Tag Archives: mosaic

Hisham’s Palace in Jericho

The Umayyads ruled from Damascus but built a number of palace complexes in this area – we have found ruins of their palaces in Jerusalem, at the southern corner of the Western wall and at Khirbet al-Minya, on the Sea of Galilee beside Karei Deshe.

Palace entrance

One of the most impressive sites from the Umayyad period (661-750) is the ruins of Khirbet al-Mafjar (meaning flowing water ruins), popularly known as Hisham’s palace just outside Jericho and I am now authorized to guide tourists there.

Hisham's name on marble, from Hamilton

Hisham’s name on marble, from Hamilton

The palace is identified with Hisham ibn abd el-Malik (ruled 723-743) because of an inscription containing his name, in ink on a marble slab, found at the site by Dmitry Baramki who excavated there under the British between 1934 and 1948. Based on the artwork that decorated the palace, Robert Hamilton, Director of Antiquities under the British, argued that the palace was a residence of al-Walid b. al-Yazid (ruled 743-744), a nephew of Hisham who was famous for his extravagant lifestyle which probably led to his assassination.  Al-Walid II was a hunter, poet and musician, something of a playboy who loved the good life.

Khirbet al-Mafjar planThe site is thought to have been destroyed by the severe earthquake of 749 CE before it was completed, but an analysis of Baramki’s detailed reports of the ceramic record indicates that the occupation continued through the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with a significant phase of occupation between 900–1000.

In walking around the site you will get to view the ruins of the palace, the bath complex, a pavilion and mosque enclosed by a wall; more recently, excavations to the north have uncovered an agricultural estate. The excavations uncovered fine mosaics and elaborate stucco figures, as well as stone sculpture and frescoes. The carved stucco is of exceptional quality in geometric and vegetal patterns; in the bath complex there are even male and female figures, their upper bodies naked.

Pavilion Facade

Caliph on Lions

A statue depicting a male standing figure with a sword on two lions, very likely the caliph patron himself, stood in a niche above the entrance to the bath hall.

The floors are decorated with incredible mosaics but unfortunately, besides the well-known Tree of Life mosaic in the bahw or special reception room in the bath complex, most are currently covered. This floor mosaic consists of a fruit tree (apple, lemon or quince) under which on the left are two gazelles grazing and on the right a lion pouncing on a gazelle. Given that the mosaic is in the bahw the image is more than just a popular hunting scene¹. Here the lion represents the ruling Caliph and the gazelles the subjects, living in peace or being subdued.

Tree of Life mosaic

There is little to see of the plaster sculptures and stucco as they were removed from the site during the British period and are on display in one hall at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

Sculpted ceiling plaster

Entrance

In the back corner of the courtyard are some Umayyad architectural details, part of a sculpted arch with its original paint and an example of a merlon, a step-shaped stone that sits on the top of a wall.

Umayyad

As your guide I can help you create an itinerary that matches your interests and ensures that not only do you get to visit archaeological sites which enable you to understand the context but museums that display and explain the artifacts discovered at the site so that you get the most out of your visit.


Reference
Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, The Lion-Gazelle Mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar, 1997.

Lion & Gazelles

¹ Interestingly, I saw a similar motif in mosaic from a Byzantine church on display at the Israel Museum.

Lion killing ox

Grazing

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

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