Ships in the Desert

Nautical graffiti found in Byzantine church in the Negev

Byzantine carving

Carving of a ship discovered in the Byzantine church in Rahat. Courtesy Yoli Schwartz, IAA.

While carrying out salvage excavations in the city of Rahat in the northern Negev desert, archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) came across something unexpected: depictions of boats carved into the walls of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church. The IAA believes the carvings shed important light on Christian pilgrimage routes in the sixth century CE.

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Pilgrimage through the Desert

Found alongside an ancient Roman road through the Negev, however, the nautical graffiti are perhaps less surprising than they first appear. Being only half a day’s walk from the Mediterranean port of Gaza, the church where the carvings were discovered would have likely been one of the first stops for many pilgrims to the Holy Land. Disembarking their ships at Gaza, Christian pilgrims would have made their way inland along the Roman road, heading towards Beer Sheva, the Negev’s main city. From there, the pilgrims would have reached the Negev’s many monasteries but also more northerly routes to the holy sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

“This is a greeting from Christian pilgrims arriving by ship to Gaza port,” said excavation directors Oren Shmueli, Elena Kogan-Zehavi, and Noé David Michael in a press release. “Apparently, it is a true graphical depiction of real ships in which the pilgrims traveled to the Holy Land.” Pilgrim graffiti at churches and other holy sites are fairly common in the Byzantine period, with carvings of crosses even found on the early walls of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Byzantine Church

The remains of the church discovered in Rahat. Courtesy Assaf Peretz, IAA.

According to Deborah Cvikel of the University of Haifa’s Department of Maritime Civilizations, “One of the ships drawn on the church walls is depicted as a line drawing, but it may be discerned that its bow is slightly pointed and that there are oars on both sides of the vessel. This may be an aerial depiction of the ship, though it seems the artist was attempting a three-dimensional drawing. It may be that the lines below it portray the path beaten by the oars through the water. Another drawing depicts what is apparently a two-masted ship. The main mast has no sail but seems to show a small flag in its upper section. The foremast is slightly raked towards the bow and bears a sail known as an artemon. The exacting detail indicates the artist’s familiarity with maritime life.”

Ship carved into a stone in the Rahat church. Courtesy Yoli Schwartz, IAA.

The salvage excavations, which have resulted from Rahat’s rapid expansion in recent years, have already provided numerous discoveries from the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the early Islamic period (c. 634–1099 CE), including a Byzantine farmstead, a luxurious early Islamic estate, and a small mosque.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

From Christianity to Islam in the Negev

Luxury in the Negev Desert — 1200 Years Ago

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Rescue in the Biblical Negev

Islam on the Temple Mount

The Iron Age Sites in the Negev Highlands: Military Fortresses or Nomads Settling Down?

Solomon’s Negev Defense Line Contained Three Fewer Fortresses

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