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Church in Prison (2006)

All photos © Israel Antiquities Authority.

Archaeologists in Israel have just announced their latest find—an ancient church, complete with mosaics  – found inside a modern prison!

The excavation site inside the Megiddo Prison.

The excavation site inside the Megiddo Prison.

This maximum security prison is located very close to Biblical Megiddo, famous site in northern Israel, 12 km south of Nazareth.

With a commanding view of the Jezreel valley, and being along a major international route, Megiddo was a major Canaanite and Israelite city.

In the Roman period, a Roman legion was stationed near the tell, at a site called Legio.  In 1936 the British built a fortress next to the main junction near Megiddo. Later that fortress was turned into a prison, by the state of Israel.

Due to a need to expand the prison, the state planned a construction project in its northern wing, but being next to area of antiquities the Israel Antiquities authority (IAA) conducted a survey of the site. The survey indicated the presence of antiquities and so salvage excavations commenced. 60 of the trusted prisoners were granted permission to participate in the dig.

Most of the finds were from the Roman and Byzantine periods (1st-6th century CE), and some were already known from excavations conducted at the site during the British mandate period.

But the new excavations also exposed a well preserved large mosaic floor (9 x 6 m) with mostly geometric decorations, but also with four inscriptions.

mosaic floor discovered in the Megiddo prison

The mosaic floor of the main hall discovered in the Megiddo prison. Except for two fish (seen in the central left part of the mosaic) it is mostly with geometric decorations, yet it bears also four important inscriptions.

It is the inscriptions who generated the special interest in the find. They described dedications to “Jesus Christ”, but according to the epigraphist Dr. L. Di-Segni, an expert on Greek and Latin inscription (and my epigraphy teacher at the Hebrew University) the inscriptions dates to the early 4th century – a very early age for a Christian inscription!. Only after 312 CE Christianity turned from a persecuted sect to a legitimate religion in the Roman Empire. This building is therefore one of the earliest Christian prayer halls ever found!.

One inscription commemorates four women, and Akeptos, “Lover of God, [who] donated this table to the God, Jesus Christ, as a memorial.”

mosaic inscription from the Megiddo

On of the mosaic inscription from the Megiddo prison records that Akeptos, “Lover of God, donated this table to the God, Jesus Christ, as a memorial.” The title "God, Jesus Christ" is emphasized by a line above the letters.

Another inscription mentions “Gaianos”, a Roman army officer who donated money to construct the mosaic floor. Perhaps Gaianos was stationed at Legio, only 2 kmaway. This officer may have had to live a double life and attend this prayer hall only in disguise.

The first part of a mosaic inscription mentioning Gaianos

The first part of a mosaic inscription mentioning Gaianos, a Roman army officer who donated money to construct the floor.

This discovery is of major importance, and its exposure got world media coverage. Yet located within a prison, developing the archaeological site into a tourist attraction is a major problem. One option debated now is to move the whole prison to a new location. I personally seriously doubt if budgets will be found for such a project. An option I favor is creating a safe access to the mosaic floor through the prison, generating a very unique tourist attraction (where else can you see an early church in a modern jail?..).

Meanwhile the find is closed to the public, and so this early church floor remains in prison.

In front of the world’s press, a prisoner cleans the section of mosaic floor showing two fish.

In front of the world’s press, a prisoner cleans the section of mosaic floor showing two fish. Will this mosaic be accessible also for the general public?