More intriguing inscriptions found at Hippos-Sussita
As Yana Qadem, conservator for the Hippos-Sussita expedition in the Galilee, carefully removed dirt from a previously excavated mosaic, she made an unexpected discovery that has opened a window into the lives of poorer, everyday Byzantine Christians. As she cleared away soot from the mosaic floor of the Martyrion of Theodoros, also known as the “Burnt Church,” two black lines appeared, the tell-tale signs of a mosaic inscription. By the end of the process, the team had uncovered two new inscriptions, in addition to the two they had already identified in the mosaic, giving fascinating details about the community members who reverently gathered their money together for the construction of the simple church building.
Together, these four dedicatory inscriptions are of particular interest in studying the lives of the community that commissioned the church. They provide us, for the first time, the names and even occupations of the less-affluent Byzantine Christians who lived in the prosperous city of Hippos-Sussita, perched high in the hills just a mile east of the Sea of Galilee.
One inscription set in the entrance hall states, “offering of Megas, the most holy bishop, for the peaceful rest of Eusebiοs and Iobiοs, his brothers.” Another reads, “offering in favor of salvation and succor for Urania and Theodoros. Lord God, accept! Amen!” A third declares, “offering of the priest Symeonios, goldsmith, custodian[?], He [the Lord] will protect him and his children and his wife.” This inscription is particularly intriguing as it may suggest that the minister of the church was also one of the town’s craftsmen.
According to Michael Eisenberg, co-director of the excavation, “together with the high symbolism and religious depictions on the mosaic carpets, we understand more on the community’s focal point than all other six churches at Hippos and most of the Christian communities around the Sea of Galilee. Surely, the intriguing, not-yet-excavated spaces of the atrium and diaconicon will teach us more during our next season.”
Altogether, seven total inscriptions have been uncovered in the Martyrion of Theodoros since excavation of it began and more may still be waiting to be discovered. This is a rather large number of mosaic inscriptions for churches from this period. According to Eisenberg, this could be due, in part, to the church’s good preservation as well as the team’s thorough excavation.
Founded in the Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 BCE), Hippos-Sussita became a wealthy and powerful city in the Galilee during the Byzantine period (c. 324–634 CE). Yet, unlike the other six churches discovered at Hippos since excavations began in 2000, the Martyrion of Theodoros belonged to the poorest neighborhood of the city.
While it was Byzantine style to adorn churches with ornate mosaics and inscriptions, those of the Martyrion of Theodoros are of much lower quality and craftsmanship than any others found in the city. The church’s mosaics are made up of relatively large tesserae and feature rather rudimentary images, making it clear that these Byzantine Christians lacked the money to hire a skilled artisan.
Instead of ornate depictions or magnificent scenes, the small church has simple but highly symbolic imagery, including depictions of baskets full of bread (evoking the story of Jesus’s feeding the multitudes), fish, date palms, and even a peacock. These were images in the artisan’s standard repertoire, not original or creative works, yet their very simplicity speaks to the zeal and faithfulness of the community to pool their limited resources to build a place of worship.
A further indication of the community’s lower socio-economic status is the inscriptions themselves, which are filled with grammatical and spelling mistakes. This supports the excavators’ earlier theory that, by the end of the Byzantine period, Greek was no longer the predominant language in the Holy Land and was gradually replaced by other local languages, such as Aramaic. It is uncertain if this was the case for all members of the Hippos community or an indication of the poor level of Greek used by the Byzantine Christians who commissioned the church.
Yet, “it was unthinkable to come up with the idea of using a language other than Greek—even if one was aware that this language was no longer mastered to the extent actually required,” Gregor Staab, the epigrapher for the excavation, explained to Haaretz. “The original language of Christian liturgy and prayer to God was Greek, so it had to be considered impossible to deviate from using it in the Christian context (and so in the mosaics too).”
As indicated by the inscriptions, the mosaics for the Martyrion of Theodoros were put in place around 556 CE. Unfortunately for the community, the church did not survive very long, as finds inside the church indicate that it was burned down during the Sassanid Persian invasion (c. 614 CE). It is the destruction layer from this event that has lent the Martyrion of Theodoros its nickname, the “Burnt Church.”
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