Take an interactive virtual tour of the Church of the Glorious Martyr with your computer, phone, or tablet
Step inside a glorious church and an archaeological mystery. Led by Benyamin Storchan, archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have uncovered a magnificent Byzantine church built in honor of a “glorious martyr,” as described in one of the church’s inscriptions. The identity of this unnamed martyr remains a mystery.
In his article “A Glorious Church for a Mysterious Martyr,” published in the Fall 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Benyamin Storchan guides readers through the history of the Church of the Glorious Martyr. Located near modern Beit Shemesh, about 20 miles west of Jerusalem, the church functioned from the fifth century to the ninth or tenth century C.E. Storchan explores the site’s artifacts and architecture, as exposed by excavations, and possible identifications for the unnamed “glorious martyr,” as revealed by historical texts and maps.
But he and his intrepid team didn’t stop there. After concluding excavations at the site, they created a complete digital reconstruction of the church and made it available to the public via a web-based app (www.martyr.app). This immersive, interactive experience guides you through a life-like 3D model of the church as it looked nearly 1,500 years ago. Now, thanks to incredible reconstructions designed by Roy Albag (Roy Albag Architecture LTD) and a collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority, Wandering Inc., and the Biblical Archaeology Society, anyone with internet access can explore the Church of the Glorious Martyr.
Begin your tour here. The app includes three tour options: a self-guided tour, an interactive video tour (best viewed with VR goggles), and a trivia-based tour. Each tour allows you to explore the church’s courtyard (atrium), main sanctuary (basilica), and crypt. Further, you can view the stations as excavated ruins or digital reconstructions. Click the eagle icon to switch between “excavation mode” and “restoration mode,” and watch the church transform from archaeological ruin to magnificent structure—and back again. (In the video tour, this transformation happens automatically.)
The tour begins in the middle of the church’s courtyard. You will immediately notice an inscription on the courtyard’s mosaic pavement. It is this inscription that describes how the church was built in honor of the “glorious martyr.”
You can move in a full circle—to see all 360 degrees of the courtyard. The self-guided tour includes information icons highlighting particular features of the model. To learn more, click on these icons. After exploring the courtyard, click the arrow icon to advance into the next station: the sanctuary. (In the video and trivia-based tours, you advance automatically.)
The main sanctuary of the Church of the Glorious Martyr was built as a basilica and divided into three aisles—a central nave and two side aisles—with an altar platform (bema) at the front of the nave. The sanctuary’s floor was once covered with beautiful mosaics, made of small colorful stone blocks arranged into complex designs. The geometric pattern on the floor of the nave formed numerous medallions, once filled with zoomorphic or floral images. In the reconstructed model, you will note that these medallions were left empty because they could not be accurately reconstructed. Similarly, the walls were left undecorated, even though numerous fresco fragments were found during the excavation—showing that frescoes once decorated the walls.
The focus of the basilica was the altar platform, where the priests would have conducted the liturgy and services. It is accessible via stairways from the nave and from each side aisle. The church’s crypt, located beneath the altar platform, is also connected to the sanctuary via vaulted stairways that facilitated the flow of visitors descending into the crypt. In the model, click on the arrow next to either stairway to enter the crypt.
Once in the crypt, you can explore the earliest part of the church: the fifth-century martyrium (commemorative burial place) of the “glorious martyr” consisting of a small chapel built within a chamber carved into the bedrock. Archaeologists even found part of the chapel’s original mosaic floor, which appears in the model under the later walls. Later, in the mid-sixth century, the crypt chapel was remodeled, expanded, and incorporated into the elaborate basilical church we’ve been touring. The courtyard inscription describes the many new features of this first expansion. The development of the church as an important pilgrimage site is attested by another expansion in the sixth century, which is detailed in an inscription found on a side chapel floor (not featured in the model).
Click the information icons to learn about the unique features of the crypt, including its lighting and marble decoration. The bronze and glass lamps and lamp chains seen in the reconstruction were modeled directly from artifacts from the church. Interestingly, in the crypt, archaeologists found hundreds of ceramic lamps dated to the ninth–tenth centuries, the church’s final phase of use. Their presence shows that even after Islamic rulers had gained control of the area, lamp lighting—as a veneration ritual—continued at the Church of the Glorious Martyr.
Exit the crypt and either continue to explore the church or hit the home button in the top right corner of the screen. This will bring you back to the home screen and allow you to select a new tour. For those who want an immersive experience, choose the video tour, which even includes an audio component. In the courtyard, you can hear birds’ chirping. Inside the church, you can listen to liturgical music sung by Cappella Romana. Those who like a challenge can test their knowledge of the site by taking the trivia-based tour. Read the Biblical Archaeology Review article to improve your score!
Visit www.martyr.app and step inside the Church of the Glorious Martyr. Then learn more about the glorious church—and discover a possible identification of the mysterious martyr—in Benyamin Storchan’s article “A Glorious Church for a Mysterious Martyr,” published in the Fall 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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