On October 23, 2019, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) made public the discovery of the remains of a Byzantine church dating back to the 6th century. By its magnitude, this discovery would be one of the most important to date on a Byzantine site in the Holy Land.
In 2016, urbanization work in Bet Shemesh, an average town 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem, saw a jackhammer hitting an unexpected obstacle: the wall of a forgotten church in the sands of Judea.
After three years of excavations, the site was presented to the press. It is not a simple oratory, but a real basilica covering an area of nearly 1500 square meters, with a main nave, two aisles, two chapels and a crypt. Hidden and buried, the cleared walls of the building depict themes from nature, such as leaves, birds and fruit, as well as geometrical elements and fragments of polychrome frescoes.
At the entrance of the church, an inscription written in Greek mentions a “glorious martyr” whose identity has not been determined. The careful excavation of the crypt, which formerly held the relics of this saint, will be decisive.
“Very few churches in Israel have been excavated with an absolutely intact crypt,” said Benjamin Storchan, director of the IAA’s excavations, who has not yet recovered from the state of conservation of the site. “The crypt,” he adds, “is accessible by two separate staircases. This allowed the flow of pilgrims, after having performed their devotions, to circulate with ease. The richness of the ornamentation and the inscriptions indicate on the other hand that the martyr venerated here was an important Christian figure.”
Built under the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565), the church was enlarged with a chapel thanks to the gifts of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (574-582), as evidenced by a Greek inscription discovered next to a mosaic depicting the imperial eagle with outspread wings.
Scientists have also discovered baptismal fonts in the form of four-leaf clovers, an extremely rare motif in Byzantine sites recorded in the Holy Land, but found elsewhere in the Empire, as far as North Africa.
Finally, nearly a thousand artifacts were extracted from the excavations. Among them is the most complete range of stained glass and Byzantine lamps ever found in a site in Israel, not to mention 300 intact clay lamps dating from the Abbasid period.
Most of these objects had been left the church where they had been resting for fifteen centuries. They have been on public display since October 23rd at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibition is entirely devoted to this incredible discovery of a major sanctuary, a basilica dedicated to a martyr as glorious as mysterious.