Tuesday, December 05, 2006

'Church of the Ark' found on West Bank

By Harry de Quetteville in Shiloh (The Daily Telegraph)
Last Updated: 1:40am GMT 04/12/2006

Archaeologists claimed yesterday to have uncovered one of the world's first churches, built on a site believed to have once housed the Ark of the Covenant.

The site, emerging from the soil in a few acres in the hills of the Israeli occupied West Bank, is richly decorated with brightly coloured mosaics and inscriptions referring to Jesus Christ.

According to the team, led by Yitzhak Magen and Yevgeny Aharonovitch, the church dates to the late 4th century, making it one of Christianity's first formal places of worship.

"I can't say for sure at the moment that it's the very first church," said Mr Aharonovitch, 38, as he oversaw a team carrying out the final excavations before winter yesterday. "But it's certainly one of the first." He said the site contained an extremely unusual inscription which referred to itself, Shiloh, by name.

And this almost has the ring of an Indiana Jones movie:
The team at Shiloh is considering whether to dig under the beautiful mosaics that they have uncovered, in order to find traces of the Ark. "We have to decide whether to fix the mosaics here or take them to a museum," said Mr Aharonovitch.

Jewish residents in the modern settlement of Shiloh, which sits on a hill amidst Palestinian villages, want the team to keep digging.

David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh, said: "We believe that if they continue to dig they'll reach back to the time of the Tabernacle," referring to the portable place of worship where the Israelites housed the Ark.
I suspect the issue is whether to move the mosaics to see if there's an earlier (pre-exilic?) shrine there. The location of sacred spots tends to be very conservative and not apt to move even if the local religion changes, so it's not an unreasonable to look for an earlier sanctuary at the same spot. Whether "traces of the Ark" are likely to be found is quite another matter and the formulation is a little sensationalistic. I'll believe it when I see it.

UPDATE (6 December): Reader Menachem Brody e-mails:
There is no question- walls and entrance to a monumental building from the time of the Second Temple are clearly visible to the West and to the North of the excavated mosaic.

Buildings from the time of the Judges are found on the Tel itself, as well as a very likely location for the site of the Tabernacle.

No need to look for the Ark- as well documented, was lost to the Philistines at the battle of Even HaEzer, and was returned to Jerusalem by David...
UPDATE (9 December): For more photos of the excavation, see here.

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