Unique Crusader-era Monastery Seal Found in Jerusalem

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Seal of Mar Sabas, dating from about 800 years ago.Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

A rare seal from the Crusader era has been found in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel.

The lead seal, which dates to some 800 years ago, bears the likeness of St. Sabas, one of the most important people active in Jerusalem during the Byzantine period, some 1,500 years ago.

Despite the importance of St. Sabas — whose Syriac name is Mar Saba — to Christian history in Israel, no seals with his image had been found before.

St. Sabas was one of the most influential leaders of the Christian monastic movement that developed in the Judean Desert during the Byzantine period. He established several monasteries, but his crowning achievement was the construction of the Monastery of St. Sabas, referred to as the “Great Laura” in the Byzantine period.

Situated on a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley outside the Old City of Jerusalem, it is the only monastery in the Judean Desert continuously inhabited since its foundation. At the time the seal was in use, the monastery had hundreds of monks. Today, about 10 Greek monks are in residence.

Ancient farm life

During the summer of 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted two archaeological salvage digs at Horbat Mizmil, an Arab village before 1948 and now a site slated for development in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem.

It is the norm in Israel to examine land slated for development for antiquities. The salvage digs revealed the remains of a farmstead dating from the Byzantine period.

The archaeologists discovered that the site had been abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period, only to be resettled during the Crusader period (11th to 12th centuries). It continued to grow, reaching its maximum size during the Mamluk period (13th to 15th centuries).

It was during excavation of the Crusader-era layer that the seal with the saint’s bearded face was found. Other artifacts uncovered during the dig reflected daily life on the farmstead.

The seal, or bulla in Latin, was used to seal letters with wax, so they would not be opened by unauthorized people (or if they were, it would be obvious). It consists of two blank lead disks separated by a gap and connected by a string.

When sealing a letter, the disks were pressed together, creating a double-faced seal.

An official seal of approval

The 800-year-old seal is in excellent condition. The saint’s image, wearing a toga-like himation and holding a cross in his right hand, is discernible on one side of the seal. The reverse side bears an inscription in Greek: “This is the seal of the Laura of the Holy Sabas.”

The object was examined by Dr. Robert Kool of the Israel Antiquities Authority and professor Jean-Claude Cheynet of France, who identified it as a seal stamped by the Monastery of St. Sabas during the Medieval period.

Dr. Yuval Baruch, Israel Antiquities Authority’s archaeologist responsible for Jerusalem and its environs, presented the unique find to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III.

According to Benyamin Storchan and Benyamin Dolinka, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the excavated farmstead could be a farming settlement sold to the monastery in 1163 to 1164.

A document from the archives of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Crusader period mentions a farming settlement called Thora, the whereabouts of which are unknown. It is quite possible the document refers to this site, the archaeologists say.

The Greek inscription on the reverse side of the Mar Sabas seal.Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the IAA
The Byzantine-era farmstead dating from about 1,500 years ago found in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, where the Mar Sabas seal was found.Credit: Clara Amit (Courtesy of Israel Antiuities Authority)

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