It’s summer on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, and a team of archaeologists are slaving away under the boiling sun. In the ruins of an ancient city, the researchers have discovered the remains of a church that was constructed by Christians many years ago. And as they dig deeper, the team discover a mysterious mosaic. Could this ancient artwork shed new light on a miracle straight out of biblical times?
The area that the archaeologists were investigating certainly has a long and storied history, in any case. In fact, by the time that Christians arrived in the fourth century A.D., Hippos-Sussita was already a bustling metropolis. And as they were keen to spread their faith to the city inhabitants, these early followers of Jesus Christ subsequently erected a number of places of worship – including the South-West Church.
Then, in July 2019, archaeologists were meticulously excavating this ancient church in a bid to learn more about its mysterious past. And there, beneath a layer of ash, they discovered the most fascinating artifact of all. For 1,600 years, a colorful mosaic had been hidden from sight; now, however, its striking subject matter was about to be revealed.
We’ll learn more about what the experts discovered later, but first let’s explore the history of the region in which the mosaic was found. In the Jordan Rift Valley in northeast Israel lies the Sea of Galilee – a vast freshwater lake more than 30 miles across. And on a hill to the east of the water, a great settlement once stood. First established some time in the first century A.D., the city would come to be known as Antiochia-Hippos by the Romans, while the region’s Aramaic speakers would call it Sussita.
Then, in the second century A.D., Hippos became part of the Roman province of Palaestina. And from that point onwards, the city began to thrive. Before long, its streets had become grand boulevards lined with Egyptian marble, while an advanced water system was also built to support the burgeoning population.
Then, as Hippos grew, buildings befitting its status as a wealthy Roman settlement began to appear. A basilica, a theater and an odeon were all constructed along with a shrine honoring the Emperor. Then, in the fourth century A.D., Christianity came to the empire, and before long places of worship also began to spring up throughout the city.
According to archaeologists, Hippos was home to a minimum of seven different churches – possibly more. And for centuries, the city continued to thrive as a hub of the Christian religion. In fact, even after Muslim armies conquered the region in the seventh century A.D., the locals were permitted to continue with their religious beliefs.
In 749 A.D., however, Hippos was almost completely destroyed by a devastating earthquake, with the city subsequently lost to time for virtually the next 1,000 years. Then, in the mid-20th century, archaeologists started excavating the region. And over the course of several decades, a fascinating story began to emerge.
From the 1950s onwards, researchers began uncovering ancient domestic structures in the ruins of Hippos – including the remains of a grand church in the southeast of the city. Yet large-scale excavations did not take place until the turn of the century, when an international team embarked on an ambitious project.
Beginning in 2000, specialists from Israel’s University of Haifa joined forces with professors from the Polish Academy of Sciences, the National Museum in Warsaw and Concordia University in the United States in order to learn more about Hippos. And over the course of ten seasons, they made a number of fascinating discoveries.
Most notably, in 2005 the team began excavating a location in the southwest of the city, as at the time some believed that the ruins of an ancient synagogue might be found in the area. And, at first, the relics recovered from the site seemingly appeared to confirm this theory, too. Ultimately, however, archaeologists would realize that they were actually looking at the remains of another church.
Thought to date from the fifth century A.D., this place of worship was dubbed the South-West, or Synagogue, Church. And according to researchers, it had once been housed in a rectangular building that had been constructed on an axis from east to west. A semicircular recess is also thought to have been built into the wall.
Yet although archaeologists have only been able to excavate the eastern end of the church so far, they have nevertheless managed to build up a surprisingly clear picture of the structure. It seems that the main hall once boasted two rows of five columns that split the room into two aisles and a nave. And, most impressively of all, the floor of the church was once covered in elaborate mosaics.
But there was one thing that really made the South-West Church stand out from the other ruins scattered across Hippos. You see, researchers suspected that this building was not destroyed in the disastrous earthquake in 749 A.D.; instead, they believe that it fell long before tremors tore through the city.
In particular, experts discovered evidence that the South-West Church had actually been destroyed by a great fire. And according to Dr. Michael Eisenberg from the University of Haifa, who co-directed the excavations, this particular event may have occurred towards the beginning of the seventh century. At around that time, Eisenberg has pointed out, the region was invaded by the Sassanians from Persia.
What’s more, although later Muslim invasions remained largely tolerant of Christianity, there is evidence to suggest that the Sassanians were less open-minded in that regard. It’s said, for one, that members of the Sassanian Empire may have burned a monastery that was once located close to Hippos – meaning it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they were also responsible for destroying the South-West Church.
Whatever the reason for the building’s destruction, though, researchers are in little doubt that it burned down. Specifically, they believe that part of the structure caved in, thus coating the main hall in a layer of ash and debris. But while this dramatic event meant the end for the South-West Church as an active place of worship, it also preserved it for future archaeologists to explore.
Yes, while other structures weathered and decayed gradually, the South-West Church was effectively frozen in time. And in July 2019 Eisenberg explained the process in an interview with Haaretz, saying, “The mosaic floor is the best preserved in Hippos thanks to the sudden collapse of the roofing and walls, which instantly covered up the entire mosaic with a protective layer of ash.”
Then, from 2010 onwards, excavations at Hippos were conducted by a team of Israeli and American researchers. And during their 2019 season, these investigators made some incredible discoveries at the location – now known as the Burnt Church. The archaeologists uncovered two inscriptions that had been overlooked by previous excavations, for example, and through these they gathered some fascinating insight into the people who once lived in Hippos.
According to reports, the engravings had also been preserved beneath the layer of ash inside the church and were both in excellent condition. Yet one team member soon noticed that something was wrong. And Gregor Staab, an epigraphist at the University of Cologne, Germany, would go on to claim that the Greek writing that made up the inscriptions was actually of a very poor standard.
“There is a nonexistent word,” Eisenberg explained to Haaretz. “There are spelling mistakes throughout the writing.” And, bizarrely, the quality of the writing serves in marked contrast to the skill evident in the mosaics throughout the church. This has led experts to conclude that Greek may not have been the main language in Hippos at the time.
“[Greek] may have been relegated to being [the people’s] holy tongue,” Eisenberg continued. “We are starting to wonder if their speech was Aramaic, and only the holy scripture and ceremonies were in Greek.” If true, then, this theory would mean that those who had built the Burnt Church had spoken the language typically associated with Jesus Christ.
Plus, even despite their poor quality, the inscriptions did actually reveal some interesting facts about the Burnt Church. For instance, the features seemingly indicate that the structure was built in honor of a martyr named Theodoros. But even though they have a name to go on, researchers have been unable to find out any more about the mystery man.
Elsewhere, researchers uncovered more beautiful mosaics that had been preserved on the church floor – including one example that seemingly features a rendition of a pomegranate. Once a symbol of fertility, this fruit was apparently used by Christians to represent the resurrection and the concept of eternal life.
In another part of the church, meanwhile, archaeologists revealed depictions of etrogs – a type of citrus fruit that is used in Jewish traditions. The team’s painstaking work also uncovered sections of mosaic that were devoted to geometric designs as well as those featuring various animals. A number of exotic birds are illustrated on the unearthed mosaics, too, although it’s as yet unclear which species are represented.
The mosaics that have been causing the biggest stir, however, are the ones that depict some very specific items. On the floor of the recess in the eastern wall, a pattern of colorful tiles takes the form of two fish, while others at another location feature a number of baskets – with each containing five loaves of bread.
And to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Bible, these items are instantly familiar. According to the Gospels, Jesus once performed a miracle that has become known as the “Feeding of the 5,000.” Apparently, after John the Baptist died, the son of God retreated to a remote spot. But when a large crowd followed Jesus there, the story goes, his disciples grew concerned that they had nothing to feed them.
Nevertheless, Jesus is said to have told his disciples to bring him what food they had. And while this bounty ultimately turned out to be just two fish and five loaves of bread, Christ was nevertheless apparently able to feed the entire crowd of 5,000 men and many more women and children with these meager rations.
What’s more, in Eisenberg’s opinion, the connection between the story and the designs in the church is remarkable. He told Haaretz, “There are definitely five loaves – not three or six. Their colors may reflect different types of flour, wheat and barley. Then there is the pair of fish on the mosaic in the apse. The association that came to mind was the miracle of the loaves and the fish.”
That’s not all, either. In the Bible, the story explains that there was even food left over after the crowd had had their fill, leading Jesus’ disciples to subsequently collect a dozen baskets of the excess fish and loaves. And, interestingly, back at the Burnt Church researchers noted that the same number of receptacles are depicted on the mosaic floor.
Yet the mosaic in the eastern recess is not the only one in the Burnt Church that depicts fish. According to the archaeologists, there is also a design on the floor of the nave that features two groups of three aquatic creatures. In total, then, that makes eight fish on display throughout the building.
So might the mosaics indicate that the Feeding of the 5,000 happened in Hippos – or, at the very least, somewhere nearby? Well, traditionally, biblical scholars have identified a region known as Tabgha as being the site of the miracle. And this location is actually on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee – so, across the water from the Burnt Church.
In fact, Tabgha now plays home to a modern place of worship that is known as the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish. And according to tradition, this building marks the site where the miracle took place. What’s more, beneath the 20th-century building, there is another Byzantine mosaic that appears to depict the event.
However, some have pointed out that the Tabgha mosaic depicts only four loaves. And, of course, the biblical accounts of the Feeding of the 5,000 clearly states that the disciples had five loaves – just as can be seen in each of the baskets in the Burnt Church. So, does this all mean that Hippos is more likely to be the real site of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles?
Well, according to Eisenberg, it’s possible. For one, following the Feeding of the 5,000, it’s claimed that Jesus sent his followers to Capernaum on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. The gospels state, however, that they all traveled by boat. And while the location could easily have been reached by land from Tabgha, a journey from Hippos would have required crossing the lake.
Despite these links, however, Eisenberg was quick to point out that nothing can be claimed for sure. He told Haaretz, “We can’t know why these adornments and motifs were chosen. They could convey deeper meaning beyond mere decoration or depiction. It can be hard to draw the line between where art ends and symbolism and religion begin.”
In addition, Eisenberg has pointed out that fish have been used as symbols for thousands of years. In fact, they likely appeared in the region before Christianity itself arrived. And on top of that, the creatures portrayed in the Burnt Church don’t actually look like any that Jesus may have encountered in the Sea of Galilee.
“Without a doubt, [the fish are] not local,” professor Moshe Gophen, who specializes in mosaic depictions of fish in the region, told Haaretz. “They probably came from the Nile. The fish shown here have a split dorsal fin, and the lake fish have a single dorsal fin.” How exactly did the sea creatures end up in a design so far from home, then?
Apparently, there could be a number of explanations. The artisan who created the mosaic may have been working from a catalog and thus have been inspired by an Egyptian design, for example. It’s even possible that the individual concerned may have been from Egypt themselves. Whatever the truth, though, it highlights the fact that the discovery remains very much open to interpretation.
To date, archaeologists have excavated around 90 percent of the mosaic that covers the floor of the Burnt Church, with Eisenberg hoping that future work on the remaining 10 percent will tell us even more about the site. And as they move forward, researchers plan to use 3D modelling techniques to study the design in greater detail. Will there be even more revelations to come? The truth remains to be seen.