6th-Century Church with rare intact crypt found in Beit Shemesh
Today, no one knows who the “glorious martyr” was, at least not yet. But Benjamin Storchan and the Israel Antiquity Authority have found the martyr’s forever home, a crypt, still intact, which is a very unusual find. The Byzantine church that housed the crypt was excavated in Ramat Beit Shemesh, less than twenty miles from Jerusalem.
The church was built under Emperor Justinian (527-565 C.E.) A chapel was added when Tiberius II Constantine (574-582 C.E.) was emperor. This is known because the IAA excavation uncovered a Greek inscription indicating that Tiberius II funded the elaborate chapel south of the main body of the church. In the courtyard, the team also discovered the inscription commemorating the “glorious martyr”, whoever that may have been.
The church, very large for its time, was laid out as a basilica, featuring a main central hall with an aisle on each side. IAA Archaeologists believe pilgrims went down via one staircase into the crypt and out via another so the church could accommodate a large volume of worshipers. Mosaics of birds, plants, and geometrical shapes decorated the church. Colorful frescoes also brightened the walls.
Over the last three years, thousands of artifacts have been recovered from the site by the team of professionals and many hundreds of teenage volunteers. One unique item was a baptismal font shaped like a cross made of calcite stone. They also found the most complete collection of glass window panes yet recovered from a Byzantine church in Israel. The windows, as well as the many lamps found that had been used inside the church, are especially illuminating to modern understanding of the use of light in the Byzantine church. As Jodi Magness explains in “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem” (Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1998), light and the lamps that provide it can be an important clue to how the religion was practiced in that time and place.
In addition to the Byzantine lamps, Islamic clay lamps were found, indicating that the “glorious martyr” was still visited–and Christianity still practiced–after Muslims conquered the Holy Land. This supports the controversial theories of those archaeologists who believe that 7th-century forced conversion to Islam, and destruction of Christian architecture, has been exaggerated. Rather, a more gradual transition may have taken place. The Church of the Glorious Martyr may have continued to serve a shrinking population of worshipers until it was abandoned intact in the 9th century.
Some of the artifacts have now been made available to be viewed in the Bible Lands Museum’s exhibit, The Glorious Martyr, which opened October 23rd, in Jerusalem, and will run until April, 2020. There are plans to open The Church of the Glorious Martyr itself to the public in the future.
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