Category Archives: Mosaics

Khirbet Hanut Mosaic Vandalized

When you hire me as your guide I can take you places and show you things you probably won’t find on your own. Out of Jerusalem along highway 375 is the shell of a small stone building with a sand floor.

The site is from the Byzantine period, the ruins of a monastery with a mosaic floor including an inscription in Greek dated to 563CE. All you have to do is sweep aside the sand (put there to protect the mosaic).


Unfortunately, because the location is accessible somebody took advantage of this and two days ago destroyed the mosaic. According to the report in YNet Israel Antiquities Authority staff collected 23 bags full of the scattered stone cubes (tesserae) from the mosaic. I had even driven by the site on two different days last week on my way to photograph a field covered with thousands of red poppies and had thought to stop and take photographs but didn’t.

These photographs are from a few years ago and I post them here so that you can see what was destroyed. It is terrible when something like this happens.

Khirbet Hanut is not far from Khirbet Midras where the stunning mosaics uncovered in a Byzantine church were vandalized just over a year ago. I posted photographs of those mosaics in my article Khirbet Midras Mosaics.

Kathisma Church

Aerial photo of Kathisma site, IAA

Despite the many people traveling along the main road to Bethlehem (or Gilo or Gush Etzion) before the turnoff to Har Homa and Herodium few notice the ruins of a 5th century Byzantine church and monastery. Discovered by chance in 1992 when the road was paved and excavated briefly in 1999 by Rina Avner, the site is worth exploring but lies abandoned due to lack of money, time and initiative. Called the Kathisma church, after the word in Greek for seat (καθισμα), according to Christian tradition it is where Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem just before giving birth to Jesus.

Most Byzantine churches are in the shape of a basilica, a rectangular plan with a central nave and two aisles, with a semicircular apse at the far end. Not exactly a church, the Kathisma is a martyrium, a special structure that functions as a church (or mosque) and marks the site of a holy event. Rather than a basilica, the church is octagonally shaped and built over a flat, protruding rock in the center. There are 3 concentric octagons, the innermost one around the rock, the second a walkway (ambulatoria) with one chapel and the outer one made up of 4 chapels and smaller rooms.

The floors are covered in mosaics in geometric and floral designs in white, black, yellow, green and red stone tesserae. The mosaics have been mostly covered with felt mats and sand to protect them.

Kathisma palm mosaic from Arab period, IAA

One of the finest mosaics is from the Arab period, an ornate mosaic of a date palm in the southeastern corner. According to the Koran, Mary sat and rested under a palm during the onset of her labor.

There are ruins of another octagonally shaped church at Capernaum. The remains of a 5thC church were uncovered that consist of a central octagon with eight pillars, an exterior octagon with thresholds still in situ, and a portico. Later an apse with a pool for baptism was constructed in the middle of the east wall. The central octagon was placed directly on top of the walls of Simon Peter’s house with the aim of preserving its exact location.

The floor of the portico is a geometric patterned mosaic. In the area of the external octagon, the mosaics represented plants and animals in a style similar to that found in the Basilica of the Heptapegon at Tabgha. In the central octagon, the mosaic was composed of a strip of flowers, a field of fish with small flowers and a circle with a peacock in the center.

Another church that is octagon-shaped and crowned by a copper dome though enclosed in a rectangular envelope is the church on the Mount of Beatitudes. The church is from 1938 and was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in neo-Renaissance (Byzantine) style.

He chose the octagonal shape to match the eight beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-5) and on the eight stained glass windows beneath the dome are verses from the Sermon.

There are only a couple of other churches that have been built over a rock, the Basilica of the Agony and the Basilica of the Heptapegon but neither is an octagon.

According to our understanding the Kathisma church was renovated in the 6thC and used as a mosque in the 8thC after which it was destroyed. A mihrab, or prayer niche facing Mecca was built into the southern wall of the outermost octagon. This means that the church was not destroyed during the Persian conquest and existed at the time of Abd el-Malik who commissioned the building of the Dome of the Rock, a martyrium in octagon shape over a rock – it may have been the inspiration for what has been called the earliest example of Islamic architecture.

Mosaics at Hirbet Midras

All of the floors recently uncovered in the church at Hirbet Midras have incredible mosaics, that are extraordinarily well preserved. The mosaics include both intricate geometric designs and floral, fauna, fish, birds and fruit. The tesserae are fine, 7mm cubes in an assortment of colors enabling the artists to create realistic images. You can click on any of the images to see it in higher resolution.

The apse of the church with a geometric rectangular carpet; the curved part has an image of a rooster and duck in a design of grapevine tendrils and bunches of grapes.

Display of mosaics in the aisle, geometric patterns on either side of a panel with chukar birds.

Close up of the chukar bird panel.

Panel that combines birds, fish and lotus.

Image of a lion attacking what looks like an ibex among grapevines. Interesting to compare it with the image of the lion attacking the deer under the tree from Hisham’s Palace (Khirbet El-Mafjar, 7th century) near Jericho.

Two Churches: Mary and Jesus

Two Churches: Old and New

In the Kidron valley is a church built on a rock cut cave that is the tomb of Mary, mother of Jesus. Through the centuries the cruciform (in the shape of a cross) church was destroyed many times but the facade and wide staircase descending to the tomb is from the Crusader period. On the left side of the staircase a chapel to Joseph, Mary’s husband, on the right a chapel to Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne; Queen Melisende is also buried there. Today the Greek Orthodox Church is in possession of the shrine, sharing it with the Armenian Apostolic Church (the Syriacs, the Copts, and the Abyssinians have minor rights). A niche on the southern wall is a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, installed when Muslims had joint rights to the church.

In a courtyard off the Via Dolorosa in the Old City is a small church that reminds me of the Crusader church. The Church of the Flagellation, marks the Second Station of the Cross, where according to tradition, Roman soldiers flogged Jesus and placed a crown of thorns on his head after he was brought to Pontius Pilate. The architect, Antonio Barluzzi, rebuilt this church in 1929, in medieval style over ancient ruins. Barluzzi designs churches so that the style and decoration preserve the history and recall the events that happened at the site. The facade has one central opening with a Crusader style pillow-shaped arch that incorporates a crown of thorns. There are 10 icons under the roof, a crown of thorns, two representations of a cat of nine tails (see if you can recognize the others, for example there is an image of a rooster and 3 stars*). The floor is made of small, inlaid colored stones in geometric patterns.

Probably the most impressive part of the church are three large stained glass windows: on the left, Pilate washing his hands of the affair, on the right, the victory cry of Barabbas, in front, the flogging of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns amidst the soldiers. Above is a dome in gold mosaic and decorated with a crown of thorns intertwined with flowers.


Click on the thumbnails above to display a larger image (these are quite incredible stained glass images). Included below is a closeup of the dome.

Near the church of the Tomb of Mary are two other Barluzzi churches, the Church of the Agony at Gethsemane, also known as All Nations and the Franciscan chapel farther up the Mount of Olives, Dominus Flevit. You can contact me about arranging a tour to visit Barluzzi churches including:

  1. St Veronica Church, VI Station of Via Dolorosa
  2. Chapel, XI Station in Church of Holy Sepulcher
  3. Church of Visitation, Ein Kerem
  4. Church of Lazarus, Bethpage
  5. Mount of Beatitudes, Galilee
  6. Church of Transfiguration, Mount Tabor

* Rooster and 3 stars refer to Jesus’ prophecy at Gethsemane that Peter will deny him 3 times before the cock crows

Bet Shean – Scythopolis

Bet Shean situated at the junction of the Jordan River valley and Nahal Harod that connects to the Jezreel valley, is an important crossroads because it controls access from the interior to the coast and from Jerusalem to the Galilee. It was called Scythopolis from the Hellenistic period onward and according to Greek mythology was founded by Dionysus. In 63BCE it was conquered by the Roman general Pompey and made a part of the Decapolis, a loose confederation of ten cities that were centers of Greco-Roman culture. It was the largest city according to Josephus and only one west of the Jordan River and is mentioned several times in the New Testament (Matt 4:25; Mk 5:20). This was the period of Pax Romana and the city prospered, evidenced by a high-level of urban planning and extensive construction the remains of which can be seen today in the archaeological park.

