Rare Crusade-era seal found in Jerusalem

The seal, stamped by the Monastery of St. Sabas, bears a Greek inscription; the find is noted for importance Christian history in the Holy Land.

Crusade-era seal (photo credit: IAA)
Crusade-era seal
(photo credit: IAA)
The Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday that it unearthed a rare 800-year-old lead seal from the Monastery of St. Sabas in Jerusalem.
Although the authority said the seal was found over a year ago in the capital’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood, it was only after recent processing and analysis that it officially authenticated the rare relic.
According to the excavation’s directors on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, Benyamin Storchan and Dr. Benyamin Dolinka, the discovery is unprecedented.
“This is an extraordinarily rare find because no such seal has ever been discovered to date,” the archeologists said in a joint statement. “Also, the object possibly contributes important historical information about the surroundings of the site in the Bayit Vagan neighborhood.”
The seal shows a bearded bust of a saint wearing a himation, while holding a cross in his right hand and the Gospel in his left. Surrounding it is a Greek inscription naming him “Saint Sabas.”
On the back of the seal there is a longer Greek inscription, reading: “This is the seal of the Laura of the Holy Sabas.”
During the summer of 2012, the Antiquities Authority conducted two archaeological salvage excavations at the Horbat Mizmil antiquities site in Bayit Vagan, which revealed the remains of a farmstead constructed during the Byzantine period (5th-6th centuries CE).
The archeologists said the excavated farmstead may refer to a farming settlement sold to the monastery in 1163–1164.
“The document – part of the archives of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Crusader period – mentioned a farming settlement by the name of Thora, whose whereabouts are unknown,” they said in the statement.
“It is quite possible the document refers to this site.”
The site was abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period, and resettled during the Crusader period (11th-12th centuries CE), reaching its maximum size during the Mamluk period (13th-centuries CE), the Antiquities Authority said.
It added that the artifacts discovered during the excavations reflected daily life in the farmstead.
“Surprisingly, while processing the excavation finds, a rare lead seal dating to the Crusader period came to light,” the statement continued. “The seal, or ‘bulla’ as it is known in Latin, was affixed to a letter, and was meant to ensure the document would not be opened by unauthorized persons.”
The bulla consisted of two blank lead disks and had a string that passed through a channel between them, the Antiquities Authority said. In sealing the letter, these were pressed together with a pincher- shaped object with dies, creating the double-faced seal.
Crusade-era sealCrusade-era seal
“The 800-yearold seal is in excellent condition,” the statement continued.
The lead seal was examined by Dr. Robert Kool of the Antiquities Authority, and Prof. Jean-Claude Cheynet of France, who identified it as stamped “by the Laura – the Monastery of St. Sabas,” during the Medieval period.
“The Mar Saba monastery apparently played an important role in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusader period, maintaining a close relationship with the ruling royal family,” said Kool. “The monastery had numerous properties and this farm may have been part of the monastery’s assets during the Crusader period.”
After authentication, Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Antiquities Authority’s regional archaeologist responsible for Jerusalem, presented the unique find to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III.
Theophilos noted its importance for the history of Christianity in the Holy Land, as well as its significance for archaeological research.
St. Sabas, or according to his Syriac name, “Mar Saba,” was one of the most important and influential leaders of the Christian monastic movement developing in the Judean Desert during the Byzantine period.
Sabas established several monasteries, but his crowning achievement was the construction of the Monastery of St. Sabas, referred to as the “Great Laura” in the Byzantine period.
The monastery, situated on a cliff overlooking Nahal Kidron, was home to several hundred monks.
“This is the only monastery in the Judean Desert continuously inhabited since its foundation, and even today there are circa 10 Greek monks who reside in the monastery belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church,” the Antiquities Authority said.
Sabas was intricately involved in the local, political and religious affairs of Byzantine-period Palestina, and twice traveled on foot to the capital, Constantinople, in order to request assistance from the emperor for the country’s inhabitants.
Sabas was canonized following his death and his name appears among the list of Christian saints.