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Archaeology in Israel: Byzantine Churches in the Negev

In the first century BCE, the Nabateans (nomadic traders from Northern Arabia) established a kingdom in today’s Kingdom of Jordan with Petra as its capital. They accumulated great wealth from their trade in costly perfumes and spices from East Africa and Arabia, which they transported by camel caravans to the southern Mediterranean port of Gaza. To secure their trade routes, the Nabateans built way stations at the intersections of the main routes – at Kurnub (Mampsis), Shivta and Avdat.

In the inhospitable Negev desert, the Nabateans developed an agriculture based on terraces built into the hillsides and on a sophisticated system for collecting every drop of available water: to capture flood waters, they constructed dams in the valleys; to collect rain water, they cut cisterns into the rock. Their way stations grew into cities.

The Nabatean kingdom was conquered by the Romans in the year 106 and annexed to the Roman Empire.

Kurnub is located some 40 km. east of Be’er Sheva, above Nahal Mamshit. The Romans fortified it as one of the limes, the network of forts demarcating and protecting the eastern border of the Roman Empire. During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Kurnub was a flourishing city. In the second half of the 4th century, two churches were built here. The city was abandoned at the time of the Arab conquest (mid-7th century).

The Eastern Church was built on the highest point of the city. It is part of a 55 x 25 m. complex consisting of service rooms and a small bathhouse. In front of the church was an atrium (courtyard) surrounded by porticoes (roofed aisles); under the courtyard was a cistern covered over with arches. The church measured 25.5 x 15 m., had two rows of columns, a bema (raised platform) and an apse. The hall of the church was paved with mosaics in geometrical patterns and large crosses; the aisles were paved with stone slabs. A small room with a baptismal font in its floor was found south of the church. Parts of the foundations of a four-roomed tower were uncovered near the entrance to the church, apparently a bell tower, since a large stone sundial was found there.

The smaller but more elaborate Western Church, located in the western part of the city, was of similar design. The mosaic floor of its hall was divided into octagonal medallions in which birds and baskets of fruit are depicted, with two peacocks in front of the raised platform. Two of the dedicatory inscriptions mention a man by the name of Nilus as the builder of the church, as well as the names of two of the church’s beadles.

Shivta is located some 40 km. southwest of Be’er Sheva. Some of the buildings now standing date from the Roman period, but most were built in Byzantine times, when the inhabitants engaged in intensive agriculture. In the 4th century two churches were built here (the northern and the southern); later, in the 5th-6th century, when the city expanded, the central church was added. Shivta appears to have been abandoned at some point during the Islamic period (9th-10th century).

The Southern Church was built among the Roman-period buildings, next to the water cisterns. Because of lack of space it had only one apse, with a room on either side of it. In the 6th century, these rooms were turned into two small side apses with wall paintings, surviving fragments of which depict Moses and Elijah and the Transfiguration of Christ. During a later phase, several rooms were added north of the basilica, including chapels and a large baptistery with a stone cruciform baptismal font and a smaller, rock-cut font for infant baptism. An inscription on a lintel attests to the building of these annexes at the beginning of the 5th century, and one incorporated into the floor the year 640.

The Northern Church was part of a large monastery, which consisted of many courtyards and some 40 rooms, in the very north of the city. The only entrance to the church was through a particularly large atrium (21 x 15 m.), which had an opening into the rock-cut cistern beneath it. Between the atrium and the church is a narthex (passageway) leading to the triple entrance of the basilica, which measures 12 x 10 m., divided by two rows of six columns into a main hall and two aisles. As in the northern church, the original central apse with rooms on either side of it was replaced with a triple apse in the 6th century. Niches in the rear walls of the side apses probably contained reliquaries. Marble slabs covered the floor and also the lower part of the walls.

A chapel was constructed south of the basilica, with an apse in its eastern side. The floor is paved with mosaics in geometrical patterns and contains an inscription attesting to its construction in the time of Bishop Thomas in the fifth year of the indiction (517).

The baptistery, with a large stone-cut baptismal font, lies south of the chapel. It was also used as a cemetery, and contains several gravestones with the names of monks and priests, dated between 612 and 679.

The Central Church was built in the center of the new (5th-6th century) residential quarter in the northern part of Shivta. It has a small, narrow atrium through which one enters a basilica measuring 18 x 14 m. Along its length run two rows of four columns and on its eastern side are three apses.

Avdat is located on a mountain ridge in the center of the Negev highlands. In the middle of the 3rd century it was resettled and became an important Roman military outpost, with a residential quarter on the spur southeast of the acropolis. In the sixth century, under Byzantine rule, Avdat had an estimated population of 3,000. New agricultural crops were grown in the valleys around the city and a number of wine presses, which have been excavated, indicate intensive vine cultivation. A citadel and a monastery with two churches were built on the acropolis. The city was destroyed, probably by earthquake, and abandoned in the 7th century.

The Northern Church, in basilical style, was reached through an atrium with a cistern and had a single apse. Behind it, to the west, was a baptismal font in cruciform shape and a smaller font for baptizing infants.

The more important Southern Church had three apses on the eastern side. In the floor are reliquaries for the remains of local saints. In the floor of the prayer hall of the church are the tombs of clerical dignitaries with inscriptions on stone slabs covering the tombs, dating from 542 to 618. One of the inscriptions gives the name of the church, The Martyrion of St. Theodorus, also known from other inscriptions, who served as abbot of the monastery of Avdat and was buried in this church.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry