Tag Archives: Byzantine

Photo of the Week – Nitzana

Nitzana is an ancient Nabataean city in the southwest Negev desert in Israel close to the Egyptian border. It may have been a camel caravansary on the eastern branch of the ancient Spice Route, serving pilgrims and merchants travelling to Sinai. This week’s photo shows the remains of the German-Turkish hospital (1906-1917) built on ruins of a Byzantine fort at Nitzana.

NitzanaThe technical details – the photo was taken in December 8 years ago with a Nikon point and shoot camera (ISO 100, 8mm, F7.6 at 1/263 sec).

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Photographs on this website are © Shmuel Browns (unless marked otherwise) – if you are interested in purchasing one of my photos or using one of my photos for your own project please contact me.

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Mosaics at Bet Qama

Israel Antiquities Authority reported on excavations it is carrying out prior to construction of the extension of highway 6 north of Beersheva.

Byzantine crossRemains of a settlement that extends across more than six dunams were uncovered in the excavation being conducted in the fields of Kibbutz Bet Qama. The site seems to have consisted of a large estate that included a tower, a church, residential buildings, presumably an inn for travelers, and storerooms, a large cistern, a public building and pools surrounded by farmland. Also found was a stone with a Byzantine cross in secondary usage. It seems to me that this would be a good candidate for a monastery. Bet Qama excavationThe public building was a large hall 12 meters long by 8.5 meters wide. A spectacular colorful mosaic dating to the Byzantine period (4th–6th centuries CE) was exposed in recent weeks. The well-preserved mosaic consists of 3 square sections each surrounding a circle decorated with geometric patterns. One has amphorae (jars used to transport wine) in two opposite corners, one with a pair of peacocks, the other a pair of doves pecking at grapes on a tendril. These are common designs that are known from this period; however, what makes this mosaic unique is the large number of motifs that were incorporated in one carpet.

North carpet

Middle carpet

South carpet

Pools and a system of channels and pipes between them used to convey water were discovered in front of the building. Steps were exposed in one of the pools (not a ritual bath, miqve, according to IAA) whose walls were covered with multiple layers of colored plaster (fresco) implying that whatever the pool was later used for, it continued for some time – no theory about what it might have been used for.

Pool w frescoArchaeologists in the Antiquities Authority are still trying to determine the purpose of the impressive public building and the pools whose construction required considerable economic resources. No destruction layer was found, the site was vacated in the Early Arab period.

In other excavations nearby, two Jewish settlements were found. At Horbat Rimon a synagogue and miqve were exposed. At Nahal Shoval the remains of two Jewish ritual baths and two public buildings were uncovered. Both of the public buildings feature raised platforms along the walls facing Jerusalem, a feature of Jewish synagogues of the period.

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).

Image

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.

Gamla – Nature, Archaeology and History

Gamla is both a nature reserve and archaeological site making it a great place to visit. We started with an easy hike, through a field of dolmens, prehistoric megalith tombs erected in the early Middle Bronze period about 2200BCE. A dolmen is made up of three large basalt stones, one lying on two other stones standing vertically. The hike takes us across a wooden bridge to the other side of Nahal Gamla for a view of the waterfall, at 51m the highest in Israel.

Gamla Waterfall

Take the trail past a Byzantine town to the Raptor lookout – the nahal is home to a large nesting population of Griffon vultures (that Israel has successfully resettled there) who did a fly past for us over the valley, it’s an incredible sight to see them gliding on the thermals.

The ancient city is situated on a steep hill (a horst like Masada) shaped like a camel’s hump, from which it derives its name (gamal means ‘camel’ in Hebrew). Jews inhabited it from the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE, and it was annexed to the Hasmonean state under Alexander Jannaeus in about 81BCE. Josephus Flavius, commander of the Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome fortified Gamla as the main stronghold on the Golan. It’s fascinating to compare Gamla, a city and one of the first to stand against Vespasian’s legions with Masada, a fortress and the last to fall to the Romans.

Josephus provides a detailed description of the Roman siege and destruction of Gamla (like at Masada). Vespasian and his son Titus led the X Fretensis, XV Apollinaris and V Macedonica legions against Gamla, built a siege ramp in an attempt to take the city but were repulsed by the defenders. Only on the second attempt did the Romans succeed in breaching the wall at three different locations and invading the city. There they engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting in the cramped streets from an inferior position, the Roman soldiers climbed onto the roofs that subsequently collapsed under the heavy weight, killing many soldiers and forcing a Roman retreat. The legionnaires re-entered the town a few days later, eventually beating Jewish resistance and completing the capture of Gamla.

According to Josephus, some 4,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, while 5,000, trying to escape down the steep northern slope, were either trampled to death or fell or threw themselves into the ravine (perhaps exaggerated by Josephus, the number of inhabitants has been estimated at less than 4,000 – at Masada 960 lost their lives).

Abandoned after its destruction, Gamla lay in ruins for almost 2000 years and was only identified in 1968 by Itzhaki Gal who was doing an archaeological survey of sites in the Golan after the Six Day War. It was excavated by Shemaryahu Gutmann (who did the original survey at Masada and who excavated there with Yigal Yadin) and Danny Syon for 14 seasons from 1976. The excavations uncovered 7.5 dunam, about 5% of the site, revealing a typical Jewish city.

The Gamla excavations revealed widespread evidence of the battle, about 100 catapult bolts, 1600 arrowheads and 2000 ballista stones, made from local basalt, 200 artifacts of Roman army equipment, quantities unsurpassed anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most were collected near the wall, placing the heavy fighting in the vicinity of the wall and the Roman siege engines to the northeast of the town.

Only one human jawbone was found during the exploration of Gamla, raising a question about what happened to the bodies of the Jewish defenders (like Masada). A tentative answer is suggested by archaeologist Danny Syon – he suggests that the dead would have been buried at nearby mass graves that have yet to be found (as at Yodfat).

One of the most interesting finds is the remains of a typical “Galilean” style synagogue inside the city walls, with rows of columns, tiers of side benches, heart-shaped corner pillars and an alcove for Torah scrolls in the northwest corner. A mikveh (ritual bath) was found nearby. Interesting to compare this to the synagogue found at Masada. The synagogue is thought to date from the late 1st century BCE making it one of the oldest synagogues in the world.

Also found were six coins minted at Gamla during the Revolt, with the inscription “For the redemption of Holy Jerusalem” in a mixture of paleo-Hebrew and Aramaic that shows that the defenders of Gamla saw their fight against the Romans as no less than a struggle for national independence.

The Golan Archaeological Museum in nearby Katzrin displays artifacts from Gamla and other sites on the Golan and a moving film about Gamla – definitely worth a visit.

Hirbet Midras Vandalized!

Just reported by Ynet (in Hebrew), Hirbet Midras, the site of the Byzantine church in the Ella Valley with the incredible mosaic floors, uncovered just two months ago and visited by tens of thousands of people was deliberately and brutally vandalized Wednesday night. The Antiquities Authority had made considerable effort to prepare the site and had decided to leave the mosaics uncovered so that people could visit and see them. The supervisor and archaeologist in charge, Alon Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Crime Prevention unit was shocked to find the destruction this morning when he arrived at the site.

Photo courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

“Someone took a hammer and attacked the mosaic, digging them up in a large number of spots. A person hiking in the park had reported the damage. The mosaic looks like it has been hit by mortar shelling. It’s a sad sight, heart breaking. The mosaics suffered serious damage as a result of brutal vandalism. ” said Klein.

Photo courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

The Antiquities Authority has filed a criminal complaint with the police who are investigating. The mosaics will now be covered to protect them. When asked about whether the damage could be repaired the response was that it would be time-consuming and require a significant outlay of money but hopefully it could be done (at least to a certain degree).

This on the heels of the explosion yesterday near the entrance to Jerusalem and the escalation of rockets and mortar being fired on Beersheva and the coastal cities of Israel from Gaza. Sigh.

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.

Byzantine Church, Hirbet Midras

Amir Ganor is not your usual archaeologist. Although he works for the Israel Antiquities Authority he packs a handgun because his primary responsibility is apprehending thieves who plunder sites for valuable artifacts to sell on the antiquities market. In this case a group of Palestinians were breaking into the complex of tunnels and caves in the Judean Coastal Plain or shefela in the area of Beit Guvrin, specifically Hirbet Midras, looking for coins and other treasure. This led Ganor to the site where a large stone lintel was uncovered.

The same lintel was first uncovered in the 1980s and based on the expert opinion of Prof. Amos Kloner was thought to be from a synagogue since it was almost identical to one found in the north at Hirbet Nevoraya. Ganor requested approval and support from the Antiquities Authority to excavate the area to discover more about the public building. Within a short time very impressive and beautiful floor mosaics were uncovered. Large dressed stones with what look like Byzantine crosses were discovered when the plaster covering them fell off. Combined with the architectural details, an apse, a crypt, mosaic floors, it seems that the building was a church. The church was destroyed by an earthquake some 1,300 years ago and lay mostly covered until the 19th century. The columns and capitals are displayed exactly as they were found, lying parallel on the ground and the northern wall is angled out from the movement of the earthquake.

There are several construction phases, in the last two the building was used as a splendid church. However, in the first phase the excavation shows that the later church was built inside a large public compound from the Second Temple period. The church, in its last phases, was built as a basilica, a central nave and two wide aisles that are delineated by eight marble columns with magnificent capitals which were specially imported (the eight bases can be seen but only 3 capitals and columns remain). The front of the church had a large flagstone courtyard, a narthex, and at the end of the nave is a raised bema or platform (that was added later – you can see that the mosaic floor continues under the bema).

All of the floors in the building were adorned with incredible mosaics, that are extraordinarily well preserved; these include both geometric designs and floral, fauna, fish, birds and fruit. Today I went out to the site to photograph the mosaics (before they are covered to protect them until the site can be readied for visitors). You can view them at https://israeltours.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/mosaics-hirbet-midras/

Located behind the bema are two rooms, one paved with a marble floor and the other that led to an underground tomb that was empty.

Beneath the entire building is a subterranean complex in which there are rooms, water installations, traps and store rooms for hiding. Among the artifacts discovered are coins from the time of the Great Revolt (66-70 CE) and the Bar Kokhba uprising (132-135 CE), stone vessels, lamps and various pottery vessels that are characteristic of the Jewish population from the settlement at that time.

Scholars who visited the site during the excavation proposed identifying the crypt as the tomb of the prophet Zechariah. Early Christian sources identified his burial place in the village of Zechariah which was discovered in 415CE. In light of these sources, including the Madaba Map (the building with the apse with the Greek, ΒΕθΖΑΧΑΡ to its left is Bet Zechariah), scholars think the church at Hirbet Midras is a memorial church meant to mark the tomb of the prophet Zechariah.