Vibrant mosaics and imported marble segments – these are some of the features revealed by the 6th century Eastern Roman (Byzantine) monastery and church structure that was discovered quite fortuitously during a construction project at Ramat Beit Shemesh, funded by the Ministry of Construction and Housing. Beit Shemesh, an Israeli city west of Jerusalem, does have its fair share of historical legacy, shared by the Bronze Age Canaanites to the late medieval Ottomans. And the aforementioned complex in question corresponds to the Byzantine era of 6th century AD, when the Eastern Roman Empire reached its greatest extent, stretching from the eastern reaches of Levant to the southern coasts of Spain.
According to Benyamin Storchan, director of the excavations for the Israel Antiquities Authority –
We were surprised by the wonderful state of preservation of the ancient remains, and the richness of the finds being uncovered. The artifacts found in the large building, which seems to be a monastic compound, may indicate that the site was important and perhaps a center for ancient pilgrims in the Judean Shephelah region. During the excavation, we uncovered before our eyes the remains of walls built of large worked stone masonry and a number of architectural elements, including a marble pillar base decorated with crosses and marble window screens.
Now pertaining to the first part of his statement, this Eastern Roman church, when compared to its architectural counterparts in Judean hills, was found to be pretty well preserved. As for its locational attribute, the researchers have commented on how the early Eastern Roman churches were often associated with either Biblical sites or shrines (and tombs) of saints and martyrs. To that end, the aforementioned monastery complex – one of the largest found in the region, lies just north of the Ella Valley, the Biblical battlefield where David challenged Goliath.
As for the second part of the director’s statement, this Eastern Roman structure was furnished with some opulent components, including marble imported from Anatolia. This was complemented by a vivaciously arranged mosaic floor with its idyllic depiction of “birds, leaves, and pomegranates.” The architectural features were accompanied by a slew of artifacts, including a bronze cross (that was possibly a part of a jewelry set) and ceramic oil lamps. In essence, the monastery probably boasted its rich hoard – thus leading to the mystery of why it was abandoned in the first place.
And lastly, there is a promising side to this excavation project, since almost a thousand students from schools and pre-military institutes participated in the endeavor. Hadas Keich, 16 years old and student of the Sde Boker Field School, said –
We searched for a way to fundraise for our class trip to Poland, and we decided to take part in the archaeological excavations. Little by little we uncovered here exciting finds, which helped to connect us to our country and its history. Amazing what is hidden here beneath our feet.
Source: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs / All Images Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority