Czech scholar helping throw more light on origin of Byzantine-era church in Ashdod-Yam

Fortress of Ashdod-Yam, photo: Kobi Refaeli, CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the discovery of a Byzantine-era church in Israel’s Ashdod-Yam, archaeologists have had a better opportunity to study the Eastern Roman Empire’s sixth century footprint in Palestine. Among them is a Czech academic, who helped find evidence this summer that the building may not be of Georgian origin as originally thought.

Fortress of Ashdod-Yam, photo: Kobi Refaeli, CC BY-SA 3.0

Headlines across the world were made two years ago when a team of archaeologists unearthed a large 1,500-year-old building in the coastal city of Ashdod, which seemed to be either a church or a monastery.

The discovery was seen as especially important, because it seemed to provide the location of the “lost city” of Ashdod-Yam, referred to in the sixth century Madaba Mosaic Map, which contains the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land.

Depicted under the name “Azotus Paralios”, the city’s mention on the map suggested that it was a reasonably important coastal city during the sixth century, but the origins of the settlement stretch back all the way into the Late Bronze Age according to the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

Madaba Mosaic Map, photo: Jerzy Strzelecki, CC BY-SA 3.0
The experts who have since been studying the church also include Czechs. One of them is Dr. Václav Ježek, a Byzantine-era focused scholar from the University of Prešov, who returned from the site just a few days ago.

He says that Palestine was a very important province within the empire at that time.

“We are finding increasingly more of these sorts of churches, which suggest that these were not just sporadic cases of construction. They sprouted like mushrooms during the Byzantine era. It shows that, culturally and strategically, Palestine was very important for the Byzantine Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.”

While it is located in what was a Roman province at the time, some archaeologists first assumed that it may have been built by Georgian authorities, because one of the floor mosaics contained a date written according to the Georgian calendar.

However, the expedition that Dr. Ježek was a part of has found evidence that in fact this may not have been the case.

“It is too early to be able to say that the church operated on the Georgian calendar. That was proved by the excavations I took part in this summer, because suddenly we are finding more and more inscriptions with different dating styles. That means we are talking about one structure where the Georgian, local and Byzantine calendars all appear. These various inscriptions show that this is a mysterious building which underwent multiple phases of construction.”

The empire had no unified calendar system at the time, which may explain why there are various dating systems on the church walls. Furthermore, Dr. Ježek says that Ashdod-Yam was a strategic city on the Palestinian shoreline where Byzantium exercised its influence.

The church’s discovery could also contribute to historians’ views on Christian liturgy, because some of the surviving mosaics depict the names of female deacons. It is generally known that women in this position existed during the early years of Christianity. Their role was to help women dress during baptism. However, their depiction on the church‘s mosaics suggests that their role could have been more important.