test trenches. In August, they saw ancient stone walls. Last month the diggers, helped by hundreds of teenager volunteers, found the mosaic floors.
“Only when we reached the floor and the associated finds could we call it a church,” Benyamin Storchan, director of the site’s excavations for the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Haaretz.
The Beit Shemesh area had been known to be populated mostly by Christians from the time of Emperor Constantine (ruling from 306 C.E. to 337 C.E.) who legalized Christianity and made it the preferred religion in the empire. Samaritans and a few pockets of Jews lived in the north of Israel and the Hebron hills. Still, finding the church was a “pure surprise,” Storchan says.
Contemporaneous finds from that early Christian community in Beit Shemesh, unearthed in unrelated excavations, include a major wine-producing installation and an olive oil production facility, both a minute’s walk from the church, says Storchan. Going by the church’s splendor, he believes it was the central entity, and the industries were satellite sites.
Other Christian artifacts found at the site include crosses, though not featuring Jesus; his tormented body would be shown on crucifixes would come much later, apparently in the Middle Ages, according to Storchan. But the diggers, including teenaged volunteers, found crosses in the form of jewelry, and also on pillar bases and on business stones.
They also found parts of a chancel screen (a divider), a window post with crosses, and incense burners.
The church faced east, like every other church in the region with two exceptions, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Madaba Church in Jordan.
Fruit trees found nowhere else
Early Byzantine churches were of two basic types: community churches for the locals, and major churches. The uniqueness of certain mosaics indicate to the archaeologists that the Beit Shemesh one is was not just “another church”.
The Beit Shemesh floor art features birds, which are common in ancient Byzantine stone art. But the depiction of leaves and fruit trees is not more of the same, says Storchan, adding, “I have found no close parallel in any church uncovered in Israel, Jordan or Syria. It’s a style that is unique to this place.”
So what? Making mosaics was a trade back then, Storchan explains. “Often mosaic designers had preformed ideas. They didn’t make custom work all the time, because it cost a lot of money. They came with prefabricated forms from which the customer could choose, place an order for picture 14B,” he laughs. “Any variation on the design would have cost extra. And here we have original artistry.”
Moreover, at the least, the green stones in the mosaics would have had to be imported. There’s nothing like them in the area.
Another indicator of the church’s status is the sheer amount of marble found in it, which had all been imported from Turkey, says Storchan. The size of the church, some 40 by 70 meters (130 by 230 feet), and rich marble decoration are well beyond the level of communal level churches.
How could a church in the early days of Christianity in the Holy Land afford such riches? Pilgrims, that’s how.
“One thousand five hundred years ago, pilgrims came from the west. They were new to Christianity and wanted to touch the holy sites they read about,” says Storchan.
He admits however that they have no idea why the church would have been built there, as opposed to anywhere else in the Holy Land. It could be “loca santa” (a holy site) because an ancient martyr or saint was buried there; or a tale from the Old Testament of the New Testament. They haven’t found any inscriptions yet that could provide clues, but in general the ancients were as fond of plaques applauding their donations as philanthropists are today, Storchan points out.
Whatever the reason it was erected, in time, the church seems to have expanded. “It seems that we have two phases, a phase when church existed on its own and now we may be uncovering the monastic quarters,” Storchan says, which includes industrial and domestic quarters and a chapel.
The grandeur of the church was based on ancient Roman principles of aesthetics, and how to awe the little people.
The church and/or monastery would survive about 300 years. What happened to the structure is anybody’s guess, but Storchan offers an informed postulation.
Before Constantine, the early Christians had been second-class citizens at best and thrown to lions at worst. But after him, Christians had imperial status – and thus church evidently received imperial Roman funding, hence the purchases of costly marble from the imperial quarries, and unique mosaics. The problem would have begun when the onset of the early Islamic period in the Holy Land. The Muslim invaders did not kick everybody out, and might well have left the church to soldier on, as it were. But the region was severed from the Byzantine economic circle.
“It wasn’t necessarily conquest by the sword,” says Storchan. “We have no evidence for drastic abandonment. But the church collapsed and was converted into agriculture land in the early Islamic period. They didn’t repurpose the building. They wanted to grow trees.”