During ancient biblical times, when a religious person sacrificed themselves fighting for their beliefs, that person became a martyr, and sometimes a church was built and dedicated to them. Now one of those churches has been unearthed in Israel and it’s one of the best examples of a Byzantine church ever found.
Dubbed the Church of the Glorious Martyr by archaeologists, the basilica was discovered by a team in Beit Shemesh, just west of Jerusalem. Israel Antiquities Authority dig director Benjamin Storchan has been excavating and studying the site for several years with the help of thousands of teenage volunteers who want to learn more about their history.
The church was found in an area where a planned neighborhood is set to be built. But unlike many churches that have signs of destruction by invaders, it appears this particular structure was closed up by those who intended to come back but never did.
Sealed and undisturbed
“We found the entrances to the church sealed with large stones, meaning the last people who were here knew they had to leave but they had time to close the doors, and they were hoping to come back,” Storchan told Haaretz.
The evidence also indicates that even though an Islamic invasion occurred sometime during the 7th century, the structure remained intact and free from pillaging.
“A number of excavations over the last 20 years have shown that the theory of a conquest by sword is being washed away,” Storchan says. “Islamic sources may have exaggerated how quick and violent the conversion was.”
Indeed, there was a violent conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims in 637 AD when the Rashidun Caliphate commanded by Abu Ubaidah marched to the city.
Ubaidah took his orders from Caliph Umar, a successor of the Prophet Muhammad, who had died just five years earlier. Umar is known as one of the most powerful and influential Muslim caliphs in history.
Umar ordered Ubaidah to capture Jerusalem. Once his army approached the city its Byzantine defenders withdrew behind the fortified walls, resulting in the Siege of Jerusalem that lasted for nearly six months until the city finally surrendered.
The region would remain under Muslim rule until the 11th century when Christian European kingdoms engaged in the First Crusade, which would lead to several hundred years of further crusades and bloodshed that have shaped the region to this day.
One would have thought that the Muslim invaders would have destroyed the church. After all, it is dedicated to a Christian martyr. But they left it alone in peace and pilgrims continued to visit until the 9th century during a time of economic strife that left the church with fewer and fewer visitors.
Built during the reign of Justinian between 527 AD and 565 AD, the Church of the Glorious Martyr featured remarkable mosaics and detailed inscriptions, including one dedicated to Emperor Tiberius II Constantine, who donated money to the church and ruled for just eight years from 574 to 582 AD.
“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,” says Storchan.
As a testament to the importance of Constantine’s donations, there’s even a mosaic featuring an eagle memorializing his death and his rule.
Inscriptions also identify the name of the benefactor and abbot of the monastery as Malchos, which is such a common name at the time that it could take scholars awhile to find the correct Malchos if they can do it at all.
An unknown martyr
One name they haven’t found yet is the name of the martyr to whom the church is dedicated, but Storchan says he must have been very important.
“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,” Storchan said.
In fact, this martyr was so important that this church is much bigger than most Byzantine churches found in the region.
“Both the basilica and the courtyard are massive for the period – larger than most Byzantine churches found in the Holy Land,” Storchan explained.
Storchan went on to point out that the location of the church makes it pretty clear that it was built to honor a martyr.
“It’s doesn’t make sense to build such a monumental structure at the bottom of a valley, unless it marks the place of the death or the subsequent burial of the martyr,” he said.
A fully intact crypt
Of course, over time the church fell into ruins and became buried and forgotten. But miraculously, the crypt of the church remained intact and accessible via a staircase.
“Only a few churches in Israel have been discovered with fully intact crypts,” Storchan noted. “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.”
Inside the crypt is where the church stored the relics and the team also found 300 clay oil lamps from the Abbasid period, also known as the Islamic Golden Age.
The team is continuing the excavation, and more research could one day reveal the identity of the martyr.
If that name is one day revealed, whoever made a sacrifice so great that a church was built to honor their memory will once again be known and remembered.
The good news is that this site will be preserved for future generations to experience for themselves since the neighborhood will be built around it and any pipelines will go around it as well. The Church of the Glorious Martyr is truly an extraordinary example of a Byzantine holy site that tells quite a story, a story that will continue to unfold as long as it is still willing to share its secrets.
See more in the video from Haaretz below:
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