A team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority has published a report on results of excavation works conducted in 2010-2011 on the slopes of the Judaean hills at Horbat Midras, including a groundbreaking discovery of a Byzantine-era church.
About a year ago the archaeologists announced that they unearthed a church which they believe is a memorial designed to mark the tomb of the prophet Zechariah.
Now the team describes their remarkable finds in a report, published in the journal Hadashot Arkheologiyot.
The archaeologists suggest that the site seems to have been occupied from the Persian or Early Hellenistic periods and reached its zenith as a Jewish settlement in the Early and Middle Roman periods (first century BCE – second century CE). The Jewish settlement included buildings, caves, ritual baths, extensive hiding refuges, columbaria, burial complexes and agricultural installations. The finds show that it was destroyed in the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
“The excavation has shown that the site was first inhabited in the Late Second Temple period,” wrote the archaeologists, including directors of the excavations A. Ganor and A. Klein. “This was apparently a Jewish settlement that organized itself before the action of the Roman army to suppress the revolt.”
“Following the destruction of the settlement during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the place remained deserted until the fourth century CE, when the burial cave was installed at the site, which we think was deliberately left unused.”
They also unearthed remains of a basilica structure built above the burial cave: “It was built of local limestone, aligned northwest-southeast, and had white mosaic floors. Potsherds, the latest of which is a fragment of a Bet Natif lamp, are dated to the third – fourth centuries CE, and coins, the latest of which is dated to the fourth century CE, were discovered below the mosaic floor. It seems that the basilica structure was established in connection with the burial cave, although its nature is not entirely clear because the excavation in the area of the apse was not completed.”
The team found that the site was re-occupied in the fifth–sixth centuries CE by a small Christian community, that built the church in its northern part and burial complexes decorated with crosses.
“A church was constructed inside the ancient basilica in the sixth century CE,” the team explained. “The expensive building materials of the church, including the marble columns and the floors, show that its construction probably involved a wealthy donor, possibly the Bishop of Eleutheropolis (Bet Guvrin) or possibly some other donor working in cooperation with the bishop.”
“A church built inside the basilica structure utilized part of the latter’s walls and columns. It was entered from the northwest via an atrium and an exo-nathex to very large doorways. The church included a nave (5.3×10.6 m), two aisles, an apse and two L-shaped rooms, adjacent to the apse. The aisles were separated from the nave by two parallel rows of columns, each consisting of four columns. The columns were cut of imported light gray marble and they had identical square bases and Corinthian capitals.”
The team also found that all the floors in the church were paved with beautiful colored mosaics: “Animal depictions stand out prominently in the sections of mosaic preserved in the nave, the apse and on the raised bema in front of the apse (presbyterium). Geometric designs are typical of the mosaics in the aisles. The mosaics in the apse and on the bema are composed of smaller tesserae than those used elsewhere in the mosaics, most likely due to their importance.”
The researchers suggest that three points of ritual importance, including the apse, the tomb below the church and the room south of the apse where relics might have been placed, were intended to draw pilgrims.
The team also discovered four massive fallen pillars, which were decorated with a Christogram, consisting of a cross with a loop at its top that together constitute the monogram of the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P) – the first two letters of the name Christus.
“The church continued to be used after the Muslim conquest,” they wrote. “In a later phase the pillars were covered with a thin layer of white plaster that concealed the crosses. This work was probably done by Muslims who also utilized the church structure.”
The researchers also raise interesting question about the religious affiliation of the community that used the church after the Muslim conquest: “Is it possible that the church may have served both Christians and Muslims, together or separately? Or could it have been used by local Christians who converted to Islam?”
This church was destroyed in the earthquake of 749 CE, and small settlement was rebuilt at the site in the Abbasid period (the eighth – ninth century CE).
“It is unclear when and why the site was abandoned,” the team concluded. “During the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, mainly agricultural activity transpired at the site and in the surrounding area.”