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Israeli Dig Uncovers Byzantine-Era Church Drawings of Ships Carrying Christian Pilgrims

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JERUSALEM, Israel – Excavators from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have uncovered Byzantine-era church walls from 1,500 years ago containing drawings of ships in a dig south of the Bedouin Arab town of Rahat. The location is north of the Israeli city of Beersheva and east-southeast of the Gaza Strip.

"These intriguing drawings may have been left by Christian pilgrims arriving by ship to the Gaza port – their first inland stop was this Rahat church; continuing here on to other sites throughout the country," excavators explained.

The dig was part of a city expansion project to add a new neighborhood for Bedouins.

The findings will be shown for the first time Tuesday during a conference in Rahat at the city's cultural hall. The public is invited.

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Site directors from the IAA noted, "The excavated site tells the story of settlement in the northern Negev at the end of the Byzantine period and in the beginning of the Early Islamic period. Pilgrims visited the church and left their personal mark in the form of ship drawings on its walls."

The directors continued, "The ship is indeed an old Christian symbol, but in this case – apparently – it's a true graphical depiction of real ships in which the pilgrims traveled to the Holy Land."

The church's location is on a Roman road extending from Gaza's port on the Mediterranean to Beersheva, the largest city in the Negev and the place where Abraham's son Isaac and his wife Rebekah made their home.

"The pilgrims began their pilgrimage following Roman roads leading to sites sacred to Christendom, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the monasteries in the Negev Hills, and in the Sinai," the IAA scholars said. "It is reasonable that their first stop after alighting from the ships in Gaza port was this very church revealed in our excavations south of Rahat. This site lies only a half-day's walk from the port."

Professor Deborah Cvikel of the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa described one ship drawing depicting many oars on the side of the vessel and a sail known as an artemon, indicating that the artist was knowledgeable about life on the sea. 

"Ships or crosses left by visiting pilgrims as witness to their visit are found also in Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre Church," Cvikel said.

IAA Director Eli Escusido stated that the find "opens a window for us to the world of Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land 1,500 years ago, and provides first-hand evidence about the ships they traveled in and the maritime world of that time."

He added, "I invite all lovers of archaeology to the Rahat conference in early June, where many finds found in Israel Antiquity Authority excavations in the city will be on view for the public."

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About The Author


John Waage has covered politics and analyzed elections for CBN New since 1980, including primaries, conventions, and general elections. He also analyzes the convulsive politics of the Middle East.