1,500-Year-Old Church Dedicated To Mysterious "Glorious Martyr" Discovered Near Jerusalem

The eagle was the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, shown here in an impressive floor mosaic. Image supplied by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

A 3-year excavation of Ramat Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, has revealed an inscription written in Greek that is dedicated to an unnamed “glorious martyr” laid into a mosaic in the courtyard of a 1,500-year-old church.

It is not known who the martyr was or what they were known for, but according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) – which has been collaborating with the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem on the dig – the “magnificence of the church and a second inscription indicating that Emperor Tiberius II himself funded its construction, suggest the martyr was a figure of great importance.”

The church has some truly spectacular mosaics intricately designed with leaves, fruits, birds and geometrical elements. The church, which was first founded in the 6th century CE and was expanded several times during the rule of Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II, also had colorful frescoes on the walls and "lofty pillars crowned with impressive capitals".

“Numerous written sources testify to the imperial funding of churches in Israel, however little is known in archaeological study about dedicated inscriptions such as the one found in Breit Shemesh,” excavation director Benjamin Storchan said in a statement sent to IFLScience.

Mosaic inscriptions on the floor. Image supplied by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Built like a basilica, the church is at the center of a large complex and is rectangular in shape with two parallel rows of pillars, some of which are carved marble, that divvy the area into a central courtyard in front of another large courtyard where the “spectacular” mosaic floors were discovered. Smaller chapels are located nearby for prayer and worship. The unique architecture of the church was likely made to accommodate groups of Christian pilgrims. Of particular interest is a unique baptismal font made in the shape of a cross from calcite stones that are formed in stalactite caves.

“We have uncovered a few churches of this type in the country, especially those with a crypt that survived in its entirety,” said Storchan, adding that the crypt was an “underground burial chamber where, presumably, the relics of the saints were kept.”


Excavations were carried out by archaeologists with the IAA and thousands of teenagers as part of a vision to bring together Israeli youth with their heritage. Over the 3-year period, teams discovered thousands of objects that may make up the most complete collection of Byzantine windows and glass lamps ever found in a single Israeli site.

“The future of humanity has its roots in the past. Only through understanding our history can we build a better future,” said Eli Borowski, founder of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. The church is open to the public in a collaborative exhibition between the museum and the IAA. 

Mosaics exposed from the floor of the church. Image supplied by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

 

The eagle, inscriptions, and more mosaics. Image supplied by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

 

The marble pillars that would have been placed at the entrance to the courtyard. Image supplied by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

 

Thousands of youth participated in the excavation over the past three years. Image supplied by Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

 

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