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The Marvelous Mosaics of Kissufim, Rudolph Cohen, BAR 6:01, Jan-Feb 1980.

The Marvelous Mosaics of Kissufim, Rudolph Cohen,In June 1977 a tractor-driver at Kibbutz Kissufim on the coastal plain east of Gaza was preparing a new field for cultivation. Glancing back at the furrowed earth he noticed fragments of colored mosaic, and realized that he had inadvertently plowed across an ancient site. He notified the Department of Antiquities of his discovery, and one month later I went to Kissufim to excavate the mosaic before further damage could occur. My work revealed the remains of one of the loveliest mosaic pavements ever discovered in Israel.

Before excavating we naturally tried to learn what was already known about this newly exposed site. A search in the Department’s archives revealed that the site had been surveyed in 1930 by J. Ory, District Inspector at the time of the British Mandate. At that time he had observed a fragment of mosaic on the site, but it evidently did not seem sufficiently important to him to carry out an excavation.

My excavations revealed that the mosaic was part of the floor of a mid-sixth century Byzantine church. It was built on the plan of an early Christian basilica, the first church architecture developed after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine’s reign in 313 A.D. Based on Greek and later Roman public buildings, the basilica church type contained a long central nave flanked on each side by a parallel aisle separated from the nave by a row of columns. At one end of the nave was a semi-circular apse. At the other end was a narthex or entrance vestibule. In front of the narthex was often an open courtyard or atrium with columns on each side.

The church at Kissufim had originally measured some 52 by 42 feet. This was about average size for a church at this time. The eastern end of the church, including the apse, was unfortunately completely destroyed in the course of building an Arab structure at the beginning of this century. Much of the rest of the church had apparently been dismantled in ancient times by people who wanted to re-use its stones, a rare commodity in the area.

Two rows of five stone columns which once divided the central nave from the side aisles, are indicated now only by square impressions on the floor, and even these may be seen in only one of the two rows; the columns themselves have long since been removed. Only the foundation walls of the church, composed of kurkar stone (a kind of soft limestone conglomerate), were extant. The church had both a narthex (36 × 10 feet) and an atrium, which at one time contained a cistern.

Originally, the mosaic pavement covered both the nave and the northern aisle; however, most of the mosaic in the nave had been destroyed in antiquity, and only a strip two and one-half feet wide remained at the entrance to the nave. In the center of this strip was a seven-line dedicatory inscription in Greek, enclosed in the customary tabula ansata, which is a rectangle (double-bordered in this case) with triangular markers on either side pointing toward the inscription. This inscriptive format is derived from an earlier tradition of suspending a handled tray or plaque on a wall for commemorative purposes.

On each side of the tabula ansata appears a falcon adorned with an ornamental red ribbon and surrounded by flowers. The inscription reads- “In the days of our most holy and saintly bishop Misael, and of Theodorus, beloved of God, deacon, monk, sacristan and hegumena of [the monastery of] St. Elias, by the grace of God, this mosaic work was composed on the 11th of the month of Loos in the year 636, the ninth year of the indiction.”

During Byzantine times several regional calendars were in use simultaneously, and this one presumably was based on the era of Gaza which began in 61 B.C. during Julius Caesar’s reign, when Gaza officially became part of Rome’s Empire. The date, according to our calendar, is August 4, 575 A.D. The inscription also mentions Saint Elias, for whom the church was apparently named. We know from other sources of at least two local Palestinian martyrs named Elias whose lives were commemorated annually, and we also know of other churches dedicated to Elias in northeastern Jordan.

The mosaic pavement of the northern aisle had also been badly damaged, especially at its eastern end, by both the 20th century Arab building and by the Israeli tractor. The remaining surface is well preserved and consists of a series of 12 animal scenes set one above the other. It is clear from the scattered tesseraeb and mortar that originally the mosaic contained more of these scenes, but their total number cannot be calculated exactly because the whole eastern end of the church has been destroyed.

Of the scenes which remain, three pertain directly to hunting. The most striking depicts a horseman spearing a leopard with his lance. A second shows a hunter on foot, holding a sword and shield, struggling in hand-to-hand combat with a bear. In the final hunting scene, an antelope and hare are being pursued by a hound with its collar and leash still around its neck—a common theme in hunting scenes of the time. Two other scenes feature combat between animals- a lion attacking a bull and a griffon seizing a swan.

Five panels treat more peaceful themes- a lioness and her cub; a man milking an animal (probably a goat); an elephant and a giraffe; prancing zebras; and two sheep nibbling at foliage. The final two scenes, unfortunately, are in too damaged a state to be clearly identified. The main field of the mosaic is surrounded by a border of guilloche (paired interlaced curved lines) and an ornamental band consisting of paired lines forming waves.

Over the horseman spearing a leopard is a one-line inscription in Greek which reads “the Deed (or work) of Alexander.” We are not certain who Alexander is. While Byzantine mosaicists occasionally signed their work—and thus Alexander could conceivably refer to the artist—all signed mosaics thus far discovered give the author’s name in a separate inscription and not in the body of the work. It seems more likely therefore that the reference is to Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.), whose legendary exploits were treated in countless works of art and literature in the Roman-Byzantine period.