You can explore the site and visit the best preserved Roman theatre, a public bathhouse, two magnificent colonnaded streets, a Roman temple, a decorative fountain building (nymphaeum) and other landmarks of a Roman city.

Ancient sources indicate that Scythopolis had a mixed population of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, and Christians. At the western end of Tell Ictaba stood the sixth century Monastery of Lady Mary with a beautiful mosaic floor that depicts the 12 months and the sun and moon as human figures. Outside the city wall a Samaritan synagogue dating to the 5th–early 7th centuries CE was discovered. Its apse is oriented northwest towards Mount Gerizim (not south towards Jerusalem) and the floor is covered by a beautiful mosaic with geometric and plant motifs, but no human images. Another synagogue known as the “House of Leontis” perhaps part of an inn was found with a mosaic floor depicting geometric, animal, and plant motifs, and in the center, a medallion containing a menorah and the Hebrew word shalom. Another mosaic in the complex depicts scenes from Homer’s Odyssey, a five-branched candelabra and scenes of the Nile.

In 634, the second caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khatab took the city on his march through to Egypt. and it reverted back to a variation on its Semitic name, Beisan. The Muslims and Christian majority lived together but the city declined, additional structures were built on the streets themselves, narrowing them to mere alleyways, and makeshift shops were opened among the colonnades. Visitors to the Israel museum can to see the gate of the Umayyad shopping street inlaid with Arabic mosaic inscriptions. On January 18, 749 Beisan was completely devastated by a massive earthquake. A few residential neighborhoods grew up on the ruins but the city never recovered its former glory.

Looking across the site you can’t but notice a hill that rises 50m above the city. It’s worth climbing the stairs to the top for a spectacular view of the city and Bet Shean valley. Looking over the fertile surrounding countryside Rabbi Shimon ben Lakhish (ca. 350CE) wrote that if the Garden of Eden is in the Israel, then its gateway is Beth-Shean (Eruv 19a). This tel was first investigated from 1921 to 1933 by archeologists from the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. As a result of their work, Bet Shean became the first tel in Israel to produce a complete stratigraphic sequence spanning more than 18 layers of occupation from the late Neolithic period (fifth millennium BCE) through medieval times.

Level IX dated to around 1450BCE, was an Egyptian garrison after Thutmose III’s victory against an alliance of 300 Canaanite rulers.

A few hundred years later, the Philistines conquered it (it was they who fastened Saul’s body to the wall of Bet Shean after the famous battle on Mount Gilboa: 1 Samuel 31.8–11). Bet Shean became part of the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and was eventually destroyed in a fire, apparently at the hands of Tiglath-Pileser III, King of Assyria in 732 BCE.

Exploration of the Roman-Byzantine city of Scythopolis at the base of the tel began much later in the 1980s by Mazor of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Foerster and Tsafrir of the Hebrew University. More recent excavations of the tel are reported in detail at

Caesarea-Maritima, Herod’s Promontory Palace

On the Mediterranean coast, 40 km north of Tel Aviv was a small, sleepy Phoenician town founded about the 3rd C BCE with a modest port called Strato’s Tower. All that changed when Herod chose the site for the development of a large, protected harbor. This boosted trade and commerce (and made a lot of money for Herod) and enabled closer ties with the centers of the Roman empire. Caesarea was a well-planned urban center, a walled city with streets laid out in a grid, warehouses, a Roman temple, a large theater (the first one in Israel according to Netzer), a stadium/hippodrome, public baths and according to Josephus several palaces. There was plenty of water for the city brought by an aqueduct. To date, only a small percentage of the city has been excavated.

In Josephus there is a detailed description of Herod’s palace, preceding even the harbor which was an exceptional feat of engineering and probably a great source of pride to Herod. Its location on a promontory jutting 100 meters out into the sea makes it unique and the placement of a pool in the center (where one would expect to find an internal courtyard) shows Herod’s exceptional building style. The other two natural promontories at Caesarea were used to anchor the harbor. All of the pool is hewn into the kurkar sandstone bedrock, coated with hydraulic plaster and from the outset was filled with fresh water and was intended for swimming and bathing. Evidence that pozzolana cement was used in the construction of features of the pool is further evidence that it was constructed at the same time as the harbor.

