Israeli authorities inaugurated a nature park on Wednesday near Jerusalem after five years of archaeological excavations at Ein Hanya, the second-largest spring in the Judean Hills and a key site in the history of Christianity. Along with an announcement that the park will open to the public free of charge within months, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed some major findings at the site, including a column capital typical of royal structures from the First Temple era and one of the oldest coins ever discovered in the Jerusalem area.
Excavations and conservation and development work were conducted between 2012 and 2016 at the site, which is part of the Rephaim Valley National Park and located beyond the Green Line but within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.
“The result is an extraordinarily beautiful site incorporating archaeology, an ancient landscape and a unique visitor experience,” the IAA said in a statement.
The new findings were publicized for the first time as senior officials participated in a tree-planting ceremony for the Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat and revealed the new nature park.
Among those in attendance were Ze’ev Elkin, the minister of environmental protection and of Jerusalem affairs; Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat; and Sevan Gharibian, the grand sacristan of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which owns the area.
The said the most significant finding was a large Byzantine-era system of pools found at the site.
“This pool was built in the center of a spacious complex at the foot of a church that once stood here. Roofed colonnades were built around the pool that gave access to residential wings,” said Irina Zilberbod, the excavation director for the IAA.
She added that it was “difficult to know what the pool was used for – whether for irrigation, washing, landscaping or perhaps for baptismal ceremonies.” She also said the pool’s water drained through a network of channels into a “magnificent” nymphaeum — a monument resembling a fountain and consecrated to the nymphs, especially those of springs.
The archaeologists said a great deal of attention was paid to restoring the nymphaeum fountain structure, including cleaning and replacing stones in its facade based on historic photographs and paintings.
The statement said that many of the finds were dated to the time of the First Temple, about 2,400 to 2,800 years ago.
The main find from that period was a fragment of a proto-Ionic column capital, an artistic element typical of structures and estates of the kings in the First Temple period, the IAA said, adding that an image of such a capital appears on the Israeli NIS 5 coin.
Similar capitals have been found in the City of David in Jerusalem and at Ramat Rahel, where one of the palaces of the kings of Judah was uncovered, the statement said, as well as in Samaria, Megiddo and Hazor, which were major cities in the ancient Kingdom of Israel.
Archaeologists estimated that the site at Ein Hanya may have been a royal estate during the First Temple period.
“After the destruction of the First Temple, settlement was renewed at the site in the form of an estate house that was inhabited by Jews,” the IAA said.
It said that another significant find from that period was a rare silver coin, described as one of the most ancient discovered so far in the Jerusalem area. It is the ancient Greek currency drachma, with the coin “minted in Ashdod by Greek rulers between 420 and 390 BCE.”
More coins, pottery, glass, roof tiles and multicolored tesserae, or pieces of mosaic, from the Byzantine period were unearthed in the excavation, leading the archaeologists to say that it was during that period (4th–6th centuries CE) that the site reached its zenith.
“We believe that some early Christian commentators identified Ein Hanya as the site where the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, as described in Acts 8:26–40,” said the IAA’s Jerusalem district archaeologist, Dr. Yuval Baruch.
“The baptism of the eunuch by St. Philip was one of the key events in the spread of Christianity,” he said. “Therefore, identifying the place where it occurred kept scholars busy for many generations and became a common motif in Christian art. It’s no wonder that part of the site is still owned by Christians and is a focus of religious ceremonies, both for the Armenian Church and the Ethiopian Church.”