Some 15 years ago, while on the trail of an elusive Byzantine-era synagogue, archaeologists at the ongoing Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project near the Sea of Galilee began excavating what appeared to be a public building that had been burned to the ground. After quickly discovering that the remains indicated the structure was “just another church” — one of seven at least at the large ancient settlement — the team moved on to other work.
This summer, the settlement’s South-West or Burnt Church was revisited by archaeologists in search of firm dating for the conflagration that both destroyed and preserved the church. They revealed a plethora of interesting artifacts and mosaics — and a nearly illiterate artisan, who had been tasked with inscribing the names of donors and abbots for posterity. Instead, his grammar and spelling mistakes are preserved in a trio of ancient Greek mosaics. (Where is autocorrect when you need it?)
The mosaics at the Burnt Church offer geometric designs, birds with vivid colors and “a very happy fat fish,” said excavation director, Haifa University’s Dr. Michael Eisenberg. While beautiful on the eye, much more important to Eisenberg’s scholarly work are the three inscriptions so far uncovered in the church.
However, as first reported in Haaretz, all three inscriptions, unearthed in two stages of excavation at Burnt Church, exhibited so many mistakes that the research team began to wonder whether the artisan and presumed supervising church officials were indeed native Greek speakers. The central medallion inscription was the find of the season and is still being deciphered.
“There were so many mistakes, we thought perhaps it is not their lingua franca,” Eisenberg said this week, rather Aramaic. Among the errors are grammar and spelling goof-ups, including confusion with constructing possessive nouns.
Similar to the greater Jewish Diaspora’s command of Hebrew, it is possible that the residents of Christian-majority 5th century Hippos could “perhaps read the Holy Scriptures in Greek” (if literate), but maybe not any more than that. He added that it is known by scholars that by the Byzantine period, Greek “was rather lousy.”
According to a Biblical Archaeology Review article written by the late archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis, an expert in monks and monasteries in the Byzantine period, prior to the commencement of the excavation project in 2000, “Sussita/Hippos was one of the most important cities in the East during the Roman/Byzantine period, one of the towns of the famous Decapolis (the League of Ten Cities), and is today the most significant archaeological site on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee.”
By 359 CE, said Eisenberg, there was a bishop at Hippos — just a short time after Christianity was adopted by the Byzantine empire.
“I’m sure there are churches from the 4th century, but we haven’t found them,” said Eisenberg. The Burnt Church was constructed in two phases, in the second half of the 5th and 6th centuries, he said, and the mosaics are likely from the 6th century.
Ancient Greek epigrapher Dr. Gregor Staab of the University of Cologne, Germany, told The Times of Israel, “Generally, the mistakes are not uncommon in this region and time. Here the well-known decline of the classical Greek grammar is recognizable. Obviously it has not disturbed anybody that the Greek language was wrong and the artisan or his employer did not know the language.”
“Similar mistakes occur and can be expected” in mosaics of this era and region, said Staab. It is Greek written by one who is not completely fluent in the language and “is certainly no new dialect,” said Staab emphatically.
The mystery of the Burnt Church
Once the names are deciphered and cross checked with historical and canonical records, the chances are high the researchers will arrive on a secure dating for the building’s construction. It is a martyrion, or house of prayer, that is built around a central relic. The most famous example in Israel of a martyrion is Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Eisenberg said that in the earlier excavations, a reliquary was discovered in the center of the church apse. It probably contained some body part of the saint the church is dedicated to — name still forthcoming — and was built of red limestone. Under the North-West Church at Hippos was discovered an almost identical reliquary, said Eisenberg.
The fire that consumed the Burnt Church is still much in evidence. The team has found and taken samples for carbon dating and species identification of “huge logs, beams of wood,” he said. On these beams, “you can actually smell the fire,” he claimed. (The church is not yet ready to be viewed by National Park visitors. Eisenberg hopes to complete a partial reconstruction in a few years.)
The fire that laid waste to the church was not caused by the Arab takeover of the city in 637 CE, rather it likely was razed during the Persian Sassanian conquest of the land in the early 7th century, said Eisenberg. No other churches excavated at the site show such destruction.
When the Arabs conquered the land and Hippos a few decades later, “the inhabitants simply surrendered to the Arab army after receiving a promise that they would not be harmed; and so it was. Life went on in Hippos for many years, though the days of radiance and glory were gone. As with all the Greek cities conquered by the Arabs in the East, Hippos lost its political and economic independence,” wrote Tzaferis in the BAR article.
Along with the scorched beams, among the other interesting artifacts is an unusual door knocker in the shape of a lion head. Eisenberg calls it “cute” and is pleased to have found it in situ since they are usually only found on the antiquity markets, he said. Mullingly, he said almost to himself that it is possible that this knocker came from the Roman period and was reused, similar to column heads and other architectural items found at the site.
Eisenberg doesn’t discount the possibility that the site holds evidence of its Jewish settlement, but has no plans to continue to hunt for the long-lost historical synagogue. Likewise, he wouldn’t be surprised to find the small mosque or two that he has also searched for.
But for all its possible diverse multi-faith population, Eisenberg said, there is no reason to believe that Christianity wasn’t the dominant faith when the settlement was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 and abandoned.
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