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Archaeology in Israel: Anchor Church

The city of Tiberias is located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the sixth century, at the peak of its expansion, the Byzantine emperor Justinian built a wall around the city which climbed up the steep slopes in the west and included the highest point, Mount Berenice. Here the remains of a Byzantine church with unusual cultic objects were uncovered in the years 1990-93. The church was included within the fortification wall of the city and its location affords a breathtaking view of the entire Sea of Galilee, its shores and the distant mountains.

The church complex measures 48 x 28 meters and includes an atrium courtyard, a basilical, tri-apsidal church and many rooms around the complex. The walls are of square basalt blocks coated with white plaster and the floor is paved with multi-colored mosaics.

The atrium courtyard is unusually spacious. It was surrounded by aisles resting upon square piers and was paved with mosaics in black and white frames. Beneath it is a large cistern, the ceiling of which is supported by a set of arches. Rainwater was collected from the roofs and from the courtyard and carried to the cistern via channels.

Running the length of the prayer-hall of the church were two rows of columns supporting the roofing. Two rows of semi-circular stone benches were situated along the central apse in the eastern wall. The floor of the church was in part paved with colored mosaics, depicting grapes, pomegranates and birds, and in part with marble tiles in geometric shapes.

At the center of the bema (stage) the base of a stone altar was found, and beneath it a marble plaque covering a depression containing a large, care-fully fashioned basalt stone measuring 55 x 35 x 11 cm. The bottom part of the stone is crudely worked into a conical shape, indicating that it was originally set into the ground. At the center of the stone is a drilled, biconical perforation; it is obviously a type of anchor, a smaller version of which might have been used by boats sailing the Sea of Galilee. It was placed here, and probably venerated in connection with Jesus’ activities on this side of the lake.

Surrounding the courtyard and the church were numerous rooms, with mosaic paving, which must have served the clergy who maintained the church and looked after the many visitors.

The church was damaged in the earthquake of 749. It was renovated on a smaller scale and had some Islamic architectural features, such as pointed arches and pairs of columns supporting them. This church, with only minor changes, remained in use during the Muslim rule of the country, a very uncommon phenomenon. The Crusaders strengthened the church structure with external buttresses and also added a bell tower to its facade.

The church was destroyed when the Muslims conquered Tiberias in 1187. Its remains were visible on the surface prior to the excavations and had remained relatively well-preserved thanks to the difficult access and the distance from the city of Tiberias.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry