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Sixth-century Church Found Near Mount Tabor

adapted from an article in the 28 July 2020 issue of the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz

by Ruth Schuster

Mosaic Floor in the Church 

Move a rock in Israel, find an archaeological site.  Now, ahead of building a playground for kiddies in the Circassian village of Kafr Kama, archaeologists conducting a “salvage excavation” have found the ruins of a 1,300-year-old church dating to the Byzantine period.  

Actually, the excavators suspect the villagers carried out their devotions at a smaller church with two chapels in the village dating to about the same time, which had been discovered half a century ago.   The newly discovered, rather bigger edifice may have been a monastery, the archaeologists think, based on adjacent rooms that remain underground after being discovered the Shani Libbi using ground-penetrating radar.

Kafr Kama’s proximity to the iconic site of Mount Tabor – where some believe Jesus underwent the Transfiguration and began to radiate light – piqued the interest of Archbishop Youssef Matta, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Israel.  He was invited by the Israel Antiquities Authority, and came to see the site in person.

“And after six days Jesus takes Peter, James, and John his brother, and privately leads them up to a high mountain.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone out like the sun, and his garment became as white as light…” [Matthew 17.1-2].

The main body of the newly discovered church is 39 feet by 118 feet, which is medium-sized for the region, says Professor Moti Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College, who is researching the Byzantine period in the Galilee and is collaborating with the Israeli Antiquities Authority on this dig.

The discovery of the church was not expected, said Nurit Feig, the archaeologist leading the excavation on behalf of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.  “This was a small salvage excavation that we expanded,” she told Haaretz.  Usually, a salvage excavation of this sort is defined in scope, but then she began to see the border of the nave wall and an apse – and realized they were on top of an ancient church.  Now they know the area includes a courtyard, a narthex foyer, a central hall and three apses.   Churches in Galilee normally have one or three apses, Feig and Aviam explained.

Wondrously, the archaeologist also found a reliquary: a stone box used to hold “sacred relics.”  Sad to relate, it was empty.   “The other ancient church found in Kafr Kama also had a reliquary, a closed one, that had bones inside,” Aviam said.

“In light of our many studies in Israel in general and in Galilee in particular, we know there were a lot of villagers working at the monastery,” Aviam said. He added that they have no proof this new discovery is actually a monastery – no inscriptions have been found, for instance.  But that’s his gut feeling.

Another Mosaic Floor in the Church 

Nor is there evidence for how the monks made their living, if monks there were.   It has been found that at other Galilean monasteries, the monks engaged mostly in agriculture, producing olive oil and wine, Aviam said.

Church or monastery, it had mosaics on the floor of the nave and apses, which is very much the norm for Galilean churches.  But they were badly damaged, Aviam said.  All we can see are geometrical motifs and some flowers in blue, black, and red, but there may have been other images that are now gone.

In fact, the two sixth-century churches of Kafr Kama fit the bigger picture that Aviam is discovering in his research of Byzantine Galilee, conducted with Jacob Ashkenazi and the Kinneret Institute of Galilean Archaeology in the Kinneret Academic College.  In Western Galilee alone, there are about 100 churches from the Byzantine period, very roughly speaking, Aviam told Haaretz.

The western side of Upper Galilee was actually Christianized in the Byzantine period while the eastern side was Jewish, he explained.  In Lower Galilee, the towns were almost entirely Jewish, but Christianity gradually made inroads – resulting in villages like Kafr Kama, with its two churches.  Or, one church and one monastery.  We don’t know Kafr Kama’s ancient name, Aviam noted.  Like so many places the in the region, occupation in the town now known as Kafr Kama goes back to the Bronze Age, and possibly earlier.   But we may never know much more about the Christian era in this village.

This very week, the mosaics are going to be re-blanketed in earth for the sake of their conservation, Feig told Haaretz.  That will protect them for future generations that will probably never see them.  The site is earmarked for a playground, and unless the local council and Jewish National Fund change their minds, a playground it will be.

“We can’t say at this stage how much may be covered and if anything will be preserved,” Feig said.  The IAA may earnestly recommend that the site be conserved, preserved and opened for visitors; but the initiators of the real estate project in the village have the ultimate decision, she explained.  And if they decide to preserve the ancient church or monastery, whichever it is, then the IAA experts can happily go to work.  

The first church from early Christianity found in the Circassian village is also gone, partly covered, partly built over, the archaeologists say.   Discovering the new one was an emotional moment for the excavators and villagers alike, who flocked to see it during the “open days” the archaeologists held – joined by the archbishop.

Asked why there was so much excitement if there are around 100 ancient churches in Galilee, Feig said that this one is in quite a good state of preservation after all those 1,400 years: they know where all its parts are.   But they may remain the only ones with that knowledge.