Byzantine Psalm Uncovered at Hyrcania

“Jesus Christ, guard me, for I am poor and needy”

byzantine psalm

A Byzantine Psalm. Greek inscription from Hyrcania. Courtesy The Hebrew University.

During a pilot excavation at Hyrcania, located 10 miles southeast of Jerusalem in the West Bank, excavators uncovered a Greek inscription paraphrasing Psalm 86. Dating to the Byzantine period (c. 324–634 CE), the inscription was found amid the remains of a monastery built atop an earlier Hasmonean fortress and Herodian palace.

A Byzantine Psalm in the Wilderness

“Jesus Christ, guard me, for I am poor and needy,” reads the inscription, written in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. While not a direct quotation, it was likely a paraphrase of Psalm 86:1–2, an important prayer in both Christian and Jewish tradition. The short inscription was painted onto a building stone, likely belonging to the monastery. A simple cross was also painted above the inscription.

“This psalm holds a special place in the Masoretic text as a designated prayer and is notably one of the most frequently recited psalms in Christian liturgy,” explained Avner Ecker of Bar-Ilan University, who translated the inscription. “Thus, the monk drew a graffito of a cross onto the wall, accompanied by a prayer with which he was very familiar.” Based on the epigraphy, Ecker suggests dating the inscription to the first half of the sixth century. Further aiding the dating were several small grammatical errors that were typical of Byzantine Palestine at the time. “These minor errors indicate that the priest was not a native Greek speaker, but likely someone from the region who was raised speaking a Semitic language.”

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Originally constructed by the Hasmonean dynasty and named after John Hyrcanus (r. 134–104 BCE), Hyrcania was part of a string of fortifications to protect the Hasmonean kingdom’s eastern border. The site was later rebuilt and enlarged by Herod the Great (r. 37–4 BCE). “There are certain architectural elements within these fortifications that strongly recall those of Herodium, all part of Herod’s extraordinary vision,” said Oren Gurfeld, co-director of the excavation. “It’s quite possible that the construction was even overseen by the same engineers and planners. It’s not by chance that we call Hyrcania ‘Herodium’s little sister.’”

Following the death of Herod, Hyrcania was abandoned and only reinhabited in the late fifth century by a Christian monastic movement in the Judean Desert. Named Kastellion (Little Castle), the monastery remained active until the early ninth century. Remains of the monastery were uncovered during the excavation, revealing an expansive hall constructed of finely cut stones. It was on one of these stones that the team uncovered the Byzantine psalm.

gold ring

Child-sized gold ring discovered at Hyrcania. Courtesy The Hebrew University.

In addition to the Byzantine psalm, the team also uncovered a small gold children’s ring adorned with a turquoise gem. On the inside of the ring, the team identified a short Arabic inscription reading “God has willed it.” The ring likely dates to the seventh or eighth century, during the time of the Umayyad caliphate. While it is not certain where the ring originated, the turquoise likely came from the region of modern Iraq, which at that time was ruled by the expanding Umayyad Empire.

Ed. Note: Articles on Bible History Daily may reference sites or artifacts from contested, annexed, or occupied regions, which may be subject to international laws and conventions on the protection of cultural property.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

Byzantine Church Dedicated to “Glorious Martyr” Discovered Near Jerusalem

Byzantine Monastery with Vibrant Mosaics Discovered in the Northern Negev

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

Hyrcania’s Mysterious Tunnels

Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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