In 2017 Israeli archaeologists made a stunning discovery from the Byzantine period . They uncovered a Christian church that is elaborately decorated with breath-taking mosaics. The Byzantine church was dedicated to a martyr, whose identity is a mystery.

Now you can virtually visit the church of the ‘glorious martyr’ from home, thanks to the creation of a web-based app which guides you through “a lifelike 3D model of the Church as it looked nearly 1,500 years ago,” according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Discovering the Massive Byzantine Basilica

Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the church after it was uncovered during work on a housing development in the city of Beit Shemesh . The church dates from the 6th century when the region was ruled by the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire .

According to Haaretz, many of the people who worked on the salvage excavation project were high-school kids.

Youth participating in the Byzantine Church excavation. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

The church was designed based on a “basilica plan, with a central nave flanked by two halls” according to Haaretz. This site measures approximately 4500 square feet (1500 square meters). The complex consisted of the basilica and several ancillary buildings.

At the front of the church is a large courtyard. The dig leader, Benjamin Storchan, stated that “both the basilica and the courtyard are massive for the period – larger than most Byzantine churches found in the Holy Land,” according to Haaretz.

The Byzantine church complex exposed at Beit Shemesh. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Byzantine church complex exposed at Beit Shemesh. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

Remarkable Mosaics Discovered in the Byzantine Church

An underground crypt was found in the church, lined with marble and a rare cross-shaped baptismal font . Many thousands of Byzantine-era objects were recovered, including glass windows and lamps.

The Jerusalem Post reports that in the ruins there are “spectacular mosaic floors, featuring imaginative, nature-inspired decorations such as leaves, flowers, and vivacious birds”. Wall mosaics have also been uncovered.

Mosaics discovered on the Byzantine church floor. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Mosaics discovered on the Byzantine church floor. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

Some mosaics have the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, the winged eagle. The church was first built during the reign of Justinian (527-565 AD) and was completed in the 540s. It was further enlarged by Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (540-582 AD). It is possible that the church’s chapel was built during his reign.

Eagle, part of the mosaics in the Byzantine church. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Eagle, part of the mosaics in the Byzantine church. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

The winged eagle symbols appear to show that the basilica found in Beith Shemesh was an Imperial church. There is little known about these churches that were favored by the emperors. The discovery means that researchers can now better understand the role of these places of worship in the Holy Land.

The Byzantine Church Was Built for a Mysterious Martyr

Christian churches are commonly dedicated to a saint or martyr. According to Haaretz “researchers uncovered an intact Greek inscription dedicating the sacred site to the memory of an ‘endoxo martis’ – a glorious martyr”.

Inscription found in the Beit Shemesh Byzantine church. (Asaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Inscription found in the Beit Shemesh Byzantine church. (Asaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )

This martyr was possibly interred in the marble crypt that was found at the site. Storchan is quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying, “two separate sets of stairs lead to the crypt, allowing large groups of pilgrims to visit it at the same time”.

Pilgrims would have traveled to the church to seek the intercession of the martyr, who was probably a very important figure in the history of local Christianity. One possibility floating around is that the martyr was a man named Zechariah. This is based on the discovery of ancient texts stating that a tomb of a Christian martyr bearing that name was found nearby. The texts also state that there was a shrine dedicated to Zechariah “located in the vicinity of the excavation site, meaning this church could possibly be that shrine,” according to Live Science.

However, no one really knows the identity of the revered Christian, even if the person was named Zechariah, because the texts don’t provide clarification which Zechariah they refer to (there were several). There are also doubts whether the shrine referred to in the text is the church.

So scholars are still searching for ancient documents to try and identify the mysterious holy person. It is likely that he or she was connected to the local region and the church may have been built on the spot where they were martyred or buried, which was a common Christian practice at the time and since.

The Islamic Conquest of the Byzantine Church

The archaeological site also offers researchers an insight into the early history of Muslim rule in the Holy Land. Experts have found a large number of earthenware lamps used by pilgrims from the early years of the Arab Caliphate . This would suggest that “after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the first half of the 7th century the complex continued to be used and the martyr worshipped,” according to Haaretz.

Traditionally, the decline of Christianity in the Holy Land was attributed to the forced conversion of members of that faith by Muslim warriors . However, the evidence from the church dedicated to the ‘glorious martyr’ suggests that this was not the case. Instead, Christianity probably declined because of the gradual voluntary conversion of the local population to Islam.

Virtually Tour the Abandoned Holy Place

The site was probably abandoned because of the drop in the number of local Christians in the 9th century AD. Archaeologists also discovered that several zoomorphic images appearing in the mosaics “had been defaced by iconoclasts in antiquity, replacing the zoomorphic forms with random tesserae [mosaic tiles or stones] to blur the original design,” according to Storchan.

Storchan believes the zoomorphic images were defaced by Christians reacting to “internal reforms” in the 6th century. The basilica was also sealed by large stones at some point. This was possibly done by Christians as well, believing that they would return to the church – but they never did.

When excavations at the site concluded, Storchan teamed up with an architect and 3D researcher named Roy Albag to reconstruct the site. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the experts used the “most advanced technologies” and “actual artifacts from the excavations” to create the 3D model of the site. Storchan says, “We wanted to create the most scientifically accurate model possible, and to do so, we rebuilt the site using the artifacts and field data as the building blocks.”

Virtual reconstruction of part of the Byzantine church. Photo by Y. Shmidov; Reconstruction by R. Albag. (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority )

The results of their work can be viewed at: www.martyr.app. The web-based app takes visitors on a virtual tour through the church, providing insight into what it looked like nearly 1,500 years ago.

Top Image: The excavated remains of the Byzantine Church of the Glorious Martyr, at sunrise. Source: A. Peretz, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

By Ed Whelan

Updated on September 2, 2021.



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