BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — Israeli archaeologists have revealed an elaborately decorated Byzantine church dedicated to an anonymous martyr that was recently uncovered near Jerusalem.
The Israel Antiquities Authority showcased some of the finds from the nearly 1,500-year-old structure on Wednesday after three years of excavations. The findings will be exhibited at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum.
An inscription on a mosaic says the site was built in honor of a “glorious martyr.” The martyr is not identified, but other inscriptions commemorate the empire’s expansion under the sixth-century ruler Justinian and one of his successors, Tiberius II Constantine.
“The martyr’s identity is not known, but the exceptional opulence of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that this person was an important figure,” said excavation director Benjamin Storchan. “Both the basilica and the courtyard are massive for the period – larger than most Byzantine churches found in the Holy Land.”
Because of the church’s size and rich trappings, researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority believe it was a popular pilgrimage site until it was abandoned during the Muslim Abbasid caliphate in the 9th century AD.
The elaborate design of the church, including a lattice marble chancel, calcite flowstone baptismal and floor mosaic depicting an eagle, a symbol of the Byzantine Empire, shows the site’s notable funding and significance.
Storchan said the excavation showcases a phenomenon known as “imperial church building.”
He said the empire maintained important sites and supported a tourist industry. “They took part in ensuring the development of pilgrimage routes,” he said.
“Only a few churches in Israel have been discovered with fully intact crypts,” Storchan said. “The crypt was accessed via parallel staircases – one leading down into the chamber, the other leading back up into the prayer hall. This enabled large groups of Christian pilgrims to visit the place.”
The site was discovered during construction of a new residential neighborhood.
It covers 16,000 square feet and includes a large courtyard, a corridor and the basilica-style church.
Following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the church entrances were sealed shut with large stones which excavators have opened and found glass lamps, mosaics and a piece of the vault where the unknown martyr was buried.
Crux staff contributed to this story.
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