Some scholars regarded the pool as a fishpond and the entire structure a piscine, or fish market of sorts based on a network of open channels, intermediate pools and sluices linking the pool with the sea but according to Netzer this was at a later stage, 600 years after Herod when the pool was put to secondary use. Many fallen drums, pedestals and capitals were found at the bottom of the pool presumably from rows of columns that framed a peristyle courtyard. The pool is bordered on the east by the triclinium (formal dining room) and on the west by additional rooms closer to the sea (see layouts of the palace).  The floors of the triclinium and smaller rooms on each side had elaborate, geometric mosaic floors. Caesarea was battered by a strong storm in December 2010 (see Haaretz article) and 1000 year old artifacts were swept into the sea and lost forever (on my recent visit to the park I saw Park Authority staff working to cleanup the damage to the palace).

Additional excavations in 1976 followed the development of the east wing during the Roman period. Beside the triclinium was added a small caldarium, whose hypocaust and furnace were well preserved. One of the tiles of the furnace has the stamp of the Legion X Fretensis. Excavators found two inscribed marble columns with six dedicatory inscriptions that reveal important new information about officials of Caesarea from the 2nd-4th C CE.

Besides the architecture there is also the human drama. Josephus describes many incidents in peoples lives that happened in Herod’s palace. Agrippa I died in the palace after opening the Games and blaspheming in the stadium (Acts 12:20-23). A hall in the Upper Palace was the destination of the apostle Paul for a hearing before Antoninus Felix (Acts 23:35.). Later, Herod Agrippa II and his sister Berenike visited a new governor, Porcius Festus, and heard Paul’s self-defense there (Acts 25:23). Josephus relates a demonstration outside of the palace demanding the removal of Roman standards with the images of humans and animals from Jerusalem. Pilate had the Jews held in the stadium and threatened to kill them but backed down. Found at the site was a dedicatory inscription inscribed inscribed with the name Pilatus that was found here (there is a copy at the site, the original is on display at the Israel Museum).

Walking through the hippodrome don’t miss the mosaic floor with images of birds, animals and people from a public building near the bath house. Interesting to compare it with the Bird mosaic from a 6th C mansion/palace nearby.

Madaba map

A few weeks ago I was guiding in the Old City and was explaining about the Madaba map, a graphical representation based on the Bishop Eusebius’ Onomasticon that lists cities and towns in the Holy Land during the Byzantine period. It is the oldest map we have of the area and includes a detailed map of Jerusalem. It was one of the first things that Haim Karel, who taught us in the guides course, impressed on us. It’s like having a map for buried treasure, the Madaba map shows archaeologists where to dig and guides what to guide.

Two summers ago while flying back from Nepal via Jordan we stopped in the sleepy Jordanian town of Madaba and got to see the original map in mosaic on the floor in St. Georges Church, a very special treat. I took this photo in the church.

Because Jerusalem is so important in Christianity the map includes a large and detailed depiction of Jerusalem. Note that in the Byzantine period it was customary to show north on the left (just as we show north up today). Hence, from left to right you can clearly see the Cardo running north-south from Damascus gate. In Arabic, this gate is called Bab el Amud which means the “gate of the column” because inside the gate was a plaza and a column with the statue of the emperor (today the column is gone but you can walk on the Roman flagstones of the plaza). The Madaba map shows that the Cardo joins the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site to Christianity,  to the 5th C Nea Church of Justinian and there were religious processions along the Cardo between the two churches. Other things to notice are the gates of the city and the myriad of churches, any building with a red roof is a church: Holy Zion, Saint Sophia, Santa Anna, Siloam church.

Unusual for a Roman city there is another main north-south road, a secondary Cardo that follows the route of the Tyropean valley, part of which runs along the back of the Western Wall plaza. When plans were being made to build a visitors center for the Tunnel tour they knew that they would be building right on the secondary Cardo. What began as a salvage dig has become an important archaeological excavation. Although not yet open to the public you can view the excavation from a lookout point in the Jewish quarter.