Inscriptions in Byzantine-era church intrigue archaeologists

Who was the ‘glorious martyr’? A magnificently decorated Byzantine-era church uncovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority has shed light on the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The site of the church exposed in  Ramat Beit Shemesh (photo credit: ASSAF PEREZ, COURTESY OF IAA)
The site of the church exposed in Ramat Beit Shemesh
A magnificently decorated Byzantine-era church uncovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority has shed light on the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
At the same time, one of the inscriptions uncovered during the excavations of the 1,500-year-old church has left archaeologists perplexed.
The mysterious 10-line inscription, which was found intact in the courtyard, dedicated the church to a “glorious martyr.”
“The whole reason for the existence of this place is for the nameless martyr,” said Benjamin Storchan, director of excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who noted that the term ‘martyr’ means ‘to witness’ in Greek, specifically, a witness of the true faith.
Though the martyr’s identity is not known, the extraordinary splendor of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that the person was an important figure in early Christianity, and well-known by early pilgrims of the nascent faith, according to Storchan.
“It is an archaeological mystery,” he said. “You can look to pilgrimage accounts of people who traveled to the Holy Land, [and there are] thousands of lists of martyrs…who died in early Christian times. We can’t yet associate this church with one specific martyr.”
The unknown martyr could have been killed at the site where the church was built, or perhaps moved to this safer location for burial, Storchan conjectured.
Adorned with spectacular mosaic floors intricately designed with leaves, fruit, birds, geometrical elements, colorful frescoes, pillars crowned with impressive capitals – some of which may have been imported – and Greek inscriptions, the Byzantine-era church was uncovered during an IAA salvage excavation that began three years ago after part of its remains were discovered during construction work for a new neighborhood in Beit Shemesh.
The church is among the few in Israel that have been discovered with fully intact crypts, or underground burial chambers, he said. The crypt of the church, lined with impressive marble slabs, apparently housed the remains of the martyr known as relics.
“The crypt was accessed via parallel staircases, one leading down into the chamber, the other leading back up into the prayer hall,” said Storchan. “This enabled large groups of Christian pilgrims to visit the place.”
The vaulted double stairway indicates that the church had once been a major pilgrimage site for early Christians, and is similar in construction to that of the double staircase at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The crypt is also believed to have had bronze doors.
The original construction took place during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE (527-565), possibly completed in the year 542 CE according to the dedicatory mosaic found intact in the entrance of the courtyard of the church complex, which dedicated the church to a “glorious martyr.”
The site’s special importance is underscored by an expansion that was carried out in 583 CE under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (574-582 CE), according to a second Greek inscription discovered at the site stating that the expansion of the church was completed with his financial support.
At the top of the inscription there is a large eagle with outspread wings – the symbol of the Byzantine Empire – further evoking imperial involvement in the building’s expansion, said Storchan. Atop of the imperial symbol are the words “The Messiah triumphs over death.”
Storchan noted that though there are written sources attesting to imperial funding for churches in Israel, there has been little archaeological evidence uncovered, thus making the dedicatory inscription found in the church quite rare and significant.
The excavations of the church have exposed a complex that spreads over 1.5 dunams, or just over one-third of an acre.
There are some 300-400 known church remains in Israel, with some having served as urban churches for the local Christian population, others as rural monastery complexes with agricultural production systems, and a third group that were pilgrimage churches such as the Glorious Martyr Church.
“There had to be a group of people who took care of the site and lived here, but we have not uncovered what is traditionally considered a monastic complex with agricultural [activity],” Storchan said. “The church did not depend on agriculture, but it was dependent on pilgrimage.”
Excavations revealed thousands of objects including pots, screens, storage jars, lamps, liturgical objects and what appears to be the most complete collection of Byzantine glass windows and lamps ever found at a single site in Israel, according to the IAA. Additionally, a unique baptismal font in the shape of a cross was found in one of the rooms of the church made of a type of calcite stone that forms in stalactite caves.
The font is large enough to have been used by adults, added Storchan.
A corner piece of a reliquary – a stone receptacle that held holy relics – was also found in the crypt underneath the altar of the basilica, where 300 complete clay oil lamps – remnants left by the last pilgrims to have worship  ed at the site in the ninth century CE – were also found. One pilgrim left a graffiti etching on the wall of a fish and an eye, ancient symbols of Christianity. There is also faint Arabic script next to the image, and archaeologists have used various methods to try to decipher the words.
According to the archaeological finds, the church went out of use in the ninth century after the Islamic conquest of the area, which forcibly detached the Holy Land from Christian pilgrims by establishing a complex system of travel permits required to come on pilgrimages.
“It was an economic suffocation of the church,” said Storchan, which cut it off from the pilgrims who had financially supported it. “It was closed peacefully. There are no signs of earthquakes or other forms of destruction.”
He said that excavations over the past 20 years have provided evidence that Byzantine churches did not stop being in use with the Islamic conquest, but rather the process took a longer time than previously believed.
“Here we have found coins of Islamic mint and Arabic script even on pottery,” said Storchan. “We are seeing a lot more complexity between the late Byzantine era and early Islam rather than [the conquest being] a simple event. It was not abrupt. Certain areas experienced conquest differently.”
What is notable at the site, he said, is the systematic storage of liturgical elements and other items in the back of the church.
“We see how they thought to close up and try to separate material in an organized way,” he said.
All the entrances were found blocked and sealed with large stones.
“The last people here closed the door, as if they knew they had to go, and closed it and hoped they would be back,” said Storchan.
The archaeological excavation of the site was mostly performed by thousands of teenagers who came to dig as part of an IAA educational program that aims to connect Israeli youth to their heritage. The teens came to dig as part of their national service and IDF preparation programs, or through their high schools.
In late October, the IAA unveiled the finds of the excavation in a new exhibition, “The Glorious Martyr,” in collaboration with the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem as part of the opening of the IAA’s annual conference, which included discussions and presentations about the excavation and the church.
It is unclear what will be the fate of the church that had been preserved for 1,500 years underground. Storchan said they are working with local authorities including the Beit Shemesh municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority to figure out a plan that would best preserve the site. Much hinges on who will be willing to spend the funds to pick up the tab for such a project.
In the meantime, all construction work for the water pipes that were to have been placed in the area has been halted. Still, uncovering the complex has damaged some of the physical integrity of the site, and the plan is to cover up the mosaics ahead of winter.
“This is part of our history, and most people live with that quite in peace,” said Storchan. “We want to preserve it in the best way we can. The question is how can we best take care of it and leave it open so everyone can enjoy it in the long term.”