The ruins of a spectacular Byzantine-era basilica with intricate mosaics, unearthed in the Mediterranean city of Ashdod, Israel, have also proven to be the the site of a mass grave, according to recent research.
The enormous basilica not only has the spectacular mosaics that were so characteristic of the time – it also has a great number of graves of prominent female clergy members who served the church alongside the male clergy and an intriguing connection to one of the apostles of Christ.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority asked Tel Aviv University archaeologist Alexander Fatalkin, who was already working at a site elsewhere in Ashdod in 2017, to take a look at the area, adjacent to a private home, where tiles from mosaics would suddenly appear on the surface of the soil from time to time.
“I sent over a few volunteers and almost immediately they found the first inscription,” the archaeologist told interviewers from Haaretz. “I thought, ‘okay, it’s a nice, small church.’ But boy was I wrong: it just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Not only was it a basilica, but it had three side chapels as well, with intricate mosaics depicting leaves, flowers, vases, crosses and Greek meander motifs.
Mystery of female clergy at Byzantine church in Israel
Research has continued at the site ever since, including during the Summer of 2021. Now recognized as one of the largest and earliest of all basilicas in Israel, researchers made the macabre discovery of mass graves of people who most likely succumbed in an epidemic that took place in the 500s AD.
With well-constructed graves that were the resting places of deaconesses, including Sophronia, with elaborate Greek inscriptions with their names and titles, researchers were shocked this Summer to find mass graves, in which bodies had been dumped together and lime thrown over them, sometime in the sixth century.
Now, the bones of the unfortunate victims are being studied in an attempt to find exactly what they may have succumbed to.
“Besides the unusual amount of funerary inscriptions and the prominent place given to women, we found that this church is like one huge cemetery – everywhere we touch we find these strange mounds of skeletons,” Fantalkin says.
The history of the modern city of Ashdod stretches back to before the Iron Age, 2500 years ago. During the Hellenistic era, it was referred to as “Azotos Paralios,” or Ashdod by the Sea. It grew in significance during those times, to the point that it appeared on what is known as the “Madaba Map,” a mosaic map which was created in the sixth century, discovered in a Byzantine-era church in what is now Jordan.
Church may be connected to St. Philip the Evangelist and his four daughters
Archaeologists found that the oldest text inscription, located in one of the side naves, read “in memory of the priest Gaianos and Severa the deaconess,” with a date that translates to the year 416 AD.
Fantalkin believes that this suggests the basilica could have been constructed as early as during the fourth century AD.
At this point, it is still unclear to whom the basilica was dedicated. The central apse of the main structure has a tomb as well as an altar which researchers believe were from the late Roman period — before the construction of the building itself.
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📸: Slava Pirsky & Sergey Alon pic.twitter.com/Z9MUDNbElb
Almost always dedicated to a saint, the grave found in the apse was indeed along the lines of a holy person, with no ornaments or artifacts whatsoever buried alongside the body. In addition, an altar would also have a relic of the saint somewhere inside it.
Dr. Hila May, a Tel Aviv University anthropologist who is researching the human remains found there, notes that the body, lying all alone and undisturbed as it was, is significant, in light of the mass graves that were found elsewhere at the basilica.
Although her work at the Ashdod basilica is still incomplete, May believes that the person buried in the main tomb was a female.
And this may be the most amazing aspect of the find, since there is a Biblical story from the Acts of the Apostles which puts Philip the Evangelist in the city of Ashdod.
St. Philip traveled to Azotoa Paralios to preach
Referred to by its Hellenic name in Acts 8:40, Philip was said to have traveled to Azotos Paralios in order to preach there. As Acts 21:9 also notes, St. Philip also had four unmarried daughters, who became prophetesses and grew to prominence in the early Church.
No one knows for certain yet, but this speculation could very well prove to be true, with one of St. Philip’s daughters buried in such state beneath the mosaics of the nave of the enormous basilica; perhaps this is one reason why there appeared to be so very many female deaconesses serving at that particular church as well.
According to Dr. Balbina Bäbler, a University of Göttingen historian who is part of the research team, deaconesses once had an important role in the Byzantine church, baptizing women and officiating in other rites, in addition to preaching to female converts and serving the poor and the infirm.
Known as “diakonos” Greek for servant or assistant, the position was eliminated in most Christian sects over time; however, the Orthodox Church of Greece and the Patriarchate of Alexandria have reinstated the office of Deaconess.
Some researchers are now even calling the site the “Church of the Deaconesses.”
Other graves uncovered by the archaeologists included those of a man, possibly an early martyr of the Church, with a spiked iron spearhead going through his skull.
It is possible that the basilica became his resting place since he was a prominent martyr, although there are no historical records of the existence of the basilica.
Early martyrs may have been buried under basilica with stunning mosaics in Israel
It was during the 2021 dig that the archaeologists uncovered the tomb of the possible martyr, who appeared to have been buried with his family; that’s when they found the additional bodies dumped there, covered with lime.
Likewise, they found this pattern repeated throughout the entire basilica, with the dedicated, marked graves of certain well-known figures that had later been used as a mass grave site.
Denoting a very hurried burial, the mosaics atop the graves showed that they had been pried up and rearranged after the mass burials, according to archaeologist Dr. Lihi Habas, from Hebrew University, who is an expert on Byzantine mosaics.
“They didn’t try to hide the patches, you can see very clearly the difference between the original and the changes,” she notes in an interview with Haaretz, adding “When it’s a lower-quality fix, it clearly means that it was a rush job.”
All these clues may ultimately confirm that the victims died in the “Plague of Justinian,” which occurred in the 540s, an epidemic that is believed to have killed millions of people. Indeed, May and her colleagues are going to be searching for the DNA of the microbe that caused the plague in the skeletons found under the basilica.
If they do find such physical evidence, this will constitute the first proof of Justinian’s Plague in Israel.
Fantalkin says that the entire Basilica complex was destroyed by a fire that occurred in approximately the year 600. The collapse of the roof of the basilica was responsible for preserving the mosaics, and the graves, just as they were in the 600s.
Orthodox clergy hold service in Summer 2021 at Basilica in Israel to pray for the dead
Orthodox clergy held a liturgy there in July of 2021 to pray for the souls of the dead; as part of the service, Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos III also asked Israeli authorities to protect what is left of the church and the remains of the people still buried there.
Theophilos said at the ceremony “It is our fervent hope and desire that this site be preserved intact, and ultimately be made accessible both to scholars and to pilgrims, like all other holy places in our region.
“This would be a living testimony of the history of this ancient city and would promote peaceful coexistence, tolerance, and mutual respect.”
The Israeli Antiquity Authority, under whose auspices the site has been excavated, is now drawing up plans for the conservation of the basilica; the city hopes to open the site for visitors as soon as possible as part of an archaeological park.
Saar Ganor, the IAA’s chief archaeologist for the entire Ashkelon region, which includes Ashdod, states “We see Ashdod Yam as a site of huge importance, on the level of Caesarea.”
But for now, Fantalkin’s researchers have carefully reburied the remains of the basilica and the bones of those buried under it in order to not only protect them from the elements but from looters and vandalism as well. They hope that in the future, this magnificent structure, with its fascinating historical associations and its treasury of mosaics, will be open for all to see.