Archaeologists have discovered in Israel a 1,500-year-old church dedicated to an unknown saint, in which animal mosaics have been erased.
There are Greek inscriptions in the church building, which say that it was dedicated to a “glorious martyr,” but does not say who the martyr was.
At the time the church was built, the Byzantine Empire controlled Israel, and an inscription in the church states that the church was expanded during the reign of Emperor Flavius Tiberius, who ruled from 578 to 582. As archaeologists found out, it was not abandoned until the 10th century.
The church was found during excavations prior to construction in the area. The temple is located about 24 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. Benjamin Storchan, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority who directed the excavations at the church, called the building the “Temple of the Glorious Martyr.”
“At its earliest stage, in the fifth century, the Church of the Glorious Martyr consisted of a simple, modest chapel inside a cave hall,” Storchan wrote in the article, noting that it was expanded in the sixth century. The ground temple was decorated with mosaics. Then people turned the cave into a tomb, in which, possibly, the remains of an unknown martyr were kept.
There are traces of ancient iconoclasm on the church – the deliberate destruction of certain artifacts and images. Archaeologists have discovered that some of the mosaics were originally decorated with zoomorphic (animal) images, but they were deliberately erased.
Mosaics “were tainted in antiquity by iconoclasts who replaced zoomorphic forms with random mosaic tiles or stones to blur the original image,” Storchan wrote in the article.
“I believe that iconoclasm in the Church of the Glorious Martyr was committed in the 6th century,” Storchan said, noting that this was probably due to “internal Christian reforms” or changes in the canons. However, having destroyed the zoomorphic images, the iconoclasts left other images of animals alone. “We see this because the floor of the chapel, which depicts many birds, has not been tainted and is dated to the end of the 6th century,” Storchan said.
Although archaeologists do not know the identity of the martyr, one possible theory is that he was dedicated to a man named Zechariah, a name that is mentioned several times in the Bible. Ancient records indicate that the tomb of a Christian martyr with that name was found nearby in the 5th century, and the texts claim that a temple dedicated to Zechariah is located near the excavation site.
However, even if the church was dedicated to Zechariah, the surviving texts do not specify who Zechariah was.
“However, we still hope that through the ongoing study of the thousands of artifacts unearthed during the excavation, new and important clues will reveal the true identity of the mysterious glorious martyr,” Storchan wrote in the article.
The church in Ramat Beit Shemesh. (photo credit: ASAF PERETZ/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)