Israeli archeologists presented a newly uncovered 1,500-year-old church in the
Judean Hills on Wednesday, including an unusually well-preserved mosaic floor
with images of lions, foxes, fish and peacocks.
The Byzantine church,
located southwest of Jerusalem and excavated over the last two months, will be
visible only for another week before archeologists cover it again with soil for
its own protection.
The small basilica with an exquisitely decorated
floor was active between the fifth and seventh centuries CE, said the dig's
leader, Amir Ganor of the Antiquities Authority. He said the floor was one of
the most beautiful mosaics to be uncovered in Israel in recent years.
is unique in its craftsmanship and level of preservation, he
said. Archeologists began digging at the site, known as Hirbet Madras, in
December. The Antiquities Authority discovered several months earlier that
antiquities thieves had begun plundering the ruins, which sit on an uninhabited
hill not far from an Israeli farming community.
Though an initial survey
suggested the building was a synagogue, the excavation revealed stones carved
with crosses, identifying it as a church.
The building had been built
atop another structure around 500 years older, dating to Roman times, when
scholars believe the settlement was inhabited by Jews.
Hewn into the rock
underneath that structure is a network of tunnels that archeologists believe
were used by Jewish rebels fighting Roman armies in the second century
Stone steps lead down from the floor of the church to a small burial
cave, which scholars suggest might have been venerated as the burial place of
the prophet Zechariah.
Ganor said the church would remain covered until
funding was obtained to open it as a tourist site.
Israel boasts an
exceptionally high concentration of archaeological sites, including Crusader,
Islamic, Byzantine, Roman, ancient Jewish and prehistoric ruins.