A 1,500-year-old church with an impressive mosaic and five inscriptions was uncovered in the south of Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authorities announced Wednesday.

“An impressive basilica building was discovered at the site, 22 meters long and 12 meters wide,” said Daniel Varga, one of the two archaeologists directing the excavations, which were funded by the Israel Land Authority and located near Kiryat Gat. “The building consists of a central hall with two side aisles divided by marble pillars. At the front of the building is a wide open courtyard (atrium) paved with a white mosaic floor, and with a cistern. Leading off the courtyard is a rectangular transverse hall (narthex) with a fine mosaic floor decorated with colored geometric designs; at its center, opposite the entrance to the main hall, is a twelve-row dedicatory inscription in Greek containing the names Mary and Jesus, and the name of the person who funded the mosaic’s construction.”

The mosaic in the nave, or main hall, was especially striking, with 40 medallions depicting a zebra, leopard, turtle, wild boar, birds, and various geometrical designs. The medallions also contain dedicatory inscriptions in honor of two local church figures, Demetrios and Herakles. Two narrow halls to side of the nave also featured colored mosaic floors.

Archaeologists uncovered evidence of a flourishing local Byzantine culture at the site, including a pottery workshop and glass vessels.
The region, near Israel’s southern coastal plain, was home to an important Byzantine settlement. Archaeologists believe that residents produced and sold wine that found its way across the Mediterranean region. The church itself, which served the surrounding towns, sat on the road between Ashkelon and Jerusalem, where archaeologists have uncovered other Byzantine settlements.

This, however, is the first Byzantine church found in the area.

The site, at Moshav Aluma. will be open to the public Thursday and Friday of this week, before it is covered again.

IAA said it will cover over again the remains of the church itself, but it plans on removing the mosaic and putting it on display in a local museum or visitors’ center.