Celebrating the 50th issue of Archaeological Diggings, I chose to skip my usual report on new finds and researches, and reminisce over the 50 most outstanding sites and/or finds found in the Land of the Bible. The list is long, so I have chosen to present my “Top 50” in two reports. Part 1, in this issue, will cover numbers 50 to 26. The top 25 will appear in our next issue.
Of course, this is a personal list, reflecting my opinion and fields of interest. Some of the finds are both beautiful and important, while others are no more then eroded inscriptions, but have considerable historical significance. This is not a complete list because of constraints of space. Readers who feel that a certain find was neglected are invited to comment on what they consider should be in the “Top 50”.
50. The Negev cities.
These sites, all in the harsh Negev desert, flourished during the Early Roman period, when Nabatean caravans crossed the sandy tracks of what is today southern Israel. The cities experienced a second flowering in Byzantine times (325-638 CE) when many fine churches were built. Abandoned since the Arab conquest (638 CE), these cities are unusually well preserved.
The next three sites are connected with the story of Jesus. Every Christian knows about the ministry of Jesus in the area of the Sea of Galilee, but the locations of most of the sites mentioned in the New Testament (NT) remain uncertain, as the Scriptures usually give only vague geographical description.
49. Kursi – Site of the Swine miracle.
Archaeological research around the Sea of Galilee uncovered many Christian sites venerated in the Byzantine period (325- 638 CE). Kursi is a monastery complex which was found by accident, and is not mentioned in any historical source, but was probably built to commemorate the “miracle of the swine” (Matt 8:28-34), thought to have occurred nearby.
At Tabgha, a piece of a mosaic floor depicting a fish and two baskets full of bread is believed to commemorate the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes which took place nearby.
47. The Anchor church at Tiberias
More surprising is a large church excavated on a hill above Tiberias, where a stone anchor was found under the floor of the main apse, appearing to be some kind of sacred relic. This site also is not known from any Christian source.
46. Chalcolithic hoard from Nahal Mishmar.
Hidden for over 5,000 years ago in a cave near Masada, this hoard is mute testimony to the wealth and cultural complexity of the Chalcolithic period people. 442 objects were found in this hoard, most of them copper casts. But To this day archaeologists are puzzled regarding their function, and why they were hidden in a remote cave in the Judean desert.
Next on the list are the Crusader castles. The Crusaders (1099-1291 CE)
left their mark in various ways in the Holy Land. Most spectacular are their fortresses, all built in strategic locations on hilltops.
Karak Castle is perhaps the best preserved of the Crusader castles, a magnificent example of Frankish architecture.
Acre is a striking example of urban Crusader architecture. Massive defense walls, a harbor, streets, and even a secret tunnel, are reminiscent of those turbulent times.
43. Kal’at Namrud
Kal’at Namrud is a well-preserved fortress built in a medieval European style above Banias (Caesarea Philippi),although it was actually erected by the Arabs (Ayubiansand Mamluks) against the Crusaders and their dominance on the road to Damascus. The ruins are immense and the view from the site to the Hulah valley is spectacular.
42. Belvoir Castle
To the list of impressive and well preserved Crusader period remains, one could add Belvoir a huge Hospitallers fort. Other impressive Crusaders castles include,Monfort, Beaufort, Atlit, Caesarea, and more.
41. Kidron valley tombs.
Although all hewn out of rock some two thousand years ago, and always exposed, the Kidron valley tombs (Absalom’s memorial, the tomb of Bnei-Hezir, and Zachariah’s monument) are still intact and fascinate visitors. Bnei-Hezir’s tomb is the only tomb identified by any inscription, indicating that it belonged to one of the priestly families from Jerusalem during the Second Temple period (536 BC-70 CE). The other two are named by tradition after Biblical figures, but their true origins remain uncertain.
40. Mar-Saba Monastery.
Of the many monasteries that flourished in the Judean desert in the Byzantine period (325-638 CE), the Mar-Saba monastery is the most complete and one of the very few still active. Furthermore, in the cliffs around the monastery caves once used by hermits can be seen to this days, as well as an ancient aqueduct.
39-38. Jericho and Ai.
These sites are important for finds that they did NOT yield. The book of
Joshua gives detailed descriptions of how both places were taken and burned by the Israelites. Despite large-scale excavations, no evidence of a wide spread destruction in the 12th-11th centuries BCE has ever come to light. These negative findings are important for critical appraisal of the book of Joshua.
37. Bet-Alpha synagogue.
Over 100 synagogues have been excavated in the Holy Land so far, and they shed light in a unique way on Judaism in the Byzantine period. They demonstrate for instance that the Jews of that period did NOT object to figurative art. Moreover they frequently depicted the zodiac and even the pagan god Helios. I chose the Beth-Alpha synagogue because it was one of the first to be found (in 1928), its mosaic floors are complete, and the mosaic style is unique.
