ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Tiny weights hint at pre-Muslim Christian presence on Temple Mount – archaeologists

Byzantine-era coin weights, newly discovered in debris from the Jerusalem holy site, are of a type used in 6th century church settings

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Tiny square Byzantine-era brass weight discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (image: Zev Radovan, drawing: Razia Richman)
    Tiny square Byzantine-era brass weight discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (image: Zev Radovan, drawing: Razia Richman)
  • Wet-sifting dirt at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (courtesy)
    Wet-sifting dirt at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (courtesy)
  • Tiny Byzantine glass weight discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (image, left: Zev Radovan, illustration: Razia Richman)
    Tiny Byzantine glass weight discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (image, left: Zev Radovan, illustration: Razia Richman)

Two recently discovered Byzantine-era coin weights are evidence there was a Christian presence on the Temple Mount before the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, and perhaps even point to an early church there, archaeologists said in a recent paper.

The weights were uncovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which since 2004 has been discovering artifacts by methodically sifting through tons of dirt and debris extracted from the Temple Mount and dumped haphazardly outside the Old City walls by the Muslim Waqf authority during a 1999 construction project.

The small artifacts, one made of glass and one of brass, each weigh just 0.6 grams. Analysis indicates they were likely official imperial weights of a kind that were required by 6th century Byzantine law to be present in major churches.

The sifting project has already recovered “many artifacts which can be assigned to the Byzantine era,” including items directly associated with churches, which “together with the recently discovered weights suggest that there might even have been a Byzantine church upon the Temple Mount,” the paper said.

The paper, “Two Noteworthy Byzantine Weights from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount,” was published in the Israel Numismatic Research journal and authored by Haim Shaham, Zachi Devira and Gabriel Barkay, the latter two of whom are co-directors of the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Tourists visit the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, on January 3, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The Temple Mount, the holiest site in the Jewish religion, was the location of the first and second biblical Temples. The flashpoint site in Jerusalem’s Old City is considered the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

A Christian presence on the Temple Mount has not been a focal point for historians and has been downplayed by authorities.

Over the years the sifting project has “found a lot of fancy floor tiling from the Byzantine period, which was only used on monumental buildings. We also found pieces of chancel screens, which is an element of early church architecture, and lots of Byzantine-era mosaic stones, meaning that someone had invested a lot in flooring,” said co-author Shaham, an expert on ancient coinage and an archaeology doctoral student at Bar-Ilan Univerisity.

The newly discovered weights would be associated with a church as well, he said. “We have all this Byzantine material which shows that something was going on, but up until a decade ago, the consensus was that during the Byzantine period, the Temple Mount was desolate. But in actuality, a lot was going on during the Byzantine era, and from what we have found, it can be comfortably associated with a church.”

Shaham stressed that the idea of a pre-Muslim church on the site is not at all certain, but that “we have to weigh the simplest explanation as to why the weights are there, and simple is always the best.” Similar weights were found in another Byzantine church site, in Sussita in the Golan Heights, so “the idea of official weights inside a Byzantine church has already been established in the Levant,” he said.

Tiny Byzantine glass weight discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (image, left: Zev Radovan, illustration: Razia Richman)

The glass weight is impressed with “a haloed Imperial bust above a cross-shaped monogram flanked by two smaller busts,” and is about 17 millimeters across and 2 millimeters thick, the authors note. The artifact has a monogram reading “of Euthalios,” evidently “a high-ranking Byzantine official under whose authority the weights were manufactured. These weights were likely produced in, and distributed from, a central official workshop in Constantinople, between 550–650 CE.”

The second weight, made of a brass alloy, is square-shaped, measuring 13 millimeters on each side and 1.6 millimeters thick. The weight has a delicate silver inlay with the Greek letters kappa and delta, which the archaeologists interpret as indicating the weight, 4 keratin or carats. These kinds of square weights were mostly manufactured during the 5th and 6th centuries CE.

Tiny square Byzantine-era brass weight discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (image: Zev Radovan, drawing: Razia Richman)

The small size and exact weight of both artifacts make them extremely rare, the authors said.

The newly emerged Islamic empire conquered Jerusalem in 638 CE from the Christian Byzantines, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. Muslim records of the time stress that the Temple Mount was neglected and used for dumping trash before they constructed the Dome of the Rock on the site.

“Based on that, historians have assumed the Temple Mount was a dump,” but that could be a case of history being written by the victors, Shaham said. Another conjecture regarding the Byzantine artifacts, he said, is that a Byzantine building on the Temple Mount had already been destroyed by the Sassanid Persian Empire, whose brief control of Jerusalem in  614-630 CE resulted in much chaos in the city.

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