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Byzantine church of “glorious martyr” discovered in Israel

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An inscription indicating that Emperor Tiberius II funded its construction suggests the mystery martyr was a figure of great importance.

No one knows who the “Glorious Martyr” was, but experts in the field all seem to agree on one thing: the 1,500-year-old church outside of Jerusalem that was named for him was one glorious find.

For one thing, few churches that have been excavated in Israel have preserved, fully intact crypts. This one, discovered in excavations at Ramat Beit Shemesh, does.

Judging from the number of oil lamps that were found in the crypt, archaeologists surmise that it was a place of pilgrimage, where the relics of a martyr once were venerated.

Indeed, “Glorious Martyr” was written in Greek on the mosaic courtyard of the church, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) found. A second inscription indicating that Emperor Tiberius II himself funded its construction suggests the martyr was a figure of great importance.

The church is at the center of a larger architectural complex, according to the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Structured like a basilica, the rectangular church is divided by two parallel rows of pillars into three areas: a central courtyard with halls on either side. In front of the church is a spacious courtyard, or atrium, where the inscription was discovered. Next to the basilica are a number of smaller chapels for prayer and worship,” the website says.

Impressive not only in size, the Basilica is decorated with spectacular mosaic floors depicting birds, fruits, leaves and geometric designs. The walls are covered with colorful frescoes. Several of the pillars’ capitals are engraved and made from imported marble. A rare cross-shaped baptismal was also discovered, made from calcite stone quarried mainly from karstic caves.

One thing that makes this church unique is that two parallel staircases access the crypt, one for entering the subterranean chamber and the other for coming back up. According to Benjamin Storchan, who directed the excavations on behalf of the IAA, this system was an architectural adjustment made to accommodate large groups of Christian pilgrims visiting the church and the relics within the crypt.

The Glorious Martyr must have been someone prominent, but no one seems to know who it was.

There is evidence that the church received help from civil authorities, which was not uncommon. Originally built in the 6th century, it was expanded several years later by the Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II Constantine. The financing and expansion of the church was documented by a Greek inscription. Another mosaic depicts a large eagle with spread wings, a symbol of the Byzantine Empire. This also testifies to imperial involvement in the church’s expansion.

This week, the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem initiated an exhibit on the church, including what appears to be the most complete collection of Byzantine windows and lamps ever discovered on a single site in Israel.

 

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