It is not unusual to find Hellenistic motifs in Christian churches. Hunting scenes such as those from Kissufim were commonly used in Byzantine times to decorate mosaic pavements, and have been found at other places in the Holy Land, including Beth Guvrin, the monastery of Beth Shean and Mount Nebo.

Not all Christians accepted this tradition with equanimity; a number of fifth century clerical figures bitterly opposed this tradition as a perversion—portending the century of iconoclasm 250 years later. St. Nilus of Sinai, for instance, wrote to Olympiodorus the Eparch begging him to abandon his plan of decorating his church with “the hunting of all kinds of animals … and the eager hunters spiritedly pursuing them. … ”c

In the northern aisle, in the center of the mosaic itself, was a tomb. The tomb entrance at floor level had been covered by a large marble slab. Fragments of marble scattered in the area suggested that the actual burial chamber was below the level of the floor and was covered with stone slabs in situ. When we removed the slabs we found five skeletons with their heads set against the tomb’s western side. Above the heads spanned a small arch. Around the entrance to the tomb at floor level was a mosaic inscription in Greek. Although partially destroyed, we were able to infer from what remained of the inscription that the priest Zonainos was buried here, and perhaps as well, a woman named Maria. The inscription ends with the word ‘Amen.’

As already noted, we did not find the church columns in situ. But in the spaces between where the columns once stood we found two additional mosaic scenes and two additional inscriptions.

In one scene, a man holding a cluster of dates leads a camel laden with baskets and jars; at the top of the picture is written a Greek name- OPBIKON (pronounced Orbikon). The other is an unusual scene depicting two well-dressed women richly adorned with jewelry, including earrings, bracelets, a diadem, and a necklace. The younger woman is strewing coins, while the second, notably older, holds a platter on which there appears to be some kind of fowl. Encircling the two women’s heads are their names in Greek. The older woman offering the fowl is Calliora; the younger one dispensing coins is the “Lady of Silto.”

The dress of the two women bears a striking resemblance to that of the two female attendants, one younger and one older, of the Empress Theodora in the famous mosaic in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna.

The last panel to the west in this series of inter-columnar panels is a dedicatory inscription in Greek six lines long and presented in a second tabula ansata format. The inscription says- “The excellent work of the aisle was done in the days of Father Theodoros, beloved of God, deacon, monk and abbott by the grace of God, on the 10th of the month of Panemos (June) in the year 638, the eleventh year of the indiction.” In other words, the mosaic of the nave (which was only partly preserved) was completed two years before the animal series, the two women and the camel scene.

In the spaces between where the southern row of columns had stood were mosaics decorated with geometric designs of circles and squares. The nave floor, as mentioned above, had also once been covered with mosaics, but these had been largely destroyed in ancient times. The floors of the narthex and the southern aisle, by contrast, were composed of long, flat stones.

The Kissufim mosaics were crafted with skill and delicacy. The small stone chips or tesserae with which all mosaic work is accomplished were mostly marble at Kissufim, were precisely cut and closely set—114 to 240 tiles per four-inch square. As a general rule, the use of very small chips or tiles is, in itself, an indication of craftsmen striving for quality. A wide variety of primary colors and shades were used in the mosaic- principally white, black, green, but also including various hues of grey, red, yellow, brown and orange. The flowers in the mosaic were accented by lustrous green stones of malachite and glass. The artistry is impressive, particularly in the naturalistic renderings of human figures, animals, and birds.

Today the region around Kissufim consists of expanses of open fields interrupted by occasional clusters of kibbutz houses. Wheat and citrus fruits flourish in the fertile loess soil. In Byzantine times, however, the region between Beersheba and Gaza was very densely inhabited. This is attested to not only by the contemporaneous Madaba mosaic map which portrays a group of local settlements in the area, but also by other documents as well as archaeological ruins.

One of the settlements named on the Madaba map is Orda. Benjamin Mazar, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew University, long ago proposed that Orda be sought in the vicinity of Tell Gemma, a site only a half mile southeast of Kissufim. The newly discovered Byzantine Church of St. Elias should probably be identified with the settlement of Orda.

The remains of other churches with mosaic pavements have been found in the Gaza area, and most are attributed to the so-called “Gaza School” of mosaicists—not a school as we know it today, but a style of mosaic craftsmanship. This style is characterized by animals and decorative objects arranged symmetrically in a medallion formed by a vine-trellis which comes out of an amphora at the bottom of the mosaic. The Kissufim mosaic, however, dates later than these others, and differs from them in a number of compositional details. Perhaps the Kissufim mosaic represents a later stage in the artistic development of the Gaza school.

a. Hegumen is a synonym for abbot or prior or the head of a religious community.

b. Tesserae are the small cube-like stones with which mosaics are made.

c. Patrologia Graeca, 79, column 577 ff.

Posted in: Byzantine Period

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