Israeli Archaeologists Unearth 1,500-Year-Old Church with Drawings by Christian Pilgrims

Archaeologists in Israel have uncovered walls belonging to a 1,500-year-old church with drawings from Christian pilgrims who likely stopped at the building on their way to sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The walls were discovered within the Negev in Israel during an excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and will be displayed to the public June 6, according to an IAA press release. IAA called it a “very big surprise.” 

The drawings depict ships and likely would have been made shortly after the pilgrims docked their own ships along the Mediterranean coast. The church is about a half day’s walk from the port. The church would have been built some 500 years after Christ. Pilgrimages to sites associated with the life of Jesus and biblical events became increasingly popular among Christians after Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 300s. The excavation directors said the drawings were a “greeting from Christian pilgrims arriving by ship” to the port. 

“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,” the excavation directors said. “Pilgrims visited the church and left their personal mark in the form of ship drawings on its walls. The ship is indeed an old Christian symbol, but in this case – apparently, it is a true graphical depiction of real ships in which the pilgrims traveled to the Holy Land.”

The church was located near an ancient Roman road, IAA said.

“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 excavation directors 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.”

The team of excavation directors consisted of Oren Shmueli, Elena Kogan-Zehavi, Noé David Michael and Deborah Cvikel. Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, called it a “surprising and intriguing find” that “opens a window for us to the world of Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land 1500 years ago.” It “provides first-hand evidence about the ships they traveled in and the maritime world of that time,” he added. 

Photo courtesy Facebook/Israel Antiquities Authority

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

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