The next two sites are the two Biblical tells of Hazor and Megiddo which tell us much about urban life in ancient Israel. Both were large flourishing Canaanite city-states dominating international routes, and later became populous Israelite cities.
Hazor, “formerly the head of all those kingdoms” (Josh 11:10), covered over 200 acres in Canaanite times. As an Israelite city it contained impressive fortifications, a royal mansion, and an elaborate water system.
Megiddo, the city that gave its name to the “battle of Armageddon,” also experienced a metamorphosis from Canaanite to Israelite city. Excavations here revealed extensive fortifications, mansions, and a sophisticated water system accessed by an underground tunnel. A unique feature found there was a collection of stables, indicating its use as a garrison for horses and chariots, although their date and ownership are disputed.
34. The Galilee boat.
Found by accident by two brothers from the nearby Kibbutz Ginnosar, this badly built and poorly preserved vessel dates back to the days of Jesus and tells us something about the poor and simple fisherman and peasants with whom he associated. The site of Ginnosar is mentioned specifically in the NT where, after walking on the water (Matt 14:34-36), Jesus is said to have gone ashore. Although it cannot be proven, it is possible that the boat belonged to one of the disciples, and that
Jesus himself may have even sailed in this vessel.
Capernaum (literally “the village of Nahum”) lies on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Known mostly from the New Testament, Capernaum was where Jesus resided for a number of years. Some of the archaeological finds dating from the first century CE include the foundations of a synagogue, and a house tentatively named “Peter’s house”. In the Byzantine period an octagonal church with colored mosaic floors was built over “Peter’s house,” and the Synagogue was rebuilt on a grand scale, using highly decorative architectural elements. The barren landscape around the site has barely changed in the past 2,000 years, and a visit to the site is a moving experience for the Christian pilgrim.
Of the next three sites, two are in Israel—Caesarea and Beth-Shean—while the third, Jerash, is in Jordan. They beautifully illustrate urban life in Roman Palestine.
Caesarea “Maritima” (on the sea) was a major port city and at times was a provincial capital. Founded by Herod, the city was well planned with wide streets intersecting at right angles. It featured a hippodrome, a theatre, an amphitheatre, and bathhouses. Large scale restoration at the site gives the visitor a genuine feel for this metropolis in antiquity.
With the exception of the harbor, almost the same description can apply to Beth-Shean. Inhabited since pre-biblical times, the tel of Beth-Shean revealed Egyptian artifacts and architecture, providing valuable testimony for the dominance of the Egyptians in this land during Canaanite times. In the Roman and Byzantine periods Beth-Shean, renamed as Nyse– Scythopolis and becoming a member of the Decapolis, spread into the valley north of the tel. Large-scale excavations at the site revealed a well-planned city with various shrines, a theatre, an amphitheatre, and the largest bathhouse complex found in this region.
Another member of the Decapolis, Jerash (Gerasa in Greek), is the best preserved Classical city in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Its most outstanding feature, the oval forum, is largely intact. Other well-preserved public buildings include shrines to Artemis and Zeus, theatres, a bathhouse, and the main street (the CardoMaximus).
Sepphoris was a well-known Jewish centre in antiquity. It was here that the Mishnah (the Jewish oral law) was compiled and set down in writing, and it was here where R. Judah “the prince” resided. The remains found in the city include a theatre, some Roman period villas, and a large collection of mosaic floors, the most famous is the one depicting a portrait of a lady known as “the Mona Lisa of Galilee”.
28. Beth Shearim
Near Sepphoris, and contemporary with it, is Beth-Shearim (meaning “house of gates”). Beth-Shearim bears the biggest Jewish necropolis (cemetery) from antiquity. Numerous coffins of varying shapes, many of them with epitaphs, were found in over 30 caves, reminiscent of the catacombs in Rome.
27. St. Catherine’s Monastery
Built in the 6th century CE by the emperor Justinian at the foot of the Mt Sinai, St Catherine’s monastery is a beautifully preserved complex in the wilds of the SinaiDesert. On the walls of the main church some of the original Byzantine period mosaics are still intact. Yet the chief find from this monastery was a complete copy of the Bible in Greek from the 4th century CE, known as Codex Sinaiticus. It is the oldest copy of the Bible other than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
26. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
A small cave near ancient Bethlehem was identified during the rule of Constantine the Great as the birthplace of Jesus, and a large basilica was built over it in the 4thcentury CE. Renovated in the 6th century CE and rebuilt by the Crusaders, the church is a genuine expression of Crusader and Byzantine architecture and art. Pillars and wall mosaics in the nave still show paintings made by the crusaders, while the original mosaic floors from Byzantine times are visible beneath the modern floor.
IN OUR NEXT ISSUE: Part 2 of this article will list the “top 25” archaeological discoveries in Israel.