Gaza Church

Palestinian construction workers widening a highway in northern Gaza in 1997 unearthed an ancient mosaic from one of the most extensive Byzantine church complexes ever discovered in the Holy Land. The fifth- to sixth-century A.D. ruins consist of the church itself, a chapel, a baptistry and an adjacent cemetery. This enormous complex measures approximately 106 feet long and 100 feet wide, and according to archaeologists from the École Biblique called in as consultants to the excavation, there may be more- “There could be a complete monastery and village,” say professors Jean-Michel de Tarragon and Jean-Baptiste Humbert, based on the discovery of nearby wall remains and pot fragments.

Working with medical scalpels to avoid damaging the 1,500-year-old mosaics, archaeologists, led by Yasser Mattar of the Gaza Department of Antiquities and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, have uncovered several mosaic carpets depicting mythological creatures and exotic animals. One mosaic, dubbed “The Cook Book,” depicts smoked fish, lobsters, sausages, fruits and vegetables together with kitchen utensils.

The excavators have also uncovered 17 Greek inscriptions in the church and baptistry. This is the greatest number of mosaic inscriptions ever encountered in a Byzantine church—until now, no more than eight have been found in any one church; two is the average. Many of the inscriptions are complete, made of about 5,000 tiles each. One text tells us that the designer of the mosaic came from the nearby town of Ashkelon. Another records the restoration of a mosaic floor in 732 A.D. Most of the other inscriptions are prayers dedicated to church donors, prayers of thanksgiving and lists naming priests and bishops.

“Strata- Excavation Yields Huge Church,” BAR 24-04, Jul-Aug 1998.