JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli archaeologists have uncovered a significant 1,500-year-old church near Israel's Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood.
This Byzantine-era church was erected during the time of Emperor Justinian in 543 AD. A chapel was later added during the reign of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine. The inscription found at the excavation site says the church was completed with his financial support.
"Numerous written sources attest to imperial funding for churches in Israel, however, little is known from archaeological evidence such as dedicatory inscriptions like the one found in Beit Shemesh," said Benjamin Storchan, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "Imperial involvement in the building's expansion is also evoked by the image of a large eagle with outspread wings – the symbol of the Byzantine Empire – which appears in one of the mosaics."
The three-year excavation revealed a complex that was once adorned with detailed mosaics, towering pillars, and colorful frescoes.
Archaeologists found an inscription still intact in the church's courtyard. The inscription indicates that the church is dedicated to a "glorious martyr."
"The martyr's identity is not known, but the exceptional opulence of the structure and its inscriptions indicate that this person was an important figure," said Storchan.
His team also uncovered fully intact crypts beneath the church.
"Only a few churches in Israel have been discovered with fully intact crypts," Storchan explained. "The crypt served as an underground burial chamber that apparently housed the remains (relics) of the martyr. The crypt was accessed via parallel staircases – one leading down into the chamber, the other leading back up into the prayer hall. This enabled large groups of Christian pilgrims to visit the place."
The excavations were mostly done by thousands of teenagers who were invited by the Israel Antiquities Authority to help uncover history through archaeology.
They found thousands of objects, including Byzantine glass windows, lamps, and a baptismal font.
The Bible Lands Museum partnered with the Israeli Antiquities Authority to make the project possible.
"We are proud of our collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority bringing to light these important new finds for the thousands of visitors from all faiths ages and nationalities, inviting them to appreciate the rich cultural heritage of the Land of Israel," said Amanda Weiss, the museum